Interview: Music stars Philomena Begley and Andrea Begley on their first tour together

Philomena Begley has been the undisputed queen of Irish country music for 55 years and is set to tour next month for the first time with her niece, The Voice UK winner Andrea Begley. She tells Joanne Sweeney why retirement is not in her plans just yet

Andrea and her legendary aunt Philomena will be hitting the road together for the first time next weekend.
Joanne Sweeney

IF COUNTRY singing star Philomena Begley had a pound for every time she has sung her hits Queen of The Silver Dollar, Blanket on The Ground or Truck Drivin' Woman in her 55 years of performing, she would have a sizeable pot of money.

Now at the fine age of 75 and turning 76 later this year, the 'queen of Irish country music' shows no sign of slowing down from her still hectic performance schedule.

Saying that she "hasn't time to bless herself" as she's "flat to the mat", she tells me: "I would never consider retiring. To be honest, I probably should be cutting down a bit. I’m really overstepping the mark here at the moment but I’m enjoying it. The day I don’t enjoy it, I’ll stop.

"They talk about drugs and the hold they can have on you but when I go out on stage, I just love it. I love being on stage and having a bit of craic with the audience. I chat away to them as if I’m in my own kitchen.

"All the old hits go down as well today as they did years ago, but I told the audience the other night that I needed to change my programme as I've been singing the same songs for the last 55 years."

After performing on the same bill in the Shetlands with country star Nathan Carter next weekend, the Co Tyrone singer is heading on a short tour of the north next month with equally legendary Irish country star Ray Lynam, with whom Philomena has duetted with many times.

But for the first time, and long awaited by their respective fans, Philomena will also be joined on tour by her singing star niece, Andrea Begley.

Andrea (32), who has been visually impaired since the age of six after experiencing problems with glaucoma, has not stopped working since beating Belfast singer Leah McCall to win the final of The Voice in 2013.

While doesn't know how much the support from fans of her 'Auntie Philly' helped her to win The Voice, Andrea does tell me that her famous aunt has been a "trailblazer" for her and other young singers due to her phenomenal career and energy.

"When I was doing The Voice, there were plenty of people who would have been aware of the family connection and then plenty who hadn’t heard of Philomena," says Andrea.

"I do think it was a help locally as people knew the surname and made the connection. It’s nice to have someone in the family who has been a real trailblazer and to give you advice and the encouragement to give it a go.

"I always say that if I could spend half as long in the music industry as her, and have her energy and her voice, I would be happy. Even to this day she still has the same enthusiasm and performance standards that a lot of artists who are only started out would struggle to match.

"It’s running through her blood really and I’m in awe and have absolute admiration for her performance. She’s got great energy and real engagement with the audience. I think her experience and the graft she has put in over the years why she’s still so highly held in regard."

Both women are looking forward to their tour and while they will do a few duets together – most likely some Irish folk songs and perhaps Philomena's hit, Never a Pal Like Mother, which Andrea recorded a cover version of last year – they will stick to their own respective styles as well.

Philomena will do her range of country classics and sing with Ray Lynam, while Andrea will do the pop ballads and Irish folk songs that she loves.

"We meant to tour before and talked about it often enough but never got round to doing it," says Philomena.

"But I’m really looking forward to doing it myself. This is definitely going to be something different, as Andrea has her own style of singing.

"I’m looking forward to the reaction from the audience from our tour as a lot of people have approached me to say how great they think our touring together will be."

Both performers will shortly be recording new albums for release later this year, while Philomena recently documented her musical life and times in her book My Life, My Music, My Memories, penned with Tyrone writer Emma Heatherington, which shares its title with her most recent album and its lead track written by Carlow country star Derek Ryan.

The Begley's are a musical family, even though Philomena and Andrea are the only professional artists.

Both Philomena and Andrea found their voices and love of music in the Begley family home in Pomeroy during family gatherings and singalongs at Granny Begley's house.

Philomena's brother and Andrea's father Kieran plays accordion and sings the odd Daniel O’Donnell number. Philomena's son Aidan was in a band and now manages fellow Tyrone country star Cliona O'Hagan.

One of Andrea's earliest memories is of being taken to see her aunt play at the famous Galtymore concert hall in London's Cricklewood around the age of five, when she had to undergo surgery on her eyes.

Philomena, who has three adult children and three grandchildren, started her country career at the age of 20 in a very different Ireland – she still had to ask her father permission to attend a dance, never mind perform at it.

"There was something like 900 bands registered in Ireland,"recalls Philomena, who used to work in a hat-making factory.

"Everyone who went out on the road worked as there were plenty of venues. In those days we had what were known as the ‘dry halls’, as there was no alcohol served.

"There was just the ‘mineral bar’ as they called it or you might get a cup of tea. It was a case that if you were pulled, the lad would take you for a mineral,” she laughs.

"Every year from Easter to September, there were carnivals and I’ve told my children that I must have played in every field in Ireland – and I’ve changed behind manys a ditch as well."

:: The Philomena Begley and Ray Lynam tour with Andrea Begley commences on April 15 at Burnavon Theatre, Cookstown before calling at; Ardhowen Theatre, Enniskillen (April 18), Strule Arts Centre, Omagh (April 21), Market Place Theatre, Armagh (April 22), Whistledown Hotel, Warrenpoint (April 27) and Iontas Theatre, Castleblaney (May 17)

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