Philomena Begley told David Hennessy about her career in music that spans 60+ years, that performing is the only drug she needs and hopping into bed with Nathan Carter.
Philomena Begley, known as the Queen of Irish Country, is back in London after a long absence for three shows this September.
Philomena has been at the forefront of Irish Country Music for 60+ years now and during this time she has had a glittering career that has seen her achieve countless accolades and scoring dozens of No.1 hit songs that include The Blanket on the Ground, Truck Driving Woman and The Queen of the Silver Dollar.
She has performed on stages all over the world to legions of fans and appeared with Porter Wagoner on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
One of Begley’s biggest fans is Irish superstar Daniel O’Donnell who once said, ‘When Philomena sings a song you believe her, you feel that she’s experienced every emotion she expresses’.
“I’ve had plenty,” Philomena tells The Irish World when we ask about her highlights.
“I’ve been to Nashville. I recorded in Nashville with Porter Wagoner. I sang with all the big names, I toured with Don Williams, Glen Campbell, Charley Pride, Jon Gibson, Hank Locklin and then I did my own tours over in England, Scotland, and all over.
“I was on Grand Ole Opry a few times because every time I went over for touring, he (Wagoner) would always bring me up to do a song.
“I met a lot of nice people over there too, like Tammy Wynette.
“When I look back on it, I really had good times and I didn’t make the best of it at the time because I was all shy.
“I can’t even remember half of the people I played and sang with, but I met a lot of people in the country music scene over the years and done a lot of festivals in England, Germany, Holland, all over, so many things and you know something.
“I wish I had written it all down or even had photographs taken, I missed out on a lot in that way but I’ve had great times and I’ve been very lucky over the years being able to do what I did and having good health- Still have, thank God although I did have a heart operation three years ago.”
Do you still enjoy it after all these years? “Oh God, I love it.
“I have no intentions of retiring but at the same time I probably have to cut back, I haven’t done anything about it yet, but I’m 80 years of age now.
“That’s my drug, the only drug I need is going out on the stage and singing.
“That’s all I need, I don’t need any tablets or any drink to give me a lift: That gives me more lift than anything.
“It has been great.
“When you look back at it, it’s hard to take it all in.
“We used to go over to London: The Galtymore.”
The subject of the Galtymore prompts Philomena to reflect on this paper’s late founder.
“We had great times,” she says of Paddy Cowan.
“Paddy was a very good friend, he was great fun.
“Now it’s all gone, it’s sad because they were some great times in England going around all the festivals and all the dance halls. Great memories.
“I’ll tell you what, I’ll die with good memories.”
Philomena was recently honoured with the Overall Achievement Award at the Local Women Magazine Awards at Belfast’s Europa Hotel. It was an honour Philomena had not been expecting.
“As far as I was concerned, I thought I was just singing. They asked me to do a couple of songs and present an award- I didn’t know I was getting an award.
“It was nice though.
“When you get to 80 years of age, it’s good to know that people still think about you.
“It meant a lot, it was brilliant.”
Philomena politely corrects us when we say she has been in the business for 60 years, saying it is 61 now. This shows how proud she is of all she has done in music and the longevity she has had.
“When I started off, it was completely different to what it is now.
“We wouldn’t have had the equipment or anything like that but we were very lucky because there was plenty of venues to play in with the dance halls and then the marquees came along and we had the carnivals every year.
“When I started, we were doing seven nights a week.”
Amazing to think now, but it was a career that Philomena fell into when she was called up on stage as a dare to sing with a band at a local dance.
It was all an accident to begin with, wasn’t it? “Oh yeah, I just went in for a ceili one night and they called me up and I sang a couple of songs and that was it.”
You had no ambitions to be a singer? “Not at all, I loved singing and my father was a bit musical too. He was a good singer, our house was a big ceili-ing house if you know what I mean. People used to call up at night there for a bit of a sing song or chat about football or whatever.”
From Pomeroy, Co. Tyrone, Philomena worked in a hat factory in Cookstown before getting her lucky- and unexpected- break in music.
You planned to go into nursing, isn’t that right? “That’s right.
“I had just left school and I was 16 when went to work in a hat factory.
“Some of the best years of my life, I have to say.
“I enjoyed working in the factory and I liked the people I was working with, still keep in touch with some of them.”
As she says it all started with a dare when Philomena got up with the Old Cross Céilí Band and led to her staying with the group.
Her debut record, Here Today, Gone Tomorrow, reached number seven in the Irish charts, and in 1974 she formed another band, The Ramblin’ Man.
It was in 1975, Begley had a hit with her version of the Billie Jo Spears’ song Blanket on the Ground reaching higher sales than Spears in Ireland. Spears also released the song in the United Kingdom and in Ireland at the same time, but in Ireland, Spears’ version only went to number 11 while Begley’s went to number five.
Begley would occasionally perform with Spears and later recorded a tribute song to her after the American star’s death in 2011.
By 1977, she was undertaking a major tour of the United States, and in 1978, she was invited to sing at the Grand Ole Opry by Porter Wagoner. Since then, she has returned often to Nashville, been a guest of honour at the St Patrick’s Day parade in New York City, and has sung at Carnegie Hall.
