After 55 years in show business that legend of Irish Country Music, Philomena Begley has put down her memories in a new book about her remarkable life. Michael McDonagh, who has known her for decades, spoke to her about it.
Tell Irish World readers about how you came to write the book:
“I was asked by O’Brien Press over a year ago if we would do a book and to be honest I’d not really thought about it, well maybe I had but we had done nothing then I met with them and decided well why not and to go for it just, so we did”.
You have had such a long and illustrious career you must have many treasured memories which for you were the best?
“Oh I have been very lucky, so very lucky and I suppose every memory is a treasured memory now, I can tell you that. There are loads but it is hard just to pick the one or two out of so many great times”.
You grew up on a farm in Pomeroy in County Tyrone and joined a céili band before turning to country music which. How old were you when you started?
“Everybody thinks that I started very young but I was 20 years of age when I joined the band but saying that in them days at 20 years was only like being 15 now. You’d still be asking to be let out to go to the dance.
“At 15 I left to go to work in a hat factory and then in 1962 I joined The Old Cross Céili Band and a couple of years after that we started getting into the country music with Country Flavour and that’s how that came about.
“I was with them for 12 years and then we got married in 1974. Tony Loughman, a promotion man asked me would I be interested in joining a band and that’s where The Ramblin’ Men came in and I was with the Ramblin’ Men for 12 years.
“But the days of the Old Cross and Country Flavour were massive and we didn’t know what a bad crowd was, for us they were huge.”
Tell us about the time you did a photo session for one of your album covers in the 80s for Ritz Records. You were taken to a swanky exclusive celebrity Mayfair hair stylist who was more used to combing the locks of Princess Di than the Queen of Irish Country. He charged £150, a huge amount back then:
“God I’ll never forget it, I remember it so well. My God that was a long time ago. Oh, I remember going to this grand place and getting me hair all washed and done and all them young things getting me cups of tea and cake.
“Ah, I wouldn’t have been used to all that back here. It would not have been my scene or anything like with all that pampering and people doing things for me like that. And to tell you the truth I am not any better now. And the cost, honest to God, I couldn’t believe it.
“I can’t remember the name but I knew they were big all right. No, I’ll never forget it, a great experience.”
Back in those troubled times in the 70s living close to the Border must have been very hard especially after the husband of your brother in law, Pat Falls, who was married to your sister Maureen.
He had left a job in Birmingham to run his brother’s pub and shop in Northern Ireland. He was murdered in one of those dreadful tit for tat killings of the Troubles at the time. You took in Maureen and their six children in Galbally for a year.
With you memories of those times do you fear a return of the Border after Brexit?
“It was a bad time all right, we got married in February and this was in November. He had come over to take over his brother’s pub, he was a chemist in Birmingham but his brother asked him and he was planning on bringing the whole family over and had only been over a few weeks when this happened.
“It was so tragic, so we took in his wife and the wee children to live with us for a year. But that’s the way it was.
“Back then you could either stay at home and not go out at all or you could go out and we just got on with it and we did all the dances and people came out to see us. But now all that fear has gone and it is so much better.
“I hope to God with Brexit they don’t bring the Border back, I hope not, as that would spoil everything. It would be awful.
“Back in the early days, starting out, when we got stopped by Customs on the Border and whenever we’d be going over we’d have to put in a request for what time we’d would be coming back but if we were down in Kerry or somewhere it would be the middle of the night or the next morning.
“If we were late the man would have come up and if we’d missed the time he would go home again and we would just have to sit in the van and wait for hours till the man came back again. It was awful and surely to God we don’t want to have to go back to all that again.”
Tell us about when you first went to Nashville and how Hank Locklin picked you up at the airport in a pick up truck:
“Aye that’s right. Tony Loughman had brought Hank Locklin over to Ireland for a tour and we did some shows together and then when we talked about me going to Nashville to record Tony went ahead and set it up.
“When I arrived I was surprised when it was Hank Locklin himself who was at the airport with a pick up truck and he looked after us. We recorded about three albums there and met up with Porter Wagoner and he had me on his show and then we got on the Grand Ole Opry.
“We were very well treated over there back then in 1975. When we went back after that Porter always had me on his segment of the show.”
You had a huge hit in Ireland with Blanket on the Ground, is it true that when you first met Billie Jo Spears she said ‘You’re the bitch that stole my song’?
