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Tyrone Voice UK singer Andrea Begley on coping with trauma of blindness

'I lost my vision gradually from the age of nine and it got particularly bad in my teens. Then, in my 20s, I needed a white stick. The journey of losing a sense is like a grieving process'

Tyrone singer and ambassador for the Royal National Institute of Blind People in NI Andrea Begley
Tyrone singer and ambassador for the Royal National Institute of Blind People in NI Andrea Begley
Andrea Begley with Danny O'Donoghue and Holly Willoughby after winning the TV singing contest The Voice
Andrea Begley in 2014
Philomena Begley with niece Andrea as a child

By Stephanie Bell

The Voice UK winner Andrea Begley will share details of the challenges she has faced growing up without her sight when she takes part in a special event aimed at helping people in Northern Ireland to get the New Year off to a positive start.

Andrea (31), who won the second series of the national TV talent show in 2013, is one of a number of motivational speakers sharing their stories for an event being held in Enniskillen on January 5.

Hope, Healing And Health, organised by the Aisling Centre, is being billed as "a day of inspiration" and is open to everyone.

The centre provides counselling for people struggling with mental health problems in Fermanagh and Tyrone, where there were 179 suicides between 2007 and 2016.

Andrea is no stranger to public speaking. As well as pursuing her music career, she is an ambassador for the Royal National Institute of Blind People in Northern Ireland and regularly gives talks at conferences, helping to break down the barriers experienced by those with a disability.

This year she has been busy touring with her famous aunt, country music star Philomena Begley, and the duo are to team up again for another tour in 2019. She has also just released a new single, Beyond The Rainbow's End, and is working on her second album.

Andrea shot to fame in 2013 when she captured the public's hearts to win the Voice UK.

Her life changed overnight. She went from performing at open mic nights in Belfast to having her own recording contract. In October 2013 she launched her first album and it made number seven in the charts.

Of course, singing is in her blood. Her aunt has been a force in country music for more than 50 years, packing venues with hit singles like Blanket On The Ground and Queen Of The Silver Dollar.

For years Andrea nurtured dreams of following in her footsteps but had no idea just how talented she was.

Fully sighted until the age of nine, she contracted glaucoma, an eye condition in which fluid damages the optic nerve.

Throughout her teens and into her 20s she had to come to terms with the gradual loss of her sight.

It was a tough time, especially as a young teen, both at school and when it came to socialising with friends.

Reflecting on those difficult years now, she says: "The journey of losing a sense is like a grieving process. You have to adapt to a whole new way of life. I lost my vision gradually from the age of nine and it got particularly bad in my teens. Then, in my 20s, it got to the stage when I needed to use a white stick.

"It is a big loss. The world is not built for people without vision. It is a very visual world and navigating your way around can be challenging, to say the least.

"I just try to make the best of it and I feel lucky that I was born in a generation when technology has changed so much and there are things like talking phones and computers which make life so much easier."

While Andrea did struggle in school because of her poor vision, she was determined that it wouldn't hold her back and went on to graduate with a law degree from Queen's University.

The eldest of three girls, her two sisters are Lucy (24) and Hannah (28). As Hannah was closer in age to Andrea, she helped her through school by reading a lot of her work to her.

Andrea says: "Going through school was very difficult but I did have a lot of good family support. It was also hard in my teens when my friends were all getting into make-up, going out and learning to drive.

"I found that really, really tough and there were times that I did feel sorry for myself that it wasn't happening for me. I think sometimes you have to allow yourself space to feel like that and it's okay to be down about it.

"It is important to know there are people around you and also to focus on things that you can do."

Today Andrea has minimal vision and can only see blurred outlines and shapes. The one thing she misses most is reading, and while she does have audio books, she says it doesn't really make up for the pleasure of physically holding a book in your hands.

However, her positive attitude is what gets her through and, growing up in a family where music was part of life, she still marvels at her success since The Voice.

"We were sent to piano lessons as children, and having Aunt Phili in the family we were always musical," she says. "Dad sings a bit and plays the accordion and my sister plays the violin.

"We have had a few jams in our house and when the family got together you couldn't escape without doing your party piece. I had always sang but I never planned on anything like The Voice UK - it sort of fell into my lap.

"I was doing some open mic nights in Belfast when the organiser was approached by The Voice to see if there was anyone he thought should enter. He suggested to me that I should go and audition and I honestly didn't think I would by any good.

"Talk about a strange starting point... I contacted them and was given an audition in Belfast, but I misread the email and I thought it was 8pm in the evening. When I showed up they were all packing up to leave - I was 12 hours late! Talk about being fashionably late! At that point I just thought obviously this wasn't meant to be as I had messed it up."

The organisers insisted they would like to give Andrea another chance at auditioning and no one was more surprised than the young woman from Pomeroy who went on to woo the UK-wide audience and take the crown.

Life changed overnight for Andrea and ever since she has been doing what she always dreamt off - making and performing music.

She says: "I've had a really great few years. The show gave me a public profile and the experience of working with people at that level, like Sir Tom Jones and Danny (O'Donoghue) and Will.i.am was a massive boost.

"All of the celebrity panel were very good with the contestants and it was amazing, given how successful they all are, that they were just very normal people, happy to give you advice.

"I loved doing my album and now I am working on my second one. I've just been trying to figure out what direction I want to go in with it as I like writing my own material and it's about getting the right balance of original songs and covers. I hope to work on that more next year.

"I've just finished a tour with my aunt Phili and it was the best of craic.

"She really is a good laugh and it was a novelty for me as we had never done a tour together, but it was great and I'm looking forward to a break at Christmas and then another tour with Phili next year."

Following her hard-earned Christmas break, Andrea is looking forward to taking part in the Hope, Healing And Health event, which aims to help everyone stick to their New Year resolutions while supporting the work of the Aisling Centre.

The second event of its kind, it is back by popular demand following the overwhelming success of the first day of inspiration staged by the centre last year.

One of the organisers, Aideen McGinley, explained why the event is not to be missed. She says: "You will hear personal stories of everyday miracles in a day of reflection, relaxation and restoration.

"You can try out healing approaches, enjoy the positivity of the event and be inspired in your own life journey as I was last year when the event exceeded all expectations, which we want to build on.

"We are indebted to the speakers and therapists, who in a voluntary capacity gave of their time and expertise to make the day a very special one and, again, for our second event, their generosity of spirit is humbling."

Dr Ann McDermot, chair of the Aisling Centre, adds: "Life throws many challenges at people and some more than many, be it health issues, physical and mental, loss and bereavement or coping with the stresses of daily living.

"In times of increasing pressure how you can remain thinking positively, how you can cope, keep well. The purpose of the Aisling Centre is to support positive mental health and wellbeing and this day helps us to reach out to many people and support them in their life journey and help support the vital work we do in the community.

"Last year alone we provided more than 5,500 counselling sessions and the continuing and growing need for our services is reflected in over a 20% increase in demand."

Over 30 speakers and therapists will be sharing their experiences, skills and expertise during the Hope, Healing And Health day. The event will be held on January 5 in the South West Skills Centre in Enniskillen. Tickets cost £15 and are available from The Aisling Centre Enniskillen, tel 02866325811 or https://www.facebook.com/theaislingcentre

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