‘Everyone loves the best of country music across Ulster - it unites us’

‘Uncle Hugo’ as he prefers to be known chats to JOANNE SAVAGE about his passion for cream buns, the best country singers, his faith, battling alcoholism and why he loves nothing more than being on air trying to spread joy

By Joanne Savage
Tuesday, 25th January 2022, 11:57 am
Hugo Duncan is one of Northern Ireland's most popular broadcasters and a true aficionado of country music young and old
Hugo Duncan is one of Northern Ireland's most popular broadcasters and a true aficionado of country music young and old

Hugo Duncan, 71, emerges buzzing from having just finished one of his popular lunchtime shows on BBC Radio Ulster, wherein he plays old and new country music and gives shout outs to everyone from Sadie in Kilkeel to Margaret in Portstewart to Peter in Omagh, Ben and family in Larne, Iris in Portavogie, and Ross in Dromore, and devoted listeners across the province.

He is always talking about his love of baked goods on air, and most specifically cream buns, which he admits contribute to what he calls his “round rather than svelte figure”.

“Sometimes I get sent so many cream buns when we do outdoors broadcasts that we end up having to send them to local residential homes. I just mentioned I was fond of a cream bun on air one day and it just stuck.

Hugo, 71, with one of his favourite Irish country music stars, the inimitable Daniel O'Donnell

“No matter what you do, if you are young or old, if you are doing something that you love then the passion is obvious to people.

“Everything I’ve learned I’ve learned not from books but from life experience.

“I love the country music scene in Ireland and I love going on the air and I hate coming off it,” he says, admitting that he is often powered by copious amounts of Red Bull during his lively shows that are shot through with banter and warm sentiments, birthday wishes and call outs to older people who might request a particular country classic.

“I drive up to the studio from Strabane, the place where I was born, a place close to my heart, which I never intend to leave. I could have the weight of the world on my shoulders before my show - I’m not always chirpy, chirpy, chirpy all the time, but as soon as I am on air I forget about all my worries and am just in that moment of communication with my listeners.

Hugo on his wedding day with Joan in 1970. The couple have one daughter and four grandchildren

“The same with anytime I go out on stage and pick up a microphone to sing. Those moments are magical to me.”

The wee man from Strabane certainly has musical kudos.

In the early 1970s, he was spotted on a TV talent show on RTE and signed by the then fledgling Release Records, which later spawned such stars as Philomena Begley, Ray Lynam and Eurovision star Jonny Logan.

By the time he was 21, he had formed his own band, Hugo Duncan and the Tall Men, and had a number one hit in the Irish charts with Dear God.

Hugo and his only daughter Suzanne. The broadcaster says his family is his proudest achievement alongside singing, performing and broadcasting. Duncan says he is never happier than when he is on air and forgets all his personal troubles as soon as he begins his weekly show on BBC Radio Ulster

The ever popular broadcaster explains how his music career took off when the showband era was at its height.

At first he could only play three or so chords on the guitar with a capo, but he didn’t let that deter him, and while muso bosses at first demurred at making him a frontman because of his diminutive stature, they eventually relented.

“I used to sing on my own in bars in Strabane and all over, then I was gigging with a wee band all over the country for £1 or £1.50 a night. That was certainly a long time ago.

“I remember I turned 20 on a Thursday, March 26, 1970 I was married the following Thursday and the following Thursday fortnight my mother Susie who raised me on her own died.

Hugo having a lark at an outside broadcast pre-pandemic. During lockdown he most missed driving as he likes to travel all over the country from his native Strabane to Kerry, Waterford, Wexford and other parts of the Republic

“A close friend of mine, Theo, was a presenter on Highland Radio, who was in a band called The Polka Dots who were managed by Barney Curley. I would say my voice is good, but I’m definitely no Mario Lanza.

“The management team tried to oust me because I was small, five foot five (or five foot six-and-a-half if I had heeled boots on). They wanted a traditional six foot frontman, but then they went with Hugo Duncan and The Tall Men, because my friend Pio McCann said to them, “Well, are you looking for a singer or a male model?’ And so I was signed up.

He added: “When we had our hit with Dear God in the Irish charts we were walking on air. We lived for today and tomorrow would look after itself. We were at one point one of the top three bands in Ireland.

“But then I got into the drink in a big way, from the early 70s until the 28 December 1983, and I have not had an alcoholic drink since then, thank God. I just stick to Coca-Cola or orange juice, but I still love being in bars.”

He met his wife Joan, the love of his life, while they were both working at a nylon factory in Strabane and he credits her almost entirely with keeping him grounded.

Hugo recalls: “I was backward about coming forwards on the matter. She used to work in the Gorey Cinema in Newtownstewart selling ice cream, but even when we were courtin’ she wouldn’t have given me a free one.

“We were courtin’ from 1967, for 18 months, then I was working a night shift and I was standing in the hallway of her own house to give her a good night kiss.

“There was a song on the radio playing ‘I will never be married, I’ll be no man’s wife’ and I just said ‘Will you marry me?’ And that was it. It all happened up against the coats.”

A huge hit on the air waves, and particularly with an older demographic of listeners, although plenty of young country music fans tune in frequently too, he is sustained by his Christian faith.

“I believe in God and I would pray every day, but I wouldn’t force my religion on anybody.

“People say we are two communities here, but we both, Protestant and Catholic, have far more in common than what divides us.

“We all bleed when we are cut, we all cry when we are hurt.

