Hugo Duncan: Former teacher Cliona Hagan well on her way to top of the class
When Cliona Hagan entered the Mellon Country Hotel in the early part of 2016 to fulfil a guest spot at the weekly Friday night dance at the Omagh venue, those present little realised that the event was to signal the unofficial launch of a new country star.
A short time later, Cliona stood aside from her career as a schoolteacher to face the challenge of going on the road with her own band.
While striving to attain success in show business Irish-style brings with it a high profile and perhaps, ultimately, rich pickings, it is also accompanied by a risk factor.
Yet Cliona's bright and breezy disposition, her obvious desire to make an impact in what is a hugely competitive arena and her wish simply to please people were to prove endearing qualities.
I have followed her career closely, shared the stage with her on numerous occasions at concerts and shows and played her records on my Radio Ulster show.
Her sheer enthusiasm, commitment and willingness to make whatever sacrifices she deems necessary to make progress invariably made an impact on me and indeed on others.
Now two years after making her debut with her own band I am led to believe that Cliona's career is set to take a different direction.
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I have not the slightest doubt that she will remain as part of the Irish entertainment scene - and it certainly could be doing with her - but maybe in a different capacity as we move on.
She may have won numerous awards, performed in countries like Spain, Portugal and the US, but she is still the same down-to-earth girl from rural west Ulster who has a song in her heart.
Her engaging personality makes her an interviewer's dream and I well recall the honesty and sincerity she showed on one of the first occasions I met her.
"You'll do well, girl," I remember saying. "You're like a breath of fresh air in this business and while it's not all sunshine, if you stick at it things will happen for you."
And that's exactly what has happened. Yet Cliona is not blinded by bright lights or acclaim. Quite simply, she enjoys singing and is grateful for the opportunity to have made it her full-time career. She remains thoroughly grounded and aims to stay that way, as far as I can see.
"I still love teaching but obviously the chance to concentrate totally on singing was too good to pass up. I thoroughly enjoy what I am doing. I never thought that I would get the opportunity to make the progress I have achieved and I am very grateful for that," says Cliona.
She has now reached a stage where she obviously feels she would like to meet new challenges and it will be interesting to see what direction her career takes.
I for one don't think she will be too far from the spotlight. Having just returned from performing on Declan Nerney's popular 'Hooley in the Sun' in Spain she will head off tomorrow to perform at Nathan Carter's 'Carter on the Costa' country jamboree - being a country singer certainly has its advantages!
"I have always loved singing and I am delighted to have been given my chance on the country dancing circuit. I have met many lovely people to date and I hope to meet more as we move along," adds Cliona.
Having achieved success in the recording sphere with numbers like We're All Going To Die Some Day, The Cowboy Yodel Song and Straight to You, I think we can expect to hear many more songs from her that could bring her even greater fame.
Charity concert the perfect tribute to fundraiser Phyllis
For some time I was very friendly with Carrickfergus couple Phyllis and James Woodside. They were warm and friendly, pleasant company and always keen to discuss the latest developments in the country music sphere.
When Phyllis was taken ill, it was a big shock and her subsequent passing proved a devastating blow to James.
But he is keen to see her memory continue to live on, and that’s why a special country concert was held at the Lough Shore Hotel in Carrickfergus last Friday night.
Phyllis’s family, along with Gordon Pottsworth, organised the concert in tandem with myself, and many of Phyllis’s friends were in the big crowd.
It was great to see such a turnout, given that Phyllis herself had raised many thousands of pounds for charitable causes down through the years, and the crowd enjoyed a feast of entertainment provided by Susan McCann, Boxcar Brian, Billy McFarland, Country Harmony, Cowboy Larry and myself.
The proceeds went to Macmillan Cancer Support and Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke. The money could not have gone to two better causes.
Susan McCann certainly curried favour with the audience, and she has lost nothing in terms of the quality of her singing. Susan and I did many shows in the past, and the fact that she is going as well as ever is testimony to her stamina and love of music.
I must say that Billy McFarland is riding on the crest of a wave just now, even after so many years in the entertainment business.
The Ballymena man is as popular as ever and his trumpet solos always go down a treat.
Boxcar Brian also never fails to set feet tapping, and he was certainly on top of his game in Carrick.
I think we all did the memory of Phyllis proud.
Brendan and Liam show best of old and new
It is always interesting to contrast the old and the new when it comes to country singers.
My long-time friend Brendan Quinn, still in good voice after half a century of stage experience, has just brought out a new album, Tickin' Over, and is also all set to fulfil a series of concert dates.
Brendan cut his teeth during the showband boom of the Sixties and Seventies, and has always been regarded as a singer of true quality.
The success he achieved with numbers such as Four in the Morning, Angeline, Dreaming My Dreams With You and Bandy the Rodeo Clown helped to keep him in the spotlight, alongside such fellow singers as Ray Lynam and Brian Coll.
Not only is Brendan a top-class performer, he is also a talented songwriter, and some of his own compositions are on his new album.
While Brendan is a golden oldie of the country scene, Liam Kelly represents the new blood on the scene.
The Tyrone singer has achieved huge success to date with the catchy You're Some Trucker.
Patsy McEnaney, from Big M Promotions, has always had an eye for talent and lost no time putting a band around Liam and ushering him onto the road.
On Monday night, Liam's north-west launch in Kieran McGilligan's popular Bushtown Hotel in Coleraine certainly created a buzz, and the upshot is that Liam has been invited back to perform there, having by all accounts left a very good taste in the mouth.
At the end of the day, what more can you ask from a relatively unknown outfit?
Sure, didn't we all have to start?