The Contessa and I had each bought a sequinned top in Sainsbury’s which was just as well. Philomena herself was wearing sequins, and so was every other woman in the function room at the Ballyliffin Hotel. It seems everyone had shopped the major supermarket chains. The glittering occasion was part of the 50 Years in Showbiz tour undertaken by Philomena Begley and her Ramblin’ Men.
Philomena is the Queen of Irish Country music. When I was a teenager, Philomena was playing function rooms in provincial hotels from Ahoghill to Youghal and I would have died rather than go to see her. Last night, impressed by Philomena’s staying power (she is celebrating 50 years on stage), I prevailed upon Spud and the Contessa to join me for a night of two-step polka, old tyme waltzing and general jigging about.
Philomena’s son Aidan opened for her at around 11:30pm as the hall started to fill up with men with weathered features, big sweaters, and heavy brogues (the shoes–and the accents). Their women wore four inch heels and haircuts dating from a time when the Bay City Rollers roamed the earth. The crowd of around 200 included a party in town for a wedding earlier that day. An uncle from Roscommon, being unable or unwilling to make it back to his seat between dances, chose to sit on the front of the stage, setting his pint down in front of a footlight. He was completely unaware that he was in Aidan’s way. The uncle was totally without rhythm but left his perch on the performers’ platform to take part enthusiastically in each dance. The wee man caused a multiple pile-up during Philomena’s big closing number—her rendition of Billie Jo Spears’ “Blanket on the Ground”.
Throughtout the evening, two couples danced with elegant synchronicity in an old-fashioned waltz that owed a lot to a Georgian gavotte. Another couple twirled fleet-footed, she maintaining a fixed smile over her husband’s right shoulder as he steered her expertly between clumsier couples. The floor was packed for every dance. Spud did his duty taking both his lovely bride and me for a turn or two around the floor. Behind me, a woman enjoyed a large Bailey’s and a packet of Cheese and Onion crisps. Philomena sang all the old favorites. She has great stage presence, chats warmly with the crowd and keeps on belting them out even when no-one seems really to be paying attention. She congratulated those felled by the Roscommon uncle on picking themselves up and dancing on without rancour. She complimented the old tyme dancers on their beautiful deportment, saying it reminded her of nights long ago in an elegant Dublin establishment where she used to sing. She talked of pride of working with her 35-year son, next in line to the Irish country crown.
We left about 1:00am. Philomena is running a tour to Nashville in April 2013 for her fans from Ireland. It takes in Graceland, the Grand Ole Opry and the country music hall of fame. It will culminate in a star-studded tribute concert in Philomena’s honor. I am tempted, really tempted.