As Niall Horan turns 21, Liz O’Brien visits the town that made him.
HE’S the only Irish member of world-famous boyband One Direction, he has 19.5 million followers on social media site Twitter and he’s reportedly worth €17 million.
All that and he hasn’t even turned 21; that big milestone is just a few weeks away on September 13.
Niall Horan is a global superstar and because of that local businesses back in his hometown Mullingar are enjoying the spin-offs of his fame — a rise in visitor numbers and a financial boost to the economy.
One councillor has even proposed a museum be opened in Niall’s honour to attract more fans and further increase tourism. A local TD, who has called Niall a ‘marketing giant’, likes the idea of a tour of places he’s connected to in Mullingar.
Emily Jue, 15, a fan from Texas, signing a Niall Horan visitor’s book, in the Greville Arms Hotel.
Every week fans — known as Directioners — from all around the world descend on the Westmeath town just to see where their heartthrob grew up. They search for the house he used live in; they visit the Greville Arms Hotel where Niall was interviewed for One Direction movie ‘This is Us’; where his Brit awards are displayed and where his family drink; they go to Spar/Supermacs where he did his work experience; and many of them go in search of his dad Bobby, who works at the local Tesco.
Niall’s friend Shanon Fitzsimons — who grew up in the estate neighbouring Niall’s — has even seen girls camping out at a nearby green, in the hopes of seeing their idol.
A Niall Horan shrine including his Brit Awards in the Greville Arms Hotel, in his hometown of Mullingar, Co Westmeath
If fans hear even a whisper about Niall coming home they’ll try anything to meet him.
“Now you actually never know when he’s coming until he’s at your front door because he can’t tell you,” Fitzsimons says. “When he does come home he tries to split his time between all his friends and family.”
That very green — where fans sit and wait for Niall — is where he, Shanon and their mates used hang out when they weren’t in each other’s homes watching TV or listening to music.
For as long as Shanon (20) has known Niall he’s been passionate about singing and has never been far from a guitar.
“Niall kind of never shut up, he was always singing and he’s still the same now, he still sings the whole time.
“I’m like, ‘Do you not get bored of it because you’re doing it for a living? And he says ‘Never’.
“No matter what talent show was on down here (Mullingar) he was always in it. It was always what he wanted to do.”
Because she’s friends with Niall, Shanon now has thousands of Twitter followers; some of them tweet her saying it would make their day if she’d message them back a simple ‘Hi’.
If Directioners recognise her on the street they’ll ask her to pose in photos with them; some of them have even sent her letters, or American candy for her sweet-tooth.
“I remember once we were sitting in the pub and this mother and her three kids came up and said, ‘Can we get your autograph and have a picture with you?’
“I was like, ‘What?’
“I still can’t even believe that.”
For a Directioner, meeting a family member is a huge coup.
Just recently 14-year-old Glaswegians Anna Powell and Caitlyn Smith met Bobby while holidaying in Ireland.
They spent two years begging Anna’s mum Claire to take them to Mullingar on what they called their ‘Niall Horan Pilgrimage’.
It seems their begging more than paid off.
“We stopped in a shop and asked if they (shopkeeper) knew anything about Niall’s dad or Niall and as we were talking to them, they said, ‘Look up’ and Niall’s dad Bobby was passing outside the shop,” Caitlyn said.
“It was like fate, it was just so cool.”
The girls couldn’t believe their luck, and better still, Bobby posed for photos with them.
“We started shaking and kept looking at him cause he talks like Niall,” Anna said.
Born September 13, 1993 Niall was a second child for his parents Bobby and Maura and a younger brother for Greg.
He went to St Kenny National School where over the years his talent was nurtured and in secondary school — Coláiste Mhuire — he was put forward to perform in the Mullingar Shamrocks GAA Club annual Stars in Their Eyes talent show.
Even back then Niall had something special. Club chairman Pearse Corroon said he won the crowd over with his rendition of ‘I’m Yours’ by Jason Mraz.
“He had a presence on the stage — he’d just get up there where as a lot of people would be very nervous — he just oozed confidence from the start.
“He got the crowd going and they were all clapping away with him.
“He was a big hit and he looked the part.”
Such was the impression he made that he was the only one of the 22 performers asked to sing at the town’s Joe Dolan Festival relaunch the next day.
According to Shanon that was around the same time that Niall told his friends about his X Factor dream.
“I remember we were watching the X Factor and Olly Murs was on it; Niall was obsessed with him, he loved Olly Murs.
“He was like, ‘I’m going to be on X Factor’.
“We were like, ‘Yeah, yeah’ and he said, ‘No I am, I’m going to be on X Factor’.”
When entries opened, both he and Shanon signed up. And, on the day of the Croke Park auditions Niall was one of the first in the queue, guitar in hand, his brother Greg alongside him.
“I remember I woke up at half nine or something and I had missed calls and texts from him at six in the morning saying, ‘Shanon, where are you? The place is packed’.”
