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Hugo Duncan: 'Bankruptcy was tough, but watching my daughter Suzanne deal with cancer puts it all into perspective'

Ahead of his new Belfast Telegraph column, in a searingly honest interview, Radio Ulster's much-loved 'Wee Man From Strabane' talks about his daughter's illness, battling alcoholism, and the highs and lows of his career

Radio Ulster host Hugo Duncan
Radio Ulster host Hugo Duncan
Happy times: Hugo Duncan with his then 17-year-old daughter, Suzanne, who is battling cancer
Hugo with his then new bride, Joan in 1970
Hugo with his daughter, Suzanne
Hugo with his guitar

By Laurence White

It started with a question about his bankruptcy and ended with the normally effervescent Hugo Duncan in tears. The Radio Ulster country music presenter and performer was declared bankrupt last December. He had faced proceedings over tax arrears related to his private entertainment company. The matter was on foot of a petition by HM Revenue and Customs. He is expected to be discharged from bankruptcy in 12 months.

The Wee Man from Strabane with the big personality declined - very unusually - to discuss the matter. It is the only issue that he puts off-limits. However, he segues into something more deeply worrying.

"The bankruptcy thing was tough," he says as we talk in a small room in BBC headquarters in Belfast.

"But the big problem was my daughter dealing with ill-health. That put everything else into perspective."

True to form, he talks frankly about how his only daughter, Suzanne, is coping with a diagnosis of bowel cancer. It is then that you realise this is not the Uncle Hugo persona beloved of his legion of listeners or fans at gigs, but rather Hugo Duncan, father and grandfather.

His voice breaks occasionally and there are tears as he explains: "I am normally an emotional person, but when it is your only child who is ill and going through a trauma, that is real emotion."

As we speak, mother of four Suzanne (47) has just completed her eighth cycle of chemotherapy.

Her ill-health began in 2016, when she had a hysterectomy, and then in June the following year had her ovaries removed.

But on September 28 last year, she was told that she was being admitted to hospital immediately for surgery because she had bowel cancer.

Hugo jokes: "Like myself, Suzanne is very quiet and would hardly say anything to anyone. She makes no bones about it and talks openly about what she has. It is partly a mechanism to help her get through the illness."

One of the hardest things was telling her children, Jake (18), Katy Sue (16), Elly May (13) and Molly Jay (10).

Hugo says: "She told them all about it. It has been a very tough time. All the rest of things don't matter when you don't know what is going to happen round the corner. It is like alcoholism. When there is an illness in the family, it doesn't stop with one person -the family suffers."

He has nothing but praise for those who treat his daughter at Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry. "Her treatment has been second to none. I have also been going to the palliative care centre in Omagh and to the Macmillan Cancer Support Centre in Antrim. They are also wonderful.

"One of the things that really angers me is when I hear of nurses or doctors or members of the ambulance service being abused verbally or being assaulted.

"When I see what they have done for my daughter, it makes me really angry that they could be assaulted in any way at their work."

He pays tribute to Suzanne's spirit. "The consultant told me that when she goes for her chemotherapy, she is full of life and keeps everyone going.

"I remember one day she went to an event in Derry related to her treatment, and when she was there she met a number of people who she knew and who were also undergoing treatment for cancer.

"She had not realised that they were ill. They talked together, ate together, had fun together and cried together, and she came back a better person."

So how does he cope with presenting a daily radio show with a 180-mile commute from his home in Strabane to Belfast and his concerns about his daughter playing in the background?

And his workload has got even heavier. Today sees the first in his new series of interviews with Ireland's country legends. Hugo kicks off the series by chatting to Daniel O'Donnell and playing some of his music.

"When I sit down in the studio in the BBC, I take off everything that went before I got behind the mic. I have seen me going on when times haven't been great, but I didn't let it impact on the show in any way.

"It was the same in earlier times, when I would go on stage maybe after having a row with someone. It was something you just had to do.

"I love my audience like a big, big family. There are people who telephone the show every day. If they don't call for a couple of days, we will check they're okay. I don't take the people who listen to my show for granted".

In a way, his recent troubles should not have come as a huge shock to Hugo. He has known more than his fair share of problems in his 68 years, but he always emerged bubbling from the other side.

When we meet, he is in his trademark T-shirt, denim jacket and jeans, and his opening remarks tell how he was responsible for the BBC press officer present meeting her future husband. He launches into some detail before she steers him back on track.

His life is well-documented, both from candid interviews and from his biography, Uncle Hugo: The Story Of The Wee Man From Strabane, but he doesn't mind trawling through parts of it again.

Hugo was born in 1950, the illegitimate son of Susie. In those days it took tremendous courage for his mother, who had no relatives to support her, to decide to raise her son alone.

He recalls: "I didn't realise there was any problem growing up without a dad. It is like a person who is born without a limb - they never miss it. I similarly never missed having a father.

"As a young boy going to school, I realised that every other family had a father and mother, and I realised that my family was different, but it was not something that scarred me."

"When I was growing up, my mother went out of her way to compensate for being a single parent. She hadn't very much - she was a home help - but whatever she had, I got.

"For her, life as a single parent and having a child outside of wedlock may have been very difficult, but for me life was dead on.

"No doubt there were people who would cast up how I was born and who would have looked down their noses at me and my mother."

Hugo only saw his father twice - once when he went to his home drunk and then at his wake.

In his biography, he told of how the man, a cobbler, was sitting in a chair in his living room when Hugo went to his home. The man's wife shouted at him, "He's not your father - you don't have a father".

All Hugo wanted was acknowledgement that he was indeed his father. The man nodded and turned his head away.

Now Hugo says he is sorry he did what he did. "It was the wrong day for me to go to his home. At the time, I was going through a drink problem and, with hindsight, I am sorry I did that."

