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Hugo Duncan: Philomena not the retiring type as she stays centre stage

Philomena Begley
Philomena Begley

By Hugo Duncan

I won't reveal how many decades have passed since I first saw Philomena Begley perform with the Old Cross Band. Let's just say it wasn't today, or yesterday, that a slim girl with flowing locks was behind the microphone, captivating audiences at dances, guest teas (remember those?), concerts, carnivals and ceilis when 'dry halls' were the order of the day.

I particularly remember being captivated by the girl's voice and her ability to perform a range of songs. Little did I think then that, all these years later, I would be sharing a stage with that same singer and marvelling at her ability to not only retain but enhance her following, despite the passing years.

After Philomena left the Old Cross Band, she joined Country Flavour, and for many years they were regarded as one of the best bands in Ireland, an outfit renowned for their musical talent and versatility.

Time waits for no man - or woman, for that matter - so, for Philomena, it was then on to a further period of her career with The Ramblin' Men, the band put together by the late Tony Loughman, of Top Rank Entertainments fame.

Philomena continued to prove a major draw, although there was evidence that the entertainment scene was slightly on the wane.

Undaunted, she launched a solo career that would take her to every corner of Ireland, England and Scotland, to the US, to Europe and to the far side of the world.

She has entertained in locations as diverse as a cruise liner and a New York lounge, yet she never fails to produce the goods, irrespective of her environment.

Today, Philomena is not only singing as well as ever - she is continuing to enhance her reputation as a top-class entertainer in every sense.

Never short of a quip, she still enjoys nothing better than being on stage, and nowadays that usually means performing in tandem with the likes of Ray Lynam or Mike Denver.

Philomena is nothing if not down to earth - there are no airs or graces with Galbally's finest, I can assure you, and she definitely believes in calling a spade a spade.

I complimented her on her singing one night in the not-too-distant past, and she replied: "Well, sure it's not bad for an auld doll."

Philomena has had her share of hit singles, including The Way Old Friends Do and Blanket On The Ground, and has performed alongside the elite of the entertainment world, but she has never lost the common touch.

She's still the same country lass who emerged from a rural background to captivate global audiences.

Although she has achieved fame, she enjoys nothing better than being at home with her family.

And while she is now a devoted granny, she assures me that she has no intention of entering any glamorous grandmother competitions.

"The travel can be tiring, but singing beats having to work for a living," said Philomena to me one night, then added in a more serious vein: "All the same, it's great to have the health to be able to do it."

Currently, she is more in demand than ever, and is in the fortunate position of being able to pick and choose when and where she will perform.

"While we all have memories of the great years of the showband boom, we have to live in the present," says Philomena.

"Times have changed, but people still like to go out and enjoy themselves. I'm glad there is still a demand for country music, and it's good to see new singers and bands coming on."

The word 'retirement', of course, is not in Philomena's dictionary - why would it be when she still has so much to offer?

I recall chatting to her at a concert and expressing my admiration for her longevity as an entertainer.

"Sure, it's all I know," she said. "And doesn't it get me out of the house?"

Banter great with my Three Amigos

I was warned to expect anything might happen when I invited The Three Amigos — Jimmy Buckley, Robert Mizzell and Patrick Feeney — into the Radio Ulster studio for a chat ahead of the last date on their current tour in the Armagh City Hotel on Wednesday night.

The trio are not known for being shrinking violets, but even I was not prepared for the high jinks which ensued when the conversation got going.

The banter and wisecracks flowed, with each attempting to outdo the other. But when they got up and started to dance, I did not know where things were going to end.

I am aware that they can create a great feelgood factor in their shows and I can confirm that they were living life to the full in the studio, rather than putting on an act: you simply cannot take away their vocal ability, or their showmanship.

When I suggested they should settle down, Robert Mizzell quipped: “You’re right, Hugo. We don’t want to be spoiling the people altogether ahead of Wednesday night’s show.”

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