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Hugo Duncan: Cliona Hagan puts best foot forward as she dances with Irish stars

By Hugo Duncan

In an era in which versatility is becoming very much in vogue in the entertainment world, Sunday night will see one of Northern Ireland's most talented young singers embark on a new challenge. Since she made her debut on the country music scene just over two years ago, Cliona Hagan (29) has won the hearts of many enthusiasts throughout the country, because of her singing style and dynamic stage shows.

Now she is set to write a new chapter in her career as a dancer - and the prospect is certainly leaving her consumed with excitement.

Cliona will feature in the opening programme of the popular RTE series Dancing With The Stars and for Tyrone woman Cliona - she lives in Ballinderry - this could prove the pathway to a whole new world.

It was at the end of September that Cliona took the decision to step aside from the country dancing scene to consider other options, but now that she has decided to embrace Dancing With The Stars, she's confirmed that she will resume life as a country singer with her own new band in April.

"Obviously, this is a new door opening for me, but I welcome the opportunity to try my hand at dancing at this level," says Cliona.

"It has taken a lot of preparation, so between rehearsals and the gym, I have not had much time to call my own lately. But I am not complaining - the build-up might be fairly intense, but I am loving every minute of it."

If Cliona's debut on Dancing With The Stars engenders as much enthusiasm as her debut with her own band did, then viewers are in for a real treat. Never one to do things by half-measures, Cliona is promising to "give it everything" in her bid to enjoy a protracted stint on the series.

"Obviously, I am looking no further than Sunday night and we will see how that goes," says Cliona. "There will be other competitors in there, who I am sure will be very capable dancers, so I know the extent of the challenge that I face.

"Still, it's an opportunity that I could not allow to pass me by - even though it will bring its own pressures."

Cliona, a qualified teacher, who also holds a degree in music, has packed a lot of living into the last couple of years in particular.

When she decided to call time on her teaching career, she did so with mixed feelings, given her affection for the profession. But the lure of showbusiness was too great and Cliona soon found herself travelling the highways and byways of Ireland to bring her own distinct country sound here, there and everywhere.

And while her live performances earned her considerable status, it was her robust recording policy that played a major part in bringing her into the public spotlight.

She has featured on virtually every country music programme, performed alongside numerous music legends and, as well as touring Ireland, she has also appeared in the UK and on the Continent.

Songs such as Born To Run, We're All Gonna Die Some Day and Make You Feel My Love have underlined Cliona's professionalism and versatility, while Hallelujah and More Where That Came From have helped to cement her reputation as a gifted artiste.

Her latest album, Secret Love, bears testimony to her ability to give particular numbers her own inimitable treatment, as well as underscoring the commitment she clearly feels for what she is doing.

"I am passionate about singing - it's all I have ever wanted to do," reflects Cliona.

"I love being able to strike up a rapport with an audience and, sometimes, I become very emotional when I am performing, but that is because I like to really live the songs."

Doubtless, Cliona will enjoy considerable support as she puts her best foot forward on Sunday night in the hope of capturing the hearts of the nation. She can feel sure of the enthusiastic backing she will receive from thousands of country music fans to whom she has already brought immense pleasure in her career to date.

High praise for yodeller Kenny

Kenny Archer is one of the most popular solo artists in the country music sphere. He hails from Newmills, near Dungannon, and has been entertaining for many years now.

Unlike most singers, Kenny specialises in yodelling. He shared the stage with me at a concert in the Island Centre in Lisburn last Saturday and, as usual, he proved a big hit with the audience.

Kenny, the most modest and unassuming of performers, nevertheless maintains that his claim to fame is that he once yodelled at 35,000ft. It was while returning from a country music weekend in Blackpool, where we had been performing, that Kenny got the opportunity to hit the high notes in more ways than one.

I let the air hostess know that we had a great yodeller on the flight and we got Kenny to the back of the plane, gave the intercom microphone to him and he yodelled to his heart's content, thus earning the highest level of applause he has ever achieved - and not many people can say that.

There is never a dull moment when the thoroughly grounded Kenny is in the vicinity as he believes that life is for living. I have had the pleasure of working with Kenny on many occasions and he is a very capable singer, whose distinctive style has won him many admirers.

He is in great demand for concerts, in particular, and his talent and warm personality will ensure he will be kept busy for years to come.

We've lost a country music maestro with the sad passing of John O'Neill

While the festive season is a period for rejoicing and celebrating, it invariably brings its own ration of sorrow.

This was very much the case with the sad passing of John O'Neill, one of the province's most distinguished country musicians.

Donaghmore man John started his career in the Old Cross Ceili Band before it morphed into Philomena Begley and the Country Flavour.

Subsequently, he was part of the popular Drop In Your Hand band before moving on to link up with the then hugely popular Gene Stuart and The Homesteaders.

His musicianship allied to his professionalism earned him many plaudits during the years he spent with Gene's band before he joined John Morrison and Ciaran Doherty to form Cream of the Barley, an outfit which enjoyed considerable status particularly within Tyrone.

John was a superb musician, a man who had a great feel for a song and someone who derived immense pleasure from his involvement in country music.

Whether it was performing in a packed luxury theatre or doing his thing at one of the famous sessions in Quinn's Corner restaurant, near Ballygawley, John was his same unflappable self.

He had been a close friend of the late Gene Stuart and, indeed, many others from the showbusiness fraternity. His modest, unassuming manner ensured that he made friends easily and the fact that he was, too, a thoroughly grounded person served to make him good company.

In recent years, he had re-aligned himself with traditional music and had released a CD, A Place That's Home, with his daughters Clare and Shauna and grand-daughters Niamh and Ciara.

The esteem and respect in which he was held was evidenced in full when he performed at a special sell-out community concert in the Bardic Theatre, Donaghmore in November. It was an occasion when music proved a striking bond as all age-groups responded enthusiastically to John's instrumental prowess. And he was also very much to the fore when we had our annual gathering of musicians from the halcyon days of the showband era in Enniskillen at the end of the year when Fr Brian Darcy, Henry McMahon, Mickey Brady, John Glenn and many others were along with myself for a night of reflection and nostalgia. When I heard of his passing, it struck me that there would be some chat up at the Pearly Gates when he met up with his friend Gene Stuart - and doubtless there would have been a bit of music as well.

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