Queen of Irish country looks back on her musical memories

Country singer Philomena Begley
Country singer Philomena Begley

Pomeroy’s Philomena Begley has scaled the heights of Irish country music fame, received a rapturous reception at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and performed and recorded with a stellar line-up of US country artists including Porter Wagoner, Bille Jo Spears, Don Williams, Hank Locklin, Charlie Pride and Tammy Wynette.

The down-to-earth Co Tyrone performer, who turns up to our interview looking chic and much younger than her age in faux fur gilet and snakeskin print trousers, is celebrating 55 years in showbusiness with the release of her memoir, looking back over years of hits and musical memories during what was a golden age for the Irish country music and showband scene. As she looks back on all she has achieved the 75-year-old confides that she continues to love the thrill of being on stage; most recently she performed with Irish country stars Derek Ryan and Nathan Carter. She delights in singing her best known hits: Blanket on the Ground, Truck Drivin’ Woman, Queen of the Silver Dollar and Ramblin’ Man. Though these days she often takes time off to bake soda bread and be with her family this queen of country is still thriving as a performer. When we meet she describes being on stage in Armagh just the night before: “It’s like heaven or a drug, I just love being up there performing. I think I enjoy performing more now than I ever did.

“I’d say my singing and performing is an addiction - it’s something I just have to do. And I enjoy every minute of it. It’s a buzz. I get on the stage and the first thing I do is just to chat away to the audience. I find it comes naturally.

“I’ll give this up when it gives me up. And I hope that won’t be anytime soon.”

Philomena was working at Fisher’s hat factory in Co Tryone when she was asked to fill in for the lead singer of what was then known as the Old Cross Ceili Band at a dance hall in Ardboe in 1962. A gig at the Forkhill Carnival followed and Philomena officially became the band’s frontwoman.

The singer committed to touring with the band full-time and ditched her factory job; as the appetite for country music songs reached this side of the Atlantic they soon changed their name to The Country Flavour, incorporating ballads crafted and much loved in the burgeoning genre. They performed all over Ireland and the UK as more and more fans came to love country music with its songs of heartache, romance and woe and rhinestone cowboys set to simple but enduring melodies that got people dancing.

Philomena’s vocals soon made her the star attraction and her band - which included her husband Tom - reformed as Philomena Begley and her Ramblin’ Men as they toured their way through the 70s and 80s. Philomena duetted with Irish singer Ray Lynam, among many others, going on to be honoured at the UK country music awards in Wembley - which in those days was incredibly popular.

“All the big country stars used to come to Wembley,” recalls Philomena. “And we would tour to different places in Europe and all the big American stars would be over performing and I would meet people like Marty Robbins and Loretta Lynn. There were singers I just never believed in a million years that I would ever meet. I met Billy Joe Spears at Wembley and we became very good friends.”

By 1978 Philomena was off to the seat of country music in Nashville with Omagh-born singer Brian Coll where she would receive a standing ovation at the iconic Grand Ole Opry singing her best known hit Blanket on the Ground. She recorded three albums with Porter Wagoner (- who was known as Mr Grand Ole Opry and for whom Dolly Parton wrote the song I Will Always Love You-) at Fireside studios. Honky tonk singer/songwriter Hank Locklin even picked Philomena up at the airport. As she describes in her memoir:

“I had to pinch myself to realise that Hank Locklin of Please Help Me, I’m Falling fame had actually picked us up and we were on our way to make music history in one of the highlights of my country career, which I believed had happened by chance. Imagine a wee girl from the hills of Pomeroy in County Tyrone, travelling with a real American superstar! I still can’t believe it to this very day and don’t know if I ever will.”

Singing her debut hit at the Opry made Philomena the first female Irish star to grace that much vaunted stage.

“I still vividly recall my performance there - it’s as though it was yesterday. Hank Locklin and Skeeter Davis were standing at the side of the stage - they were big stars in their time. When I first visited Nashville I met many big idols of mine including my big idol George Jones who I love to this day.”

Despite her success ‘Philly from Pomeroy’ as she likes to be known remains humble and unassuming.

“No matter how many stadiums I’ve played or how many celebrities I’ve met I’m still Philly from Pomeroy. I know in my heart I’m the same girl I was back then. I love to stop and chat to people who recognise me when I’m out and about doing my shopping in Dungannon.”

Why does Philomena think country music has such a receptive audience here in Northern Ireland?

“Northern Ireland always had a big love for country music. I think it’s because back then everybody loved to dance and jive. It’s the rhythm - if you can’t dance to country music you really can’t dance. Plus the songs are about real life and are full of real stories that people can relate to. There’s everything from songs about falling in love and falling out of love to songs about loss and sorrow - you get all of life in there.”