Bringing character to Co. Down tunes

“A Deep Pool” is the latest offering from Seamus Sands


Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely

In the player this week is “A Deep Pool,” the newest from fiddle player Seamus Sands. Originally from County Down, Sands now lives in Cork and comes from a continuous line of fiddle players that, including his daughters, spans six generations. It’s this rich past that Sands explores on this album. By concentrating on the music from in and around his home place – unusual tunes and versions from Down, Armagh, and Louth, adding to them more recent compositions by Josephine Keegan and Sands himself – he gives us a unique historical perspective on the sound of Ulster that should attract the attention of many.

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With a wealth of unusual material at his disposal, Sands’s approach is to let the beauty of each melody speak for itself. The music is taken at a very relaxed pace, the phrasing is elegant, and the ornamentation understated. Although essentially a solo fiddle album, Sands is joined by Josephine Keegan on a few tracks, and elsewhere by daughters Clare, Tiarna and Lainey.

Lots of great purely solo tracks to speak of here. “The Bard’s Legacy / …” is a strong opener comprised of three tunes from the Louth/Armagh border taken from the Patrick McGahon manuscript. It makes an important statement about Sands’s playing and the direction he takes this album. “The Blackbird / …” (a version from Down, not the more commonly known set dance) is also great, as are tracks like “The Humours of Dillonstown” (a reel Sands takes at a very slow pace to draw out its rhythmic character), and the jig set “The Wee House / ….”

Sands’s three daughters join him on “Donnellan’s / …,” a trio of Ulster-based mazurkas, and perform to excellent effect. His daughter Clare also joins him on “The Bogy Reel / …,” where she matches his lead quite well. “Trip to the Rosses / The Caragh” is a lovely pair of tunes with Keegan’s piano accompaniment. The first of the tunes was composed by Keegan and the second by Sands and the two together make a wonderful pair. One of what I think is the album’s most interesting tracks another Keegan tunes, a five-part polka that moves through several key areas called “The Elusive Pimpernel.” The Sands/Keegan, fiddle/piano combo has great lift here (as it does elsewhere), but the tune has so many nooks and corners that it seems there’s always something new to hear with each pass through.

The album also includes several airs, some that stand on their own, some that initiate sets of tunes. These include “Meabh Gheal / …,” “Slieve Donard,” “Will They Ever Return,” and “The Flowers of Magherally / …,” and they’re all lovely choices that highlight Sands’s expressive instincts.

Sands has done an excellent job to source so much of this material not only from the oral tradition, but from manuscript and published tune collections. Some of the Down-specific tunes on this album can also be found in Nigel Boullier’s incredible book “Handed Down: County Fiddling and Dancing in East and Central Down” ( It’s interesting to compare Boullier’s transcriptions to what’s on the album, as it reveals not only how fascinating the tunes are to begin with, but also the character Sands is able to bring to them.

“A Deep Pool” is an excellent album that Ulster trad fans should absolutely have in their collection. The music is lovely and tasteful, though, that it will most certainly appeal to traditional music fans of all stripes, especially those with a particular interest in fiddle music. As an historical project, this album should also appeal to folks interested in work like Seán McElwain’s excellent “Our Dear Dark Mountain With The Sky Over It: Irish Traditional Music From the Sillabub Beagh Region of North Monaghan/East Fermanagh” and Séamus McGuire & John Lee’s similarly outstanding “The Legacy of Stephen Grier: music from one of Ireland’s treasured nineteenth-century collections” in that it takes some great old, forgotten music and makes it new again. Great stuff! To learn more, visit

Finally, for those of you who might be interested, there’ll be a open session at Mojave in Astoria (22-36 31st St.) this Saturday in support of progressive candidates running in electoral contests in 2018. I will be leading and we should have a few surprises in store. Session goes from 5-8 p.m. and it’s open – hope to see some of you there!