Stetsons And Stilettos: STELLAR Chats To 3 Irish Women Who Live And Breathe For Country Music

Country music is bigger than ever in Ireland - here's a little glimpse into the scene.

After studying to be a teacher, tyrone’s Cliona Hagan decided to follow her heart and become a country music singer. She’s now poised to become one of the greats

“My family would have always listened to a lot of American country like Garth Brooks, The Dixie Chicks, and Shania Twain. I was put on to classical music at a very young age because I could sing so high, and even though classical music has taught me so much about how to sing properly, I always really wanted to sing country. Nine times out of 10 when you’re singing in the classical genre it’s in a different language, so I really didn’t know what I was singing about. Country music is completely different. It tells a story, there’s a song for every emotion you might be feeling.

I always was performing at any opportunity I could get – when I was 11 or 12 I played the piano and sang The Snowman on the Late Late Toy Show. As I got older I always knew that I wanted to be out there singing, but I didn’t make the move into country music until I was finished my college degree. I taught for a few years in Edinburgh and when I came home I was talking to my mammy, asking her what she thought I should do. She said, ‘Go with your heart, go with what you love. If it doesn’t work out you can always look back and say you’ve no regrets, at least you tried it.’

And that’s what I’ve been doing now for the past two and a half years. People don’t realise the amount of work that goes into being in the scene – you’re travelling up and down the country doing all the dance halls, you’re there a few hours beforehand making sure the sound is right, getting your set list right, practicing, and you know us girls as well, trying to sort out bloody outfits and everything else.

The hardest part for me is how my sleeping pattern is completely messed up – I feel like I’m a night nurse, on the night shift! You have to be so careful with what you’re eating too, because it’s so easy to fall into bad habits like grabbing a packet of crisps at 2 or 3 in the morning. It’s just so important that my body is healthy if I’m going to be out there performing and doing my best. All this takes up so much time, and it’s time that is gladly sacrificed because I’m so lucky to do what I love to do. Not many people are fortunate enough to say that.

I’ve definitely noticed there’s been more coverage of country music in the media this past year and a half, like The Late Late Show doing its country special. Country is now seeping into the cities – before, it was kind of the best kept secret in Ireland. It’s always been in the rural parts of the country, but more people are coming out. I think that’s something to do with the dancing as well. The country music scene and the dance scene go hand in hand – lots and lots of people come to the gigs to show off their dance moves, and I feel lucky to have a front row seat watching it.

Th is is going to sound so soppy, but performing genuinely completes me as a person. I love being on stage. It’s made me the happiest girl. I always knew there was something missing when I wasn’t performing, and it’s definitely made me feel complete.”

Emma Heatherington is the bestselling author of The Legacy Of Lucy Harte – she’s also a country music super-fan who has ghostwritten autobiographies for Nathan Carter and Philomena Begley

“I’m from Tyrone, the same parish as Philomena Begley. We all grew up knowing that she was a massive star who lived locally. I always had a love for American country music – my mother loved Patsy Cline, Vince Gill and Nancy Griffith.

The first writing I ever did was lyrics. I went down a completely different path with it, I write women’s fiction now. But a few years ago I was interviewing Derek Ryan for a newspaper and we completely hit it off. I told him that I was always writing lyrics, but I’d never done anything with them. He said, “Well would you let me see some of them?” He worked on the ideas I had and came up with a song called Break Your Heart, which ended up on his album One Good Night. That was absolutely a dream come true for me.

Then one day, out of the blue, I got a message from Philomena Begley telling me she’d been approached by a publisher to write her life story. She said “Is there any chance you could help?”. ‘Help’ ended up meaning ‘write the book’. I got a brand new appreciation for her stardom – she isn’t called the Queen for nothing. That book came out last October, and I’ve just put the finishing touches on Nathan Carter’s book, which is out in September.

I got to work with him at probably some of the busiest times of his career to date – I went on tour with him in March, and got to see the absolute phenomenon that he is. When you see the effort he puts into his shows, when you hear his life story, he is by no means an overnight success. He has done the pubs and weddings, so to get to see him playing in front of almost 10,000 people was just spine-tingling.

His fans are so loyal, and so varied – you’ve got four and five-year-old children, teenagers, married couples in their twenties and thirties, then the grannies and grandads who go and see him because he still sings all the stuff from their time. I think what makes Nathan, and country music in general, special is that the artists don’t have that barrier up between them and their fans. We were in Blackpool with Nathan doing a gig and he was out in the foyer of the hotel, chatting to the fans. He knows their names, he asks them, how’d your operation go or, how’d your exams go? He genuinely cares.

There are a lot of lonely people in this country, afraid to step out of their comfort zone, and country music welcomes all sorts of people with open arms. There are couples who go away for a weekend dancing and laughing, rather than just sitting in a hotel looking at each other, and mingling with people of similar interests. It’s a tonic. Even if you’re not a massive country fan, I think you would be hard-hearted if you came away from a show without taking something positive.”

Karen Healy teaches five jiving classes a week all around Munster, and sees people young and old connecting over country music

“Going to school I did step-dancing – the jiving came in about three years ago when I was getting married. I was able to dance and my husband wasn’t, so we went to classes. I was looking them up online and saw the teacher Tom Jive was coming to our area in Tralee. My husband learned to jive, and I became friendly with Tom because he knew I was able to dance. I started helping him teach the classes, then I started going around to other places to demonstrate with him. And because I loved it so much, and he thought I was a good dancer, he asked if I would teach classes for him. I’m teaching all over Munster now, working full-time during the day and teaching five nights a week.

It’s definitely getting more popular, and more young people are getting involved. I think Nathan Carter and his Wagon Wheel probably helped it take off again, Derek Ryan as well. The younger ones coming up are very popular now down around here, and the music is so great to dance to.

Facebook/Tom Jive

A few students came to a class I was teaching in Tralee and they loved it, so they asked me to teach a class in the IT in Tralee for them. My classes are nearly 50% younger and 50% older now, people in their early 20s up to their 50s. And it’s very sociable. Some people just come on their own, and I match them up. You move on all the time, so it’s very good for making new friends – and exercising!

Derek Ryan, Cliona Hagan, Lisa McHugh – if they’re anywhere in Munster, I’m there and I’m dancing. I even enjoy it more now because there are more people to dance with, I see students from my classes out and dance with them. I find it so difficult to sit down at a wedding if there’s good country music on. Even at work, I could be tired during the day and the minute I go to my dance class and turn on the music it’s like a new life. It gives me so much energy.”