Philomena Begley: Success never changed me one bit says Ireland's Queen of Country
Celebrating 55 years in show business with a new autobiography, Philomena Begley tells Jenny Lee about how she tried to put Daniel O'Donnell off a career in music, gave Nathan Carter his Irish break and scored a hat trick at Croke Park
FROM being bathed in a tin bath in front of a fire in the Co Tyrone village of Pomeroy to performing with country stars Billie Jo Spears and Tammy Wynette, Philomena Begley has travelled far. However, the singer says the secret of her success is that she "never changed inside".
Having this year celebrated her 75th birthday and 55 years of musical memories, Ireland's Queen of Country, has finally been persuaded to publish a memoir.
Her autobiography, My Life, My Music, My Memories takes readers on a journey that includes personal heartache of a miscarriage, her brother's death in 1978 and the risk of touring Ireland at the heights of the Troubles, through to the highlights of playing at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry and enjoying her "good and silver days" of show business.
But throughout her book, as in life, Philomena never forgets the importance of her roots.
"I wouldn't say it was my singing that brought me to the top – just being myself, really, and everything else fell into place. My childhood days were happy days. We never had much and would make our own fun. When the singing came along I never really stopped to think about what I did. I just took one day at a time. Every time I step on stage now, I feel proud of how far I have come and I will never take any of my success for granted."
Philomena left school at the age of 15 to work in Fisher's hat factory in Cookstown, where she would join her fellow workers in singing song after song over the noise of the sewing machines.
A factory girl by day, by night she began touring the dance halls with the Old Cross Céili Band and after seven years, in 1964, she left the factory to concentrate on her music. A year later she became a household name with her hit Blanket on the Ground.
As the front woman of Country Flavour, the Ramblin' Men and Shotgun and as a solo artist, Philomena became Ireland's foremost female country music performer. And by 1978 she was touring the US, recording at Dolly Parton's and Porter Wagoner's Fireside Studios in Nashville and performing on stage at the Grand Ole Opry.
She was the first Irish country singer to gain platinum status for album sales and in 1983 won the European Gold Star Awards – country music's equivalent to the Eurovision Song Contest.
Looking back on her career, she says her highlights include being part of Top Rank Superstars football team of the 1980s, which was made up of country stars and GAA players who played and sang for charity.
"I did score three goals in Croke Park and four in the Gaelic Park in New York. There mustn't have been much opposition," she laughs.
The discography in Philomena's autobiography amounts to a massive 19 pages. When it comes to choosing her favourites, top of the list is her version of the Abba hit The Way Old Friends Do; then come Queen of the Silver Dollar, Truck Driving Woman and of course Blanket on the Ground.
I ask her what attracted her to record the song.
"I just heard it playing and thought it was a very catchy tune with a great tempo. I didn't really listen to the words," Philomena confesses about the song with which she is still associated most and which earned her her first encore on the stage of The Grand Ole Opry.
Modestly, she didn't boast about this or any of her subsequent achievements.
"I didn’t want anyone to think I was blowing my own trumpet, or ‘bumming and blowing’ as they say around home. I was just Philomena Begley, the bread man’s daughter who happened to do something a wee bit different for a living."
As is still the case today, female country singers was in the minority – but she didn't let that stop her.
"Working at night, with an all-male band, singing about cheatin' husbands and divorce, was a far cry form the traditional nine-to-five and my very Catholic upbringing," says Philomena who is extremely grateful to the support of her family and her husband of 43 years, Tom Quinn – whom she met whilst he was a musician in The Country Flavour.
Tom subsequently gave up touring to take up farming and help raise their three children, Mary, Carol and Aiden, who has also established a singing career for himself.
And their secret for a long and happy marriage?
"We are just comfortable and not under each other's feet. Tom has his farm and I gig and enjoy housekeeping. I've done that all my life," says Philomena, who stills gets called upon to help "cap" – ie herd – cattle from time to time.
"They ask you to come and help move cattle and then they tell you to stay out of the way. I was out on the main road, hiding behind a hedge, keeping quite," she laughs.
Philomena says she has "done more I could ever believe over the years" and her only ambition is to "keep on going". However, as an avid soap fan she "wouldn't mind" a walk-on cameo role.
She does admit she will have to start saying 'no' to people for the first time in her life.
"I'm going to have to start picking and choosing. I've been this year playing festivals and on cruise trips with Nathan Carter, Declan Nerney and The Three Amigos. I didn't even stop to think that I would need to go to bed an odd night.
"But If I had to give up my music I would die, simple as that."
As well as forthcoming gigs with Mike Denver, Philomena is planning her own Irish tour in April, where she will be joined by long-term collaborator Ray Lynam and her niece Andrea Begley, who won the BBC series The Voice in 2013.
Philomena is delighted to see the resurgence of country music in Ireland among young people and over the years has been very encouraging to young singers – though she confesses she did try to steer Daniel O'Donnell away from the music business.
Having got to know his family and a young Daniel, who attended her dances in Donegal from the age of six, she recalls him visiting her Galbally home as a teenager one afternoon when she was "up to her elbows in flour" while baking bread.
"He nervously told me his plans and hopes for the future as a singer. I advised him to "stick to the books". Thankfully – I am glad he didn't listen."
Philomena also was the first person to invite a teenage Nathan Carter to sing on the Irish stage, one summer when he was holidaying at his grandmother's house.
"I saw this wee stunner in the audience and invited him on stage and asked him if he was interested in an older woman," she laughs.
:: Philomena Begley: My Life, My Music, My Memories, written by Philomena Begley, with Emma Heatherington, is published by The O'Brien Press and is out now. Her single, My Life, My Music, My Memories, penned by Derek Ryan, has also just been released.