Meet the New International Mary from Dungloe
If you believe in that kind of thing, it had to be destiny.
When Meghan Davis, 26, of Norristown, the reigning Philadelphia Mary from Dungloe, sat on the stage in the little town in the Rosses in Donegal a few weeks ago, her borrowed Celtic harp resting on her shoulder, she was the only contestant in the International Mary from Dungloe pageant who had been there before.
Except that the last time was 22 years ago, she was four, and the contestant she was watching was her aunt, then the Wilkes Barre Mary from Dungloe. “That’s when I saw harps for the first time and from then on I begged my parents, ‘I want to play harp, I want to play harp,’” recalls the young woman, a performer, church musician, and music teacher. “It had to come full circle.”
In 1999, her aunt came home with a wonderful experience, in 2012 Davis came home with that and a sash and a crown. She was chosen from among 10 contestants from Ireland, the US, Northern Ireland, and Scotland to be the 2012 International Mary from Dungloe. She is the second Philadelphia contestant to win in the last few years. Katie Armstrong, a neonatal intensive care nurse from Lansdale, was the 2005 international Mary.
But Davis also came home with something special in 1999—that burning desire to play the harp. “But in Wilkes Barre, where I grew up, there were no teachers whatsoever,” says Davis. “When I was nine years old, my parents looked all around and couldn’t find anybody. Then, at a summer music camp, I met a teacher who was studying at Julliard. We really made a connection.”
Her parents, Dwight and Molly Davis, finally found a teacher in Allentown which about an hour drive from Wilkes Barre. “They told me I could either take lessons once a week in Allentown or with my camp teacher in New York every other week. So, every other week, they drove me to New York.”
She fell in love with the harp in Dungloe, and it’s a love affair that’s lasted. She eventually got two bachelor of music degrees, one in harp performance, the other in vocal performance, from the prestigious Peabody Conservatory at the Johns Hopkins University and The Boyer College of Music at Temple, which is what brought her to Philadelphia. She also has a master’s in vocal performance from Temple.
She knew she wanted to play and sing in the Dungloe competition, but there was a problem. She couldn’t find a pedal harp—the six-foot, seven-pedal harp she plays—anywhere in Ireland. “I even had a harpist acquaintance from the New York Philharmonic looking or me and she couldn’t find one,” says Davis.
Since a Celtic harp was easier to locate, Davis rented one here and taught herself to play it. “I also taught myself the song I wanted to do, which was ‘Ave Maria,” the song I sang at my grandmother’s funeral.”
Davis had a close relationship with her grandmother, Mary Monaghan, whose parents came from Mayo. In fact, during the pageant, she wore a small locket that her grandmother had given her when she went away to college. “For luck, or the girl who has it all,” her grandmother told her. “It had been mine when I was a baby and I had bitten it so it had little bite marks on it,” says Davis, laughing.
An American in nearby Gweedore, Kayla Reed, lent Davis a Celtic harp for her performance in Dungloe. “My grandmother passed away in 2009 and she told me she would always be there when I perform. Before I went on I was talking to her all day, ‘Be there for me.’ I know she was,” Davis says.
The harp obsession that started in Dungloe and helped Davis win her title has been advantageous in other ways, she says. “I was so lucky that I chose the harp, as it turns out. I went to grad school with some amazing singers. A lot of them are waitressing and going into real estate and not pursuing the careers they wanted in music. The harp has allowed me to set myself apart. Performers who play the harp and sing are few and far between. It’s been truly a gift. If I hadn’t had the harp I might be in a different career.”
She also plays piano and sings, which made her a perfect fit for the Philly-based Irish group, No Irish Need Apply, whose members include several current and retired policemen. “They’ve become like part of my family,” says Meghan. “Like uncles. In fact, one of them writes original songs and he told me he’s writing a new one: ‘Meghan has four uncles.’”
She’ll be performing with them—though perhaps not that song–on September 2 at Brittingham’s Irish Pub in Lafayette Hill at its annual Irish Festival and later in the month at Irish Weekend in N. Wildwood.
She expects this year to be a whirlwind of events. She’ll be in St. Patrick’s Day Parades up and down the east coast, at special events, and “anywhere the Donegal Association wants me to be,” she says. Philadelphia’s Donegal Association sponsors the Mary from Dungloe event in the city.
And she’s also going shopping. “They gave me a 1,000 Euro prize when I won the title,” says Davis. “I think I’m going to use it to buy my own Celtic harp!”
Click here to see some photos from the 2012 pageant in Dungloe.