Belfast Telegraph

Philomena Begley on her recent heart surgery and aiming to be back on stage in September

Philomena Begley tells Stephanie Bell about her recent heart surgery, her gratitude to the medical staff who cared for her and how she aims to be back on stage in September

Country music legend Philomena Begley
Country music legend Philomena Begley
Tammy Wynette
Dolly Parton

By Stephanie Bell

The indefatigable 'Queen of Country' Philomena Begley is being forced to take it easy and it doesn't sit well with her. As she insists on doing some light housework at her home in Co Tyrone where she is convalescing from major heart surgery, she can't help thinking of her fans and all the concerts she is missing out on.

After 57 years performing all over the world, singing is still one of her greatest joys and despite the star's recent health scare, retirement is not on her radar.

In a nod to her recent health travails, Philomena does concede that she plans to slow down a little - but with a new album just out and concert dates in Spain booked for September her thoughts now are on getting back to full strength and returning to the stage.

Philomena had open heart surgery just five weeks ago. It was an illness that came on her very suddenly and having never been ill before, it clearly has proved a considerable a shock.

Out the other side now, she has been heartened by the numerous well-wishes from other country stars as well as her many fans across Ireland and was delighted last week to receive a message from the President of Ireland Michael D Higgins.

At home in Pomeroy, her family - husband Tom, son Aiden, who is also a singer, and daughters Mary and Carol - are ensuring that she takes it easy.

There is no doubt that it has been a tough few weeks but Philomena is feeling grateful that she is now well on the road to recovery.

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Philomena with her niece Andrea Begley
Philomena with her niece Andrea Begley

"I'm doing very well," she says. "This is the fifth week and I wouldn't be jumping over the moon or anything like that. I am still recuperating. My family is looking after me but I am looking after them too.

"I'm up and about and not sitting around feeling sorry for myself. I'm still fit to do some light housework although I am not allowed to lift anything heavy.

"I will find out next week how long I need to take it easy but I reckon it will be another month or so. It was a big operation and not something that will heal overnight. "

Now 76, Philomena has been blessed with good health which is why her sudden heart condition took her by surprise. Over the past few years she had been attending hospital regularly to have her heart monitored because of a murmur.

Nevertheless when her heart started to beat irregularly one night in April she was terrified and rang an ambulance.

"I had a health MOT a few years ago and they picked up a heart murmur," she explains. "I have been back and forth to the hospital to get it monitored every six months and they told me that eventually I might need to get a stent in.

Philomena and husband Tom
Philomena and husband Tom

"But this problem with my valve came on very quickly and I didn't realise I was going to need the surgery I ended up having.

"I've never really been sick before and I wasn't taking any tablets for my health so it was a big of a shock to the system.

"It seemed to just happen overnight. My heart started to beat irregularly and it scared me. I had to get an ambulance out as I didn't know what was happening. They kept me in hospital for a few days and told me I needed surgery, which happened pretty quickly. The doctors had hoped to do it by keyhole but in the end they had to go the whole hog and open me up.

"The staff in the Royal, the doctors and the nurses, was absolutely fantastic and thank God I am now feeling great. I was in hospital for a week and then got home. I am in fairly good shape."

Philomena has had to cancel a number of performances and currently is aiming to be back to full health by September when she is due to go to Spain along with other Irish country music stars for a month-long event.

She has also just brought out a new album called Jive Time. It features 10 medleys which she recorded some years ago and a bonus album of her singing live in concert in the Whitehall Theatre in Dundee.

She says: "It is a lot of songs that I normally wouldn't sing like This Old House and Ring of Fire which are all really good jive songs. All the songs were recorded 21 years ago and were just sitting there and we decided to put them together for an album."

It is her first album since she launched My Life My Music My Memories to coincide with her autobiography of the same title to celebrate her 55th year in show business two years ago.

The book, which proved a big hit, charted her personal journey from being bathed as a child in front of a fire at her home in Pomeroy to hitting the big time as an adult, performing with global country stars Billie Jo Spears and Tammy Wynette.

Philomena Begley
Philomena Begley

Dubbed Ireland's Queen of Country, Philomena began touring dance halls with the Old Cross Ceili Band and by 1978 was touring the US, recording at Dolly Parton's and Porter Wagoner's Fireside Studios in Nashville and performing on stage at the Grand Ole Opry.

She was the first Irish country singer to gain platinum status for album sales and in 1983 won the European Gold Star Awards, country music's equivalent to the Eurovision Song Contest. She met her husband Tom Quinn when he was a musician in The Country Flavour.

Tom subsequently gave up touring to take up farming and help raise their three children, Mary, Carol and Aiden, who has also established a singing career for himself.

Aiden has also just brought out a new CD called Home Away From Home which includes a song written as tribute to his mum called In My Mother's Footsteps.

And Philomena's niece Andrea Begley is another great talent who has toured regularly with her aunt since winning the TV song contest The Voice in 2013.

Philomena says: "Aiden's new CD has some great songs on it and we've recorded a few duets together. One of them, All the Road Running, has been very popular and there is a video of it online which has been well viewed.

Philomena and with her son Aidan
Philomena and with her son Aidan

"Andrea is very good and doing very well. We toured together last year and early this year and she is doing a lot of work on her own as well. It is lovely that they are both in the business.

"We have a very close family. I've five grandchildren, aged from three to 11 years. My daughter Carol is in Donegal which isn't far and Mary is in Aughnacloy which is just down the road. Aiden lives beside me, a couple of fields over."

Philomena's career has had so many highlights that perhaps understandably she struggles to pick one overall moment.

Playing in Nashville quite a few times over the years brings back cherished memories as does appearing in the Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall and Wembley Stadium.

She was also invited numerous times to be a guest of honour at the St Patrick's Day parade in New York and her very first visit was, she reveals, memorable for many reasons, not least because she wasn't expecting to take part in the full parade.

She laughs as she recalls: "I ended up walking seven miles behind the parade the first time I went over. I didn't do it the second time. I have been over quite a few times and you definitely need to make sure you are wearing the right shoes. Unfortunately the first time I wasn't."

While Philomena will be forced to take most of the summer off, she is already looking ahead to her concerts in Spain in September. Looking back over 57 years as a star of country music, she says she has no regrets and can't imagine her life without singing and performing.

"There is not a thing I regret and nothing I would change," she says. "I always had good relationships with the bands I played with and people in the music business.

"I know now that I really was doing too much, and I am one of the lucky ones that I do get a good bit of work, but I need to be sensible and try and cut back a wee bit.

"I love it and the day I don't enjoy it I won't be doing it. And after being ill it will mean even more to me to get back on the road again."

And the showbiz trooper adds: "The well-wishes I have received from all over Ireland has been unreal. I was supposed to be at a big thing last week in Dublin with a lot of other bands, all of which were country music, and President Michael Higgins sent me a message wishing me well which was just lovely.

"I've no notion of retiring and I am just hoping now that in another few weeks I will be back doing what I love most which is singing and performing."

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