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Hugo: My life only started as soon as I put down the bottle

In a searingly honest interview with Laurence White, the entertainer known as the Wee Man From Strabane opens up about his battle with alcohol, his regrets over the father that he never knew and why being an only child in a single-parent home made him want to prove himself

Published 16/07/2016

Hugo Duncan
Hugo Duncan
Hugo with Declan Nerney
Hugo Duncan in his earlier years
Hugo Duncan with Margo

It is easy to see why Hugo Duncan is so popular with listeners to his Radio Ulster country show. His self-styled Uncle Hugo persona is not just a front, it is the man himself. What you see - or hear - is what you get.

Unlike many in the public eye, he doesn't put anything off limits during an interview. He is open about his illegitimate birth, his alcoholism, which he has conquered for 33 years, and his difficulty reading.

And, above all, his gratitude at still being around, never mind being the favourite broadcaster of thousands of listeners.

Apart from his daily show, The Wee Man From Strabane is also hosting his Country Legends series, which will feature interviews with well-known Irish singers, and has just begun a number of outside broadcasts which run until the end of August.

"It is always good to be asked to do more things," he says modestly.

His interviews with singers Declan Nerney, Frankie McBride, Margo and Big Tom are carried out in his inimitable style.

"They are more of a conversation than an interview," he says. "Having been in the business for the past 46 years I have a fair knowledge of what it is all about. So the interviews are really just a ramble down the years.

"The hard job falls to the producer who has to cut out all the waffling."

Hugo recalls a couple of incidents that his guests reveal during the series. Declan Nerney was almost killed during a gig in Dublin years ago when his guitar hit the mic, turning both live and throwing him 12 feet across the stage.

"He was taken to hospital to be checked out and then went back to the venue to finish the last half hour of the show.

"Big Tom tells how the first time he went to Nashville, many, many years ago, he had to travel to England by boat and then get on a liner to New York from Southampton and then go by train to Nashville! I don't know how long it took him, but it was a hell of a journey. Another time on a visit to the US an engine on his plane burst into flames."

Hugo, now aged 66, recalls how he used to go to performances of Big Tom and Frankie McBride as a fan.

"All of them still perform. I have often said that entertainers don't retire, they just die.

"That phrase came back to haunt me as one listener was quick to remind me that every time I went on stage I used to die."

Hugo's own career began on April 11, 1971, a year after he got married to Joan.

"When I started, my daughter Suzanne was just two months old. There were some great days on the music scene. I started out with a band called the Tall Men and stayed with them four-and-a-half years. It is great to still be friends with all the people I used to work with all those years ago."

He then formed his own band in 1975 - and it was around that time that his problem drinking began.

He describes it as "a run-in with the drink", but over the next eight years it was to bring him to a very low ebb.

In his searingly honest biography - The Story of the Wee Man from Strabane - he recalled how he used to borrow money from friends and neighbours to feed his addiction. Many were willing to help him as they thought he must be loaded from his music. In reality, he hadn't a penny.

He said that he used to send his wife down the stairs in the morning before him to see if there were any bills awaiting him on the mat.

Hugo stopped drinking on December 28, 1983, and has never touched a drop since.

"I was drinking all the time during the late Seventies and early Eighties," he says. "One of the things I notice about the young men starting out in the industry nowadays is that they have good business minds. All I ever thought about was today; tomorrow would take care of itself. I just lived for one day at a time."

He adds: "The good thing is that I got through those times. If I hadn't gone through those tough times I would not be the person I am today. The hard times make you the person you are.

"If I hadn't stopped drinking I probably wouldn't be here today. Maybe I would have driven over a hedge or the drink itself would have got me. I certainly would never had got the opportunity to work at the BBC if I had not stopped drinking. I was very lucky to get to the good times and to end up still with my wife and I together."

He was caught drink driving during his dark years, but escaped on a technicality.

"Many people drank and drove in those years, but nowadays it would never be worth taking a chance. A lot of people still come up to me and chat about their drinking problems. If they have drink on them then that is not the time to talk about their addiction. All you will do is drive them to drink. They have to want to give it up before you can have a sensible chat.

"Drinking is like gambling or drug addiction: everyone knows it is not working for them. The greatest problem is saying that it is over and keeping to your word. When I got my first week over me I said why waste that week by taking a drink, so I stayed off it for another week and so on and so on. I found it very difficult. I had a reputation for staying on after gigs and having a drink. Indeed some people wouldn't pay you until you had a drink with them.

"I still have plenty of drink about the house, but I know that I cannot touch it."

Hugo is eternally indebted to his wife Joan for standing by him during his drinking days and admits it is impossible to erase the hurt he caused her and his daughter.