“I love that my programme goes to every part of Northern Ireland and I think this mutual love of country music can bring us all together - everyone loves the best of country music old and new across Ulster.”

‘I WANT TO MAKE PEOPLE HAPPY AS MUCH AS I CAN’

“My new year’s resolutions are to broadcast as much as I can, sing as much as I can and make people happy as much as I can,” says Hugo, who does come across as one of the most cheery people you could meet and that palpable sense of bonhomie and banter and good craic is so apparent on the air waves that it’s no wonder his show is such a hit.

He started out in radio after being offered a slot at a station based in Donegal.

Hugo recalls: “I began on Donegal Radio and then moved to Radio Foyle, doing 50 minutes here a and there and then I got a show with Radio Ulster, initially on a Saturday night, and I began to say during a wee teaser ‘Now we’ll play a song for the children before they go to bed, so phone in and tell your Uncle Hugo what you would like to hear played.’

“And then that moniker just stuck with me.”

Uncle Hugo, as he prefers to be known, joined Radio Foyle during the 1980s doing holiday relief, after which he was offered a job presenting his own weekly show. In October 1998, he began presenting on BBC Radio Ulster.

UNCLE HUGO UP THERE WITH THE NEWS LETTER’S BILLY KENNEDY AS COUNTRY MUSIC CONNOISSEUR

Though a much-loved radio star, an adept performer and someone with a forensic knowledge of country music to rival the News Letter’s very own in-house expert Billy Kennedy, Hugo insists that his proudest achievement in life is without question his family.

“My wife Joan, my daughter Suzanne and my grandchildren are the lights of my life - absolutely.

“But after that I love being able to sing and entertain and more than anything, from the soles of my feet to the very top of my scalp, to try to bring people joy. I just love trying to make people happy and seeing a smile on their faces.

“Also, I once sang in the Royal Albert Hall, at Villanova University and in New York.

“I love singing in and around Strabane, in Lifford and elsewhere in Donegal because there’s a whole network of people I know very well there.

“I have always lived in Strabane, I love Strabane and I intend to die in Strabane.”

I ask him why he thinks the popularity of country music is so predominant across the province.

“I think it’s because so many of a certain generation grew up in the showband era and a lot of them were popularising country music.

“From the 1960s on the showbands and country music were very much loved here.

“The next generation of Irish country singers coming along like Derek Ryan and Nathan Carter and Lisa McHugh, things are much more different for them in that they’re so much more business and PR savvy but a lot of the time they are doing covers of older songs like stuff from Foster and Allen and all the older great country music stars - there are so many of them close to my heart that it’s virtually impossible to list them all.

“But if you’re chatting about Irish country music, then a hugely important artist, in my view, is Daniel O’Donnell.

“He would get up and sing for ten people with as much dedication and enthusiasm as he would sing for 10,000 people, and whatever the size of the audience he holds them captive, just in the palm of his hand.

“He’s honestly a lovely human being and in my view a top musical performer - one of my absolute favourites, in fact, and someone I deeply respect.”

As a celebrity broadcaster Hugo could well get a big head, but he insists this is not the case.

“But I do love when I go to supermarkets and people will meet me and ask for photographs and a chat and my wife gets angry because I would really stop and chat with everybody, and she’d rather I just pushed the trolley as fast as I can,” he laughs.

Q&A: ‘GOD BLESS LITTLE CHILDREN, WHILE THEY’RE TOO YOUNG TO HATE’

Tell us some of your earliest childhood memories?

I grew up with just my mother Susie and I in a terrace house. There was always music and a welcome in our house and my wee mother used to say she was always singing that she was “always a bridesmaid and never a bride”.

We were very close to our neighbours. In those days nobody locked their doors and I was always really well looked after. I would have went in there, say next door, and they would say ‘Come on in here, Hugh’ - never Hugo, ‘To get a cup of tea and a piece of bread and butter and that will do you until you get your dinner.’

And then my godmother was always making buns for me, and I was in and out of all the houses nearby on my street.

Tell us about your school days?

I was never academic and I was always more drawn to music, especially once my mother bought me a band kit with Providence cheques, I was always singing and gigging about the place. I think I have a short attention span.

I didn’t mind arithmetic, but once they got into all those equations and all, then I switched off. I hated PE and sports.

What is the secret of your the longevity of your marriage?

Joan is the backbone of everything, and our daughter Suzanne arrived just a year after our marriage in 1970. We now have four grandchildren, Jake, Ellie-Mae, Molly-Jay,and Katie-Sue. Things were tough when Suzanne had cancer but we got through it all and I really think my Joan is the one who holds all the family together - she has a very strong Christian faith.

Tell us your favourite country music artists?

Tom T Hall, a real singer/songwriter and story-teller, and I actually went to his home on two different occasions to interview him with a film crew. He wrote a song called Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine and the line of the song that really hit me and spoke to me from the moment I heard it was ‘God bless little children, while they’re still too young to hate’. I also love George Jones, Merle Haggard, Buck Owen - all the old country singers.

But I love all kinds of music and singing all kinds of songs. I appreciate traditional, jazz and lots of other genres, but country always comes first.

What is your favourite way to spend a day?

I love driving, and being in transit. I used to do 50-60k miles a year driving up and down Ireland, all over. From home to Cork, Kerry, Waterford, Wexford, Galway, almost every county. And I just love getting out and singing and performing with a band because the buzz you get from doing what you do on stage is second to none.

Listen to Hugo Duncan on BBC Radio Ulster, Mondays to Fridays, from 1.30pm.