In 2020, Begley became the first lady to be inducted into ICMA Hall Of Fame.
“I’m looking forward to this tour in England coming up.
“I was over there recently.
“I do Phil Mack’s shows over there every year and there’s a lot of the people that go to those shows, they’re all coming to the shows that I’ll be doing over in England there now.
“I haven’t been over to do theatre shows in a long time.”
That’s right, it’s going back before COVID, isn’t it? “Oh, long before that even. I’m looking forward to it.
“Covid didn’t do any favours for any of us in the music business, I have to say.
“And it hasn’t come back to what it was but it’s getting there and hopefully maybe next year things might be looking up for new singers coming up.”
Speaking of up and coming singers, he is well established now but someone Philomena has worked with as he was on the rise and still is Nathan Carter.
Philomena guested in the video for his song The Morning After last year.
Philomena was the taxi driver whose car Nathan hopped into after his night got a bit messy due to drink with the punch line at the end of the video being that he wakes up beside her at the very end of the video.
“That’s one thing that will go down in history,” Philomena laughs.
“I tell everybody now that I’ve been hopping in and out of bed with Nathan Carter.
“When you get to 80 years of age, it’s not a bad thing, is it?”
You were a great sport for that video, was it good fun? “The craic was deadly.
“There was more laughing done than anything.
“He’s brilliant,” she says of Nathan. “He’s a great lad. I would have known Nathan a long time. I met him when he was very young.
“I actually took him up on the stage one night in Donegal way back, years ago.
“He says I’m the first woman who got him standing up on the stage ,” she says laughing.
“He said that one night on the Late Late Show and they took the wrong meaning out of it.
“Nathan says, ‘Philomena was the first one to get me up’, and then the crowd started to laugh so then he said, ‘On the stage’.”
The singing gene has passed on to the next generation in Philomena’s own family. Her son Aidan Quinn is a singer while her niece Andrea Begley is well known for winning The Voice in 2013.
Philomena and Andrea have done much touring and gigging together since her big television win.
“She’s doing good now,” she says of her niece.
“Myself and Andrea now are going to be doing a concert in Cookstown in October.
“She’s a great girl and she has a great way about her.
“As you know, her vision is not too good but she has great talent, she’s very talented.
“She writes songs herself. She still works away but she’s a great way with her, a great personality: Great wee girl.”
Philomena remembers when Andrea, coached by Danny O’Donoghue of The Script, triumphed in the BBC singing competition that prides itself on being all about the voice.
“I was there,” she enthuses.
“The excitement, it was great to be there.
“I’m very proud of her now, I have to say.”
Ireland has seen the emergence of an exciting new crop of country stars in the last decade with the likes of Nathan, Lisa McHugh, Derek Ryan and Cliona Hagan all making names for themselves.
“I get on very well with them. In fairness to them, they’re all very good. When we’re doing any shows together, I like to get photographs because they’re all good.
“There’s a good few of them and it’s good to see the young lads in the music industry now.
“There’s a lot of good traditional groups coming up now too: The Tumbling Paddies, Whistlin’ Donkeys and they’re all doing well. CEOL, this group that Nathan looks after, they’re very good too.
“There’s a lot going on.
“Whenever we do award shows and different charity shows there and stuff like that, you would always meet up with them and they’re lovely people and good lads.
“It is (exciting). At the minute now it’s picking up a wee bit but, as I say, hopefully by next year.
“There are a lot of new singers coming up there now and it’s good to see it. They’re doing their best, it’s just a bit harder now.
“Everything hasn’t opened up again the way that it was. It would be great to get the whole thing back.
“People can’t afford to go out now nearly the way things are going.
“I don’t think they’ll see the good times we had.
“We were lucky in our time.
“But then again, they’re young.”
Philomena still lives in her home county of Tyrone in a province that has seen dark days but is thankfully more peaceful now.
“Thank God those days are behind us.
“But again in saying that, through all of those dark days we played on.
“We played on through everything.
“Of course at the time it was just the way things were and we just loved what we did and we went out, but there would have been scary moments too, I have to say.
“There would have been times back in the day when we might have to get out of a hotel, there might be a bomb scare or something like that but you just got on with it.
“We got through it and we’re still here.
“That was then and thank God we don’t have it now.”
Last year there were big celebrations in Bundoran for Philomena’s 80th birthday and to mark her six decades on the road.
“We had a great weekend. It was absolutely brilliant and I’m so grateful that there was even people came over from England and even America for the weekend. It was brilliant.
“I would just love to go around everybody and thank them now so much because it meant a lot to me. I’m no good at taking compliments or anything like that because I pass no remark on myself, I’m just me and that’s it.
“I’m just lucky to be doing what I’m doing now, I’m looking forward to seeing everybody when I go over to England and hopefully I’ll be able to do this for another while yet.”
Philomena Begley, with special guests Shawn Cuddy and Stephen Smyth, comes for three London concerts this September appearing at the Millfield Theatre, Edmonton on Friday 22 September, The Grove, Dunstable on Tuesday 26 September and The Beck Theatre, Hayes on Wednesday 27 September with tickets now on sale from the venue Box offices.
For more information visit www.jmgmusicgroup.com.