He recalls how his wife once gave him a little card with the motto: Get down on your knees and thank God you are still on your feet. The humour of it tickled him, but he also realises the serious message as well.

He now has four grandchildren, Jake (16), Katy Sue (14), Elly Mae (11) and Molly Jay (8).

"When Suzanne got married there was only me and Joan left in the house and it was easy to get into a rut. The grandchildren gave us a whole new lease of life and created a whole new bright colour to life. They have given us a lift."

Immediately after our telephone conversation Hugo was going to spend the weekend with the grandchildren.

Hugo's broadcasting break came in 1998 when he was given a six-month stint on Radio Ulster by Anna Carragher, the former controller of BBC NI.

"That was due to end in March the following year, but in January Anna met me on the corridor and asked me if I was looking for work right through to the summer. I have been here ever since.

"There were complaints from some listeners that the BBC was dumbing down. I can't blame them. I had no degrees or proper diction and I couldn't even read properly. When I came across a word that I didn't know I had to get someone to spell out it for me phonetically and then practice saying it."

But whatever his perceived shortcomings, there is no doubt that his popularity with his army of listeners endures. And that is due to his ability to connect with people and their problems.

One loyal listener, Bertie, is blind and he describes Hugo as the greatest broadcaster on the air and "my oxygen".

Hugo says: "Bertie phones us nearly every day. If he doesn't ring we get the newsroom to check that he is ok. We regard our audience as the Radio Ulster family.

"I remember one time I was visiting a friend in hospital and a couple came up to me and asked if I would go up to the ward to see their mother, who was very ill. She was sleeping, but they wakened her and she said my name. That was great.

"One of the highlights of our outside broadcasts every year is the visit to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast on Christmas Eve. I always imagined that the wards would be empty at Christmas and I got some shock the first time I went there. It was packed. The staff do an incredible job."

Hugo drives a 180-mile round trip every day for his Radio Ulster broadcasts.

"The minute I am off air I jump in the car and drive home. In the evenings I maybe go into a back room, watch a bit of TV and doze off. I still do a bit of singing around the country, mainly in the winter time. It keeps me young."

Away from his family he has two great passions: cars and, incredibly, mobile phones.

"I love going around garages looking at cars, but I really love mobile phones. I don't know why as I am not technically minded, but I keep getting new ones all the time."

He admits his mother would be surprised at how life has turned out for him and how he is now a household name here.

He was born on March 26, 1950, to single mother Susie.

In his autobiography, he admits it must have been a very difficult time for her as having a child while unmarried was a great stigma in the Fifties. She refused to have him adopted and brought him up on his own.

He says he only met his father twice - once when he went to his home during his drinking days to ask him if he really was his son and then again at his wake after his father died from Alzheimer's disease.

"I maybe shouldn't have gone to see him with drink in me, but I just wanted to know," he recalls.

"I never got the chance to meet him properly. I remember being at his wake and looking at him in the coffin and saying that I wished I had the opportunity to ask him questions. Everything I heard about him and my mother was always third hand. There are always three stories in every life: your story, someone else's story and the truth. I never got to hear the truth".

Hugo says that being brought up alone by his mother did not make him a lonely person. They had good neighbours and someone was always calling in.

In an earlier interview with this newspaper Hugo admitted that he was spoiled.

"When you are an only child all the love goes your way. However, you won't be long finding out that not everyone will treat you like that. When you go out into the big bad world you discover you're not entitled to that level of love and attention".

His mother died on April 16, 1970, just weeks after his marriage.

He says: "That is probably the one time I might have wished I had brothers and sisters to share the burden with. But I had started a new life for myself and had something to live for or God knows where I would have ended up. Then my wife got pregnant and we had our daughter Suzanne.

"With my grandchildren I make sure to give them all the same amount of love and not to make them feel any different. That is something I watch out for."

His stature - or lack of it - was certainly inherited from his mother, as he points out that she was under 5ft tall and wore size two shoes. But it is clear that she was a huge influence in his life and made him determined to make a success of life, even if by a roundabout route.

Hugo, who has a half-sister called Marion, says that being from a single parent family, especially back in the censorious Fifites, made him want to prove himself.

He has certainly succeeded and his show is now one of the most popular on radio.

Hugo's Country Legends series can be heard today and the next two Saturdays at 10.30pm and repeated on Mondays at 7.30pm.

His summer series of live outside broadcasts will come from The Big Splash and River Festival, Portglenone, July 22; the Red Sails Festival, Portstewart, July 25; Clogher Valley Show, July 27; the Maiden of the Mournes Festival, Warrenpoint, August 9; Kesh Festival, August 12 and from Strangford on August 29.

Belfast Telegraph

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