As she prepares to hand over her crown, Northern Ireland’s first ever Mary of Dungloe tells Stephanie Bell of her amazing year
Standing in a muddy field in four-inch killer heels surrounded by cattle may not seem the most glamorous way to spend a day, but for Lurgan beauty Una Rooney it was part of a very special experience she will be sad to see come to a close.
Tomorrow, the recently qualified chartered accountant will hand over the coveted title of Mary of Dungloe at the annual festival that attracts tens of thousands every year to the popular Donegal beauty spot.
Una (25) was the first woman from Northern Ireland to win the contest, which this year staged heats in all of the six counties on this side of the border for the first time in more than 30 years.
The hotly contested title also attracts entries from as far away as England, Scotland and America, all vying for the chance to be the next ambassador for Dungloe, also famously known as home to country heartthrob Daniel O’Donnell.
It will be with huge sadness that Una hands over her crown at the 2009 Festival.
“It has just been the most amazing experience,” she says.
“The 10-day festival last year was so unreal and then to be able to win it and extend that fantastic experience for 12 months has just been incredible. I know it’s clichéd, but I got to meet so many great people I would never have had the chance to meet and do things that I wouldn’t normally have done and it has really helped build up my self-confidence. I have great memories which I will always cherish.”
Dedicated to the tale of the love a young man had for a local lady called Mary Gallagher in the 1860s, the festival sprang up in its honour in 1967 when the story was made into a popular love ballad by Emmet Spiceland.
Every year, finalists get to become honorary Marys for the duration of the 10-day festival, while enjoying popular musical performances.
Irish legend Daniel O'Donnell has become a regular fixture and is one of the main attractions of the festival.
Other past performers have included Emmet Spiceland, Phil Coulter, the Saw Doctors, Boyzone, Patrick Kielty and Pat Kenny.
The festival programme features a feast of music, song and dance all in honour of ‘Mary'
Finding out which contestant embodies the spirit of the festival is very much at the heart of the celebration.
Una entered in 2008 after being approached by a festival committee member.
“Last summer, I was asked to take part in the Armagh heat and I just thought ‘Why not?’. It would be something different,” she says.
“Especially with doing accountancy, something a little bit more exciting was very appealing. To be honest, I didn’t expect to get through the Armagh heat, never mind win the competition overall.”
Different and exciting the festival itself turned out to be and Una, along with the other 12 Mary finalists, enjoyed 10 days of entertainment while “being wined and dined”.
“It was fantastic,” she says.
“We all got on brilliantly and just enjoyed every minute. I made some good friends and still keep in touch with them.
“We had no idea throughout the festival who the judges were. On the Saturday we had to go onto the main stage and introduce ourselves and talk a bit about who we were.
“Then we had formal interviews and at that stage I think it hit me that it was in fact a competition.
“We went to a gala ball on the Saturday night and then the following day the festival ended with the crowning of the new Mary of Dungloe.”
After a fun-filled week, the Northern Ireland lass genuinely had no idea that it would be her name announced in front of the thousands of spectators.
She recalls: “In my head I had worked out who I thought was the clear winner and it really wasn’t in my head at all that it could be me.
“I was totally shocked, I really couldn’t believe it.”
As ambassador for the Mary of Dungloe Festival, Una has spent the past year travelling the length and breadth of Ireland, attending events and functions as part of her role.
“The year has just flown by, I can’t believe it is nearly over,” she says.
“I have to say a big thank you to my employers, Grant Thornton in Dublin, who were my sole sponsor and allowed me to take time off for the festival and duties throughout the year.”
“My duties started the day after being crowned, visiting the local Hospice and then judging at the Meenacross Agricultural Show.
“That was an experience of its own. Trying to walk across a field in four-inch heels to judge a cow and donkey heat is not easy.
“The highlight of the year was going back to Dungloe to switch on the Christmas lights.
“It’s really big there, they have a festival and parade. I had to single Jingle Bells on the stage — and I am no singer — but the crowds didn’t clear so it mustn’t have been too bad.”
One of her final engagements was attending a Daniel O’Donnell concert in the Armagh Hotel last month.
“That was an experience,” she admits. “They assured me beforehand that I would not have to sing.
“I sat on his knee while he sang the Mary of Dungloe song and the next thing he had the microphone pointed at me and I had to sing. At least now I can say I sang with Daniel O’Donnell.
“He was lovely. A very quiet and placid person, but very friendly.”
Now Una is returning to the festival, where she will hand over her crown to the 2009 Mary of Dungloe winner tomorrow.
She says: “I was sad handing over the Armagh crown, never mind this one.
“I was the 41st Mary so at least I will always have that and to me it was an honour to represent Armagh in the competition and then go on to win it.”
And Una adds: “I have so many great memories and in a way it will be nice to give someone else the experience.
“The people of Dungloe have been so friendly and welcoming to me and it will always have a special place in my heart.”