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How I helped Philomena Begley pen her life story... and what the country music star taught me

By Emma Heatherington

I was a geeky 12-year-old student in my bottle green Convent school uniform when I first heard of Philomena Begley, the country music superstar who lived just up the road in the neighbouring village of Galbally, Co Tyrone. "Her mummy's really famous," my school friend said to me, nudging my eyes towards the dark curly haired first year student who looked very ordinary to me.

I looked across to see Philomena's eldest daughter Mary, who was laughing and giggling with her first year friends, neat as a pin and nervous in the new world of 'big school' just like her peers.

My next encounter with Philomena came just a few years later when my younger sister was making her confirmation. Times were tough in our house as we'd lost our mother very suddenly, and Philomena landed at our house with an outfit for Rachel, much to my father (and my sister's) delight.

I'd forgotten about that moment of generosity until quite recently when I was asked in an interview as to how I knew Philomena, if we were friends, and how did I come to be the one chosen to write her exceptional life story.

Of course, I knew of Philomena Begley, everyone does. She was known to light up any room, any concert, any party with her famously down-to-earth persona and breath of fresh air approach to life, not to mention her exceptional talent and hit after hit backlist of singalong songs.

I'd heard her on the radio, I'd watched her on TV and back in 2007 when my writing career was in its infancy, Bardic Theatre's Sean Faloon convinced her to take on a cameo walk-on part in a Christmas musical I'd written that mentioned her name. She brought the house down as she always does and the audience were on their feet when she walked on to the stage.

Fast forward over 10 years later and I'm a busy mum of five counting my blessings to be doing what I love the most, writing novels for HarperCollins (and with my own first big international hit, The Legacy of Lucy Harte under my belt - yes, it took 10 years!) when I got a voicemail from Philomena asking would I be interested in helping her with a book that O'Brien Press had approached her to write. I called her back, unaware of what extent that help might be and chuffed to bits that she'd thought of me in the first place. Before long I was on the phone to Michael O'Brien, director of the Dublin-based publishing house, and we were talking timeframes, chapter ideas and marketing plans. The challenge to record her magnificent career was signed and sealed - now we just had to deliver.

First challenge - Philomena Begley is a very busy woman. As she approached her 75th birthday last year, a time when most people are slowing down and reflecting on what was and what could have been, 'Philly', as she soon became known, was still firing on all cylinders.

Recording studios, charity events, tours of America, Scotland, England and Ireland are still very much on her agenda which she balances alongside spending time with her husband Tom, their three children and five grandchildren.

She still manages to babysit and do school runs on a regular basis and I was going to have to fit around all that. Where on earth would we start?

"We could go to Bundoran?" suggested Philomena, the idea being that we would get away from all the everyday demands and get stuck in. It was exactly this time last year when we did just that. We ordered a Chinese takeaway, watched the soaps, talking about everything from music to motherhood and as she talked, I wrote - and wrote and wrote and wrote for two days solid. Her story on paper had begun.

For the next six months, we bonded over our shared passion for working in the arts while rearing a busy family.

I researched in awe all the places she had been, the people she performed with, the challenges she faced during the Troubles as she travelled all over the country at a time of bombs, bullets and barricades, the first baby she lost through miscarriage, the tragic loss of her brother Patsy, the birth of her three children, the bright lights of Wembley and Nashville, the joys, the highs and lows and the reality of balancing a demanding career with a busy home life.

What I learned most of all from Philly is that major success takes a lot of hard work, that she is exceptionally close to her three children (I joked that she could guess which one was calling her phone by the time of day it was) and that keeping her feet firmly on the ground is the key to her universal popularity.

Mention Philomena Begley to anyone and a smile lights up their face, and they'll often use the word 'legend' to describe her. I have the honour of now calling her my friend. She's not only the queen of country music, she's also the queen of hearts, not only in Ireland, but in country music circles all over the world and no one deserves that title more than she does.

Philomena Begley: My Life, My Music, My Memories (The O'Brien Press) by Philomena Begley with Emma Heatherington is available from all good bookstores and online at usual retail outlets. Emma's new novel, A Part of Me and You (HarperImpulse), is available on Amazon from January 19

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