He repeats something he told me the first time we spoke: "I am a firm believer that there are three sides to every story - your side, the other side and where they meet in the middle."

Hugo admits he never spoke to his mother about his father, and the chance was lost when she died quite suddenly two weeks after he was married at the age of 20 in 1970.

Growing up, music was always a factor in his life. "As an adolescent, I played my guitar in pubs, sometimes for nothing, just to get out and sing. My mother and I never got a chance to sit down and talk about our life. When it came a time when I wanted to know more, my mother was gone.

"My father had his own family and I have a half-sister who I have met and keep in touch with. She has a couple of children of her own.

“There is no animosity between us. There is no reason for it. What happened was the fault of neither of us.”

Those early pub gigs were to lead to both the best of times and the worst of times for Hugo.

A year after he married Joan — April 11, 1971 — he began playing with a band, Hugo Duncan and the Tall Men. Hugo was certainly not one of the tall men, his relatively short stature being inherited from his mum, who was under five foot and wore size two shoes.

Five years later, he formed his own band and the problems with alcohol began.

He now says: “Music is a great life. There is no one in music that I know who doesn’t like that life. They all want to be playing and singing.

“Even today, I travel 90 miles up and 90 miles back home every day to present my show. If I didn’t like that job, I couldn’t do that.

“For musicians on the road there is always the offer of hospitality after the gig. That can lead to drinks and they might continue to three, four, five or six in the morning. Then it is the same the next night. You end up losing track of time and then losing track of family and even yourself.”

Drink took a serious hold of Hugo, earning him the soubriquet ‘Drunken Duncan’. He once recalled how he used to borrow money in the pub for another drink or round of drinks. People were happy to lend him the cash, feeling that he had plenty coming in as a famous singer.

But the reality was different. He used to send his wife down the stairs every morning to see if there were any bills. He couldn’t face the reality of his life.

He came near to losing it, surviving a total of 17 crashes during his drunken escapades. The turning point came at Christmas 1983. Hugo feared he had cancer — it was the bowel condition diverticulitis — and he was awaiting a court appearance after being caught drink-driving. He was later to get off the charge on a technicality.

It was then that he made the decision to stop drinking. “I realised I was beat. I also felt guilty at the life I’d led and the problems I had caused my family. Anyone who doesn’t feel that guilty is not really determined to give up their addiction whatever it is.

“I am a very lucky man my family stood by me. No one knows what they went through. If all that had happened nowadays rather than in the Seventies, Joan would not have put up with it. Young women today wouldn’t tolerate such behaviour. Years ago, people stuck it out. Thankfully, Joan and Suzanne stuck it out with me.”

He had previously told me how his wife gave him a little card with a humorous yet serious message on it. That has stuck with him ever since. It read: “Get down on your knees and thank God you are still on your feet.”

His big break as a broadcaster came in 1998, when the then controller of BBC NI, Anna Carragher, offered him a six-month stint on Radio Ulster. A couple of months before the contract was due to end, Anna asked him if he would like to work on through the summer. The rest, as they say, is history.

But hosting a radio show was not easy for Hugo. He may be able to talk the leg off a pot, but he had great difficulty reading listeners’ letters when he began the show.

“If there were words I didn’t understand, I would have to get someone to write it out phonetically and then learn it off before going on air,” he says.

His initial appearances brought accusations from some of the crustier listeners that the BBC was dumbing down, but he soon was to face an even greater challenge.

DUP politician Ian Paisley Jr unearthed an old tape of Hugo singing rebel songs which had been made 20 years earlier. It was given to the BBC.

In his biography, Hugo remembers getting a phonecall from the then controller, Pat Loughrey, as he was driving home.

When confronted with the story, Hugo had to pull onto the side of the road and be sick before continuing with the call.

London wanted Hugo sacked, but BBC bosses in Belfast dug a little deeper into the story and became determined to keep him.

Although Hugo was a Catholic, there was no perception of any sectarian bias in his life or his broadcasting career.

He explained that the tape had been made at a particularly low ebb in his life, when in the grip of alcoholism. At the time, he would have sold any self-respect he had to get the money for more drink.

He gave an interview to journalists outlining how many Orange halls he had performed in and how many church socials he had attended. He also stressed that he did not share the sentiments expressed in the songs he had recorded.

It is a tribute to his standing with the BBC and his audience that he survived the crisis. Both were moved by the sincerity of his explanation and his candid revelations of his life at that time.

To this day, he remains thankful to the BBC for standing by him when it would have been easy to take London’s advice and fire him, notwithstanding his popularity.

And he is also grateful to his audiences. “When things have been tough, I am always moved by the messages of encouragement I get from listeners and also from other people in the music industry.”

Now, in a new string to his bow, Hugo is to begin writing a new column about his life in country music for the Belfast Telegraph next week. He enthuses about the new venture: “I have been around the country music scene all of my working life. It is a job that I love and the people within country music are among the most genuine that you will meet anywhere. They are also extremely hard working travelling the length and breadth of the country every week bringing their music to their fans.

“I am delighted to be given a platform in the Belfast Telegraph to talk about country music and the stars in it. The Belfast Telegraph is the favourite newspaper of tens of thousands of people across Northern Ireland and country music is the most popular genre so it is a great match.”

At the end of the interview, he waits patiently while photographs are set up.

He may be waiting to drive back to Strabane, but there is no indication that he wants away or that he could do without such hassle. It is easy to see why everybody loves Uncle Hugo.

Hugo Duncan can be heard daily on Radio Ulster Mon-Friday, 1.30pm to 3pm. Country Legends is on Radio Ulster today, 10.30am

Belfast Telegraph


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