Entertainment

Ireland's Queen of Country Philomena Begley: My happiest time is when I am on stage

As Ireland’s Queen of Country Philomena Begley prepares to celebrate her 80th birthday this month – and 60 years in show business – she tells Gail Bell of her best moments, why she has never been a diva and why singing will always a tonic (along with a little brandy and port...)

Philomena Begley marks two major milestones this month - her 80th birthday and 60 years in the music business. Picture by Hugh Russell.
Philomena Begley marks two major milestones this month - her 80th birthday and 60 years in the music business. Picture by Hugh Russell. Philomena Begley marks two major milestones this month - her 80th birthday and 60 years in the music business. Picture by Hugh Russell.

PHILOMENA Begley will soon celebrate her 80th birthday – along with 60 years in show business this year – but for Ireland's country music fans, she remains the ageless Queen of the Silver Dollar, albeit with a little less glitter these days.

"I always liked something with a wee bit of glitter on it," confesses Co Tyrone's country music queen with a throaty laugh and just a hint of nostalgia for the days when she sang in sequins, Elvis-style beads and humongous net petticoats "which took up half the back seat of the van" on the way home from yet another sell-out performance.

The style might have changed, but image is still important for this soon-to-be octogenarian (she celebrates her 80th birthday on October 20) and Galbally grandmother-of-five who arrives at our chosen venue – Daly's Bar in Dungannon, now owned and managed by her musician son, Aidan – perfectly coiffed with make-up immaculate, as usual.

Recovered physically from a heart valve operation in 2019, she still battles intermittent panic attacks following the sudden death of a life-long friend in 2020 but neither this nor a new digestive complaint diagnosed in September can keep Philly, as she likes to be known, away from the stage.

When we spoke, she had recently returned from gigging in the Aran Islands, Co Galway, and was looking forward to a run of engagements in Britain and the United States, running through to a "working birthday weekend" in Bundoran, Co Donegal, when her plans were suddenly upended.

A health scare meant a week in hospital for tests and scans which eventually revealed the bowel condition, diverticulitis.

"I didn't see that one coming, but I'm grand now," says the enduring singer and prolific recording star of more than 20 studio albums. Another album, a new three-disc 60th anniversary compilation of hits and new material called The Diamond Collection, is due to be launched in Dungannon today.

"Thank goodness, they got the whole thing sorted. I was sorry to miss so many concerts, especially the ones in New York, Philadelphia and Boston with my son, Aidan," she says.

"I've also had to miss some shows with Nathan [Carter] on one of the Costas in Spain but it has been unavoidable. I've been rushing about a lot and now I am going to Spain to have a wee bit of a rest instead."

Philomena Begley with her son Aidan Quinn at his bar in Dungannon. Picture by Hugh Russell.
Philomena Begley with her son Aidan Quinn at his bar in Dungannon. Picture by Hugh Russell. Philomena Begley with her son Aidan Quinn at his bar in Dungannon. Picture by Hugh Russell.

But there is much to still look forward to – as well as the celebratory 80th birthday weekend at the Great Northern Hotel in Bundoran (featuring numerous well known country singers, including her long-time collaborator, Ray Lynam, and niece, Andrea Begley), there is a new single, Half a Chance just released, written especially for her by Derek Ryan.

After a lifetime singing in front of crowds in iconic venues such as the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville or Carnegie Hall in New York - often sharing the stage with country music greats such as Tammy Wynette and Billie Jo Spears - the former singer with 'Country Flavour' (the band in which she met her musician-turned-farmer husband, Tom Quinn), insists she is still the sometimes-nervous, always humble, soda bread-making Philomena from Pomeroy.

"I've been very lucky, really, but there have never been any airs or graces," she says.

"I have never seen myself as a big 'star'; I just can't see myself in that light at all. My children – Mary, Carol and Aidan, all enjoyed an ordinary, family life. I do all my own washing and cooking, as the song goes..."

A sharp sense of humour has helped keep her feet on the ground, even after her cover of Billie Jo Spears hit, Blanket on the Ground, radically took off. The song, she recalls, acquired a "life of its own", rising to Number Five in the Irish charts and making 'Philomena Begley' a household name in 1975.

Named top Female Vocalist at the 1985 British Country Music Association Annual Awards, she may have won a coveted European Gold Star Award, had nine Number One singles, appeared six times at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and enjoyed sold-out tours of Ireland, Britain, Europe, America and Australia, but she is never above a little light lampooning – especially, it seems, at the hands of her quick-witted daughters.

"Aidan was the only one who followed me into the music business," says Philomena, "and I am very proud of our duets together, but my daughters don't sing... unless they're out for a night and have had a few beverages and then they just love to impersonate their mammy..."

In her 2017 memoir My Life, My Music, My Memories, the 'Irish Queen of Country' (the title of her 1976 album) refers to a "solid family life" - the linchpin that allowed her to follow her dreams at all stages of her career – from the first official engagement 60 years ago in a small hall in Ardboe to "the bright lights" of America.

In 1978 – "a year I will never forget" - she marched behind bands in New York City's St Patrick's Day parade (as one of the stars selected by Top Rank Entertainment), flying south the next day to Nashville, where honky-tonk singer-songwriter, Hank Locklin, arrived in his pick-up truck to whisk her off to Fireside Studios for a recording date with Mr Grand Ole Opry himself, Porter Wagoner.

An encore on stage on 'Opry Night' followed – she was the first Irish female artist to sing on the esteemed stage – and she counts it a massive milestone for "the wee girl from the hills of Pomeroy" who left school at 15 to work in a hat factory in Cookstown.

Although one of the "happiest times" of her life, the whirr of sewing machines – and even louder sing-songs with female co-workers – soon faded into the background when, at a local ceili one night, Philomena stuck up her hand in response to a request asking if anyone from the audience would like to get up and sing.

"That was it, really," she says, eyes twinkling. "I have always loved singing and when I was young – we were a large family, there were eight of us – our house would have been a real 'ceili-ing' house.

"Daddy, who worked as a breadman, would have been a good singer and would have sung the old traditional songs. Everyone would come round in the evenings - you wouldn't be able to see your finger in front of you with all the smoke. It was just music, smoking and having craic with the neighbours."

Today, family, neighbours and good friends remain just as important for the singer who, while having started recently to buy health magazines – "but never following any of the advice" – still likes "a wee treat" of a brandy and port that someone might hand her at the end of an evening on stage.

She has also joined a walking group but laments she is the one "who never shows up".

"I don't do exercise, really, I'm very bold," she says, half-jokingly. "You would need to do something or you just might get lazy, but I don't think I'll ever retire - at least, not until music retires me.

"I don't stop to think what age I am, but I know my happiest time is when I get out on the stage and don't think about my worries – they all disappear. It is like a tonic."

Philomena Begley's 80th Birthday Celebratory Weekend at The Great Northern Hotel, Bundoran, takes place on October 14 and 15. The Diamond Collection album is out now.

A launch event for The Diamond Collection will be held at Stewart's Music Shop in Dungannon at 2pm today.