While Shanon didn’t get through, Niall made it to the finals and was eventually teamed with fellow contestants Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, and Zayn Malik — to form boyband One Direction.
Corroon wasn’t surprised.
“He was definitely made for a boyband, right from the start.
“You know the way the boy bands are — they have the good looks and the girls like them — he had that bit of a thing going and you could sense that in the Arts Centre that night, he had his fan base of girls, and they were screaming mad.”
Since then the number of fans has rapidly grown, the screams have gotten louder and One Direction’s popularity has skyrocketed.
In 2011, their debut album ‘Up All Night’ was the fastest-selling debut album in the UK that year and in 2012 ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ won the BRIT Award for Best British Single.
Earlier this year Niall gifted Mullingar’s Greville Arms Hotel with two of his Brit awards — 2012 Best Single and 2013 Global Success.
General manager John Cochrane says the Brit awards — displayed in a hotel cabinet — attract many Directioners.
“When we put the awards in the hotel we opened a visitors’ book for the fans to sign and we’ll give that to Niall the next time he’s home.
“It’s been signed by all different people who have visited the hotel — from Brazil to Spain to France to all parts of America as well as Ireland — to get pictures with the awards, there are some fantastic messages and stories in it.”
While in Mullingar, Directioners also visit the Spar/Supermacs store just outside of the town — where Niall did a two-week work-experience stint during his school years.
It’s rare that Niall eats there nowadays, but manager David Horkan says that when he does, he’ll usually order a snack box or taco fries.
At the Croke Park gig, Supermacs’ Dublin branch actually delivered his favourite fast-food back-stage for himself and his band mates.
Horkan says if Directioners know Niall’s home, they’ll hang around the shop hoping he’ll stop by. Every week fans go to the store and ask for directions to Bobby’s house.
“It could be any day of the week, every week, and it’s generally the parents who’ll have to come in and ask for directions for the young girls who are sitting out in the car.
“We have a cardboard cut-out of Niall on the wall and they regularly get their picture taken with that as well.’
Some locals believe that Niall’s stature has provided an opportunity that the town should capitalise on.
Mullingar Cr Aidan Davitt has asked the council to investigate the possibility of opening a museum as a tribute to Niall and other Mullingar greats — such as Joe Dolan and Mick Foster (of Foster and Allen).
“Niall has backed it; he’s been supportive and said he’d be delighted to assist — any musical gear or memento or anything he can assist us with he will, free gratis to assist the town of Mullingar.”
Cr Davitt suggested Market House — a well-kept building owned by townspeople and the town commissioner — as a possible venue to house a museum. “We could use it for a good purpose — try and promote Mullingar and try and bring more visitors in to the town which would evidently benefit the businesses.”
Longford/Westmeath TD Willie Penrose believes a tour of places of interest — Niall’s school, home, local pubs — would make an ideal tourist attraction, as he thinks a museum is a ‘fleeting thing’.
“As his father says, ‘He’s well known on the world stage now’ — just look at the amount of Twitter followers he has.
“He is a walking marketing giant and we should use every opportunity we can to make use of him.”
Penrose considers Niall to be a ‘good young friend’ and he has known him since he was in nappies.
“The Horan family are very close with my family.
“I’ve known his dad for the last 40-odd years; he’s a great personal friend of mine and one of my main campaigners for elections.
“And Niall was out at one of the general elections giving me a bit of hand, distributing leaflets and various things like that.”
Niall is a Derby County fanatic, Penrose — a Liverpool FC man; so in years gone by the pair have always had plenty of banter about football.
“He’d be a bit of a prankster, he’s enjoyable and he’d still mess with you.
“He’s a lovely lad and success had not changed him — when he comes back he always visits his friends, who are his school friends, and he’s very attached to his family.”
Shanon believes that’s because Niall has always been ‘level-headed’.
“Even though he’s so famous he remembers where he’s come from and he’s still so close to all his family and friends and doesn’t forget anyone.
“Fame hasn’t changed him at all.
“Now when he’s telling a story he’s telling a story about him being with famous people and you’re just like, ‘That is so weird’.”
Earlier this year, Niall returned to Dublin’s Croke Park, where four years previous his rapid rise to stardom all began. This time though, it was to a very different scenario — he was singing to 80,000 fans in a packed arena.
When I asked Shanon if she’s proud of Niall, she quickly replied: “I remember someone from a radio station stopping me at the Croke Park concert and they said, ‘How proud are you?’
“I said, ‘Well he’s playing in Croke Park and the last time I was here I was going to see Westlife, so it’s crazy — now knowing someone who’s actually playing here’.”
On September 13, his friends and family back home in Mullingar are sure to be in his thoughts when he rings-in his 21st at yet another jam-packed stadium — the Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California. Afterwards, for the first time in America, he’ll legally be able to celebrate with a tipple.
However he rings it in there’s no doubt he’ll do it in style. And with his beloved Derby County taking on Nottingham Forrest in the Capital One League Cup afterwards, here’s hoping he can celebrate a Rams’ win too.
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