“Yes, I first sang Blanket on the Ground on stage in the Grand Ole Opry in 1975. Billie Jo had it recorded but I got it out before her over here. Yes she did say that but we became great friends and toured together even when she was ill. In fact it is now six years next month since she died”.
She was a chain smoker but you gave it up yourself and tried to get her to quit, no?
“Auch, she was unreal when it came to the smoking, you just could not get her to stop, no matter how hard you tried to discourage her you could not win with her and she was at it right till the end.
“She even set the fire alarms off in 2009 at the INEC in Killarney when she tried to sneak a quick fag in the shower room.”
Your duets with Ray Lynam were lovely, your chemistry worked so well:
“We did Elusive Dreams but the big one was You Can’t Live Without. We actually recorded three albums together and I’m still working with him.”
Were you amused when your names popped up on Shane MacGowan’s classic song A Pair Of Brown Eyes? He is a big fan:
“We were over on a skiing trip and I heard it for the first time over in a place called Val d’Isère when we went into the hotel and I just heard the two names on the speakers.
“I could not believe what I thought I had heard so I went out and asked them to play it again and there it was ‘Philomena and Ray singing My Elusive Dreams’. So that was great. I love him and he was very young at the time. I’ve never met the man but we have a book sent off to him and I think he is delighted”.
‘While Ray and Philomena sang Of My Elusive Dreams I saw the streams, the rolling hills Where his brown eyes were waiting And I thought about a pair of brown eyes That waited once for me’
Over a long career Philomena Begley you’ve worked with, and got to know, so many famous names. Who impressed you most and was Tammy Wynette a personal highlight?
“Billie Jo would be the highlight as we got on so well and we became close but Tammy Wynette would be up there as I got to know her well and always went to meet her when she did Wembley and when I was in Nashville I would go out to her house.
“Then again I did tour with Glen Campbell and two tours I did with Don Williams and, of course, I worked with Charlie Pride. We would be on a lot of stages with many of the names and would be in Holland and Germany or London with many of them on those tours.”
There has been a lot of talk lately about the demise of the big Irish dance halls in London and the UK. Tell us your memories of playing them:
“The Galtymore was massive but back then there were big ballrooms over here too. There were always big crowds at the Galtymore and The Gresham. Surely to God it was unbelievable the amount of young people there.
“Going in it was like being at home. But it was hard for them, too, and they liked seeing somebody from back home playing for them and they’d be crying and everything but the crowds were huge. “Oh back in the early days at the Galtymore, my God we had great times.
“I have to say that then in the later years we always looked forward to The Irish World Awards. It was always great to meet up with Paddy Cowan and it was just like home from home and we always had a great time, I have a good few awards here from the Irish World and Paddy always ran a great show, which we always enjoyed.
“I haven’t seen him this long time but tell him the next time he has one he better ask me to it, as if he doesn’t then it will be too late and I’ll be gone.”
You’ve had your own ups and downs in the music business, a harsh industry, and you even advised a very young Daniel O’Donnell to stick to his studies before taking up singing.
But you also appear to have had lots of fun and a great sense of humour. Gloria Hunniford tells a story about presenting you with a gold disc – on horseback – at the height of the Troubles. That seemed particularly mad, do you remember?
“They had this idea for the TV that she could give me a gold disc on a horse so we went out one day on horseback.
“The horse that she was on was called Mannering and it was a huge big fella of a horse and Gloria was scared stiff but she was not anymore scared than me as I had never been on a horse before in my life!
“But we did it and she presented me with the disc on horseback so that definitely would be a one-off.”
After more than 50 years in the business what are your plans where for the next phase of your career?
“Well I have to plan next year a wee bit better than this year as I took a bit too much on.
“But I still have a lot on, like I’m starting a tour in January and February and March with Mike Denver, then I’ll be doing a tour with Ray Lynam as we sing on our own but still do the duets.
“The duets are still very popular so I am still very busy.”
Your niece Andrea Begley won The Voice UK in 2013 and your son Aidan is a drummer and is in The New Ramblin’ Men so is music in your family’s genes?
“Yeah, that’s right, Andrea was singing from when she was very small and was no age a bit like Aidan, as he was always into the music from the day he was born.
“He is now very busy as he is managing a new girl singer called Cliona Hagan, who is very popular and very talented, and of course, he Billie Jo is still drumming.”
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