Trad/roots: Colum Sands on the darkness and light in his latest album The Song Bridge

The beauty of and threats to nature, and the brutality of Europe's recent history are among the topics Down troubadour Colum Sands 'tells' of in his latest LP, The Song Bridge

Colum Sands's latest album is The Song Bridge features a song about his beloved Rostrevor Oak Wood, which is under threat from a building development
Robert McMillen

IN IRISH, when you want to ask someone to sing a song, you would say "abair amhrán" which literally means "say (or 'tell') a song."

The idea in the Irish mindset is that the singer was like a seanchaí, a teller of stories which can be local or universal, romantic or political or they can be eulogies to mother nature.

In his latest album, The Song Bridge, Colum Sands combines all these in a collection of songs that span subjects from man's interconnectivity with the living world to strong leaders who, in word if not deed, want to make their countries "great" again.

The cover of The Song Bridge features a guitar stretching like a bridge across Carlingford Lough. Colum plays the instrument now but it was originally owned by a German couple called August and Auguste Haas, a couple who had first-hand experience of a strong leader with delusions of adequacy.

But who were August and Auguste Haas, I asked Colum during a socially distanced Zoom chat.

"Well, August and Auguste were my wife Barbara's grandparents," he explained, "and the guitar I think connects the different generations going right back. It's a handy wee guitar in that you can hang it on the wall and play it whenever you fancy."

However, the guitar has seen darker, much darker times.

"Auguste remembered the horrors of the First Word War and during the Second World War, when the Nazis came to take her husband August away to conscript him into the German army, Auguste pushed them away with the aid of a bread knife," Colum said.

"Needless to say, the Nazis came back again shortly after, took Auguste away and put here in an institution where it was ensured that she would have no more children than the one she had, a daughter called Waltraud, Barbara's mother."

So the guitar was passed on and it's little wonder that Colum sometimes finds it hard to play, because some of Auguste's spirit still issues forth in the music it makes.

Another strong woman on the album is Catherine Schubert (née O'Hare) and her story reminded me of the recent news about how the Irish were donating money to the Choctaw Nation, the Native American tribe who sent money – despite their own material poverty – to help the Irish during the Great Hunger of the 1840s. Nowadays, it is Covid-19 that is afflicting tribal communities.

"Catherine O'Hare left Rathfriland in Co Down during those famine years and, penniless in America, she would have used the native knowledge she learned back home to be able to survive," Colum told me.

"She would have eaten rose-hips and stuff as many people would have back then and this was what helped her on her journey across the Rockies, pregnant and with her husband; she was the only woman among around 200 men who were trying to take part in the Gold Rush in 1862.

"On a river journey by raft, Catherine felt her baby come and after getting ashore, was helped by some First Nations women to give birth."

It's an epic story that takes an epic song to tell, the longest Colum has ever written. The Native Americans who helped Catherine and the Rathfriland woman herself knew the importance of living in harmony with nature, the give and take – as did most people before the Industrial Revolution. But at the same time, the Song Bridge is an album which honours people who are make a stand in today's world. (Colum is too modest to admit that he is among that worthy band of citizens.) Nowadays, things aren't as holistic, shall we say, as they used to be.

The album's second song is called The Old Oak Wood Turns Green Again and it's about Colum's beloved Rostrevor Oak Wood, which could turn out to be the victim of a successful planning permission application which would affect one of the last ancient woodlands in all of Ireland, one that can be seen on maps going back to 1603 – though, of course, it would have been in existence long before that.

"People around here just love walking through the wood and especially in these Covid-19 days, the restorative power of nature becomes even more important for survival," Colum said.

"But when one of the trees, indeed a whole section of the wood disappeared off a planning application for an inner-city-style development, it seemed as if fiction is being peddled as fact.

"It's very upsetting. This tree supports up to 200 different forms of life, it also gives us the oxygen that we breathe. We rightly call health professionals front line workers – trees are front line workers too because they are providing us with the oxygen we need."

But there is also something deeper involved here too, something too deep perhaps to put into words, but you can see it with the people who have come to visit 'The Invisible Tree' as it is known after it 'disappeared' from the map.

People from all over the world have come to see this magical, living, sustaining wonder of nature. Moya Brennan and Peggy Seeger have sung at it but one particular woman stands out for Colum.

"There was one woman who had escaped the genocide in Rwanda by seconds," he recalled.

"She was standing in a queue of people waiting to be beheaded. Imagine that. She said that in her mind, she was already dead and she hadn't the strength to run. But unexpectedly there was an explosion and in the pandemonium she found the strength to run and hide in the trees and in the bushes until she was able to escape.

"She came through all that with an amazing story and with forgiveness in her heart despite the most horrific things she saw but she was visiting Rostrevor and went to visit the tree because she said it was the trees which saved her life. It's amazing to see the effect nature has on people who come to see it.

"Nature is our life support system and there's another song on the album called Apathy to Action in which we encourage people to try and make a stand to protect that which gives them life."

Who could argue with that?

:: The Song Bridge is out now via

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