Cliona Hagan on Sunday's Dancing With The Stars final: I embrace a good challenge

Balinderry singer Cliona Hagan will be flying the flag for Irish country music and for Tyrone when she competes in the final of Dancing With The Stars tomorrow. She tells Maureen Coleman about her hectic rehearsal schedule and why city folk just don’t ‘get’ country

Co Tyrone country singer Cliona Hagan competes in the final of RTÉ's Dancing With The Stars on Sunday
Co Tyrone country singer Cliona Hagan competes in the final of RTÉ's Dancing With The Stars on Sunday

WITH the clock ticking down to the grand final of RTÉ's Dancing With The Stars, Irish country singer and contestant Cliona Hagan has managed to grab a short break between rehearsals to catch up for a chat.

“It's all go,” the Co Tyrone woman explains. “I'm flat out rehearsing all week. I only got the choreography for the show dance yesterday so we're back into the studio this evening to work on that.

“As well as the show dance, we have two other dances to do. One is the judges' choice, the other our own. I did quite well with those two dances earlier on in the series but there was definitely room for improvement and I hope the judges and public see that. I learned the routines ages ago and we've only got a few days to get all three dances ready. I'm not going to let nerves get in the way, though. I want to enjoy every moment of the experience.”

With no dance background to speak of, Cliona (30), who comes from Ballinderry, near Cookstown, is both shocked and delighted to have made the final, along with her dance partner Robert Rowi?ski. The pair will compete against actor Johnny Ward and presenter Mairead Ronan to lift the coveted glitter ball trophy.

Cliona, the first person from Northern Ireland to take part in the show, is determined to fly the flag, not just for Tyrone, but for Irish country music too.

“No-one from the north has appeared in the show before but it's just on its third year now so hopefully there'll be more in the future,” she says.

“I would absolutely love to be the first female to win and not just that, but the first Irish country singer. In big cities, I don't think people really get country music so I'm very proud that I'm being able to represent the music genre. And, of course, I'd love to bring the trophy back home to Tyrone.”

Cliona, who grew up in a household where country music was played constantly, still lives in Ballinderry with her parents. The excitement of taking part in the show final final has been tinged with sadness at the tragic deaths of three teenagers in a crush at the Greenvale Hotel in Cookstown on St Patrick's night.

“It's just been a devastating time for the local community,” Cliona says. “I've been talking to my mum and aunt about it and honestly, everyone is just so devastated for those poor children and their families.

“My heart really goes out to them all. It's such an awful tragedy and the entire community is heartbroken. But there will be a lot of support for the families. It's a very close-knit community in Tyrone.”

It was at home in Ballinderry where Cliona was first introduced to country music. Her parents were fans of both Irish and American country stars and at an early age she was exposed to the songs of Susan McCann, Daniel O'Donnell, Garth Brooks and Shania Twain. Her first public performance was at primary school when she got up on stage and sang Shania's hit That Don't Impress Me Much and her love for the genre developed from then.

The social aspect also appealed to her as the music often goes hand in hand with jive and line dancing. So it's not surprising the latter dance style was incorporated into her first routine – a quick step – on Dancing With The Stars.

“Country music is part of my culture so the first song we danced to was Luke Bryan's Country Girl,” She says. “I wanted to say to people 'this is who I am' and also to shine a light on Irish country music.

“I have absolutely no dance training at all and was really thrown in at the deep end. It was very challenging having to learn a new dance each week but I embrace a good challenge. I think it's good to push yourself out of your comfort zone and try things you've never done before.

“But I never imagined I'd go all the way and make it to the final. I'm so proud of myself but I have a great dance partner and he's now a good friend too. We'll keep in touch for sure when the series is over.”

Cliona was the first contestant this season to score a perfect score of 30 points and still can't quite believe she topped the leader board. Dancing a waltz to an instrumental piece from Romeo and Juliet, she says it was a 'magical moment' and one she will never forget.

“There were times I thought I'd never get the steps right but Robert's positivity was so contagious and he really built up my confidence,” she says. “I can't believe we're now at the end of 12 weeks. I'm going to miss dancing so much. It's been all consuming. I've been eating, breathing and sleeping dance for so long now that I'll have to keep it in my life to some extent. In fact, there might be some dance moves included in my upcoming new tour.”

Having performed in almost every country dance hall around Ireland, not to mention taking to the stage alongside American country star Miranda Lambert, Cliona will hit the road again on Easter Saturday with her new-look band. Featuring top quality musicians, the new show will be 'high energy' and she says she can't wait to show fans what she's been working on, when not in the dance studio.

For someone who only launched her music career in 2016 with the iTunes hit We're All Gonna Die Some Day, she has already made quite a name for herself and was awarded Female Vocalist of the Year at the Irish Post Country Music Awards in 2017 and 2018. She is also working on new material for her next album, a follow-up to last year's offering Secret Love.

While she has no time at the moment to contemplate romance, Cliona says her fans are important to her, none more so than fellow Tyrone woman Kate Grant, the young model with Down's syndrome. Describing the rising star of modelling as "beautiful inside and out", Cliona was delighted to welcome her to the RTÉ studios to watch her in Dancing With The Stars. And there's a personal reason why Down's is so close to her heart.

“My uncle Paul has Down's syndrome,” says Cliona. “He can't talk and is like a five-year-old. When he was a baby he had holes in his heart and was given weeks to live but 53 years later, he's still with us and we're so blessed to have him.

“My late grandmother cared for him so much. Paul was her baby and is such a huge part of our family. That's why I love to see Kate doing so well. It makes me feel so proud.”

Cliona's family and friends will all be there on Sunday night to cheer her on as she takes to the dancefloor to attempt to bring the trophy back home to Tyrone. And the song she'll be performing her show dance to will, of course, be country.

“I can't reveal what the songs are that we'll be dancing to but I am so excited about the final and can't wait to get out there,” she says.

“The support so far has been amazing and I'd love for everyone to get behind me one last time. This has been the most wonderful experience of my life and the icing on the cake would be to lift the glitter ball trophy. I want to do it for country music and I want to do it for Tyrone.”

:: The final of Dancing With The Stars is on RTÉ One, Sunday March 24, at 7pm. To vote for Cliona, text 'Cliona' to 53125. For tour details see