Crowning Glory: Inside the Miss Mayo Pageant
By Kaitlyn Linsner
Since I currently live in Philadelphia and am Irish-American, I would have to refer to myself as an Irish Philadelphian. And as an Irish Philadelphian, of course, I am interested in all things Irish in Philadelphia. I heard about a Miss Mayo pageant in the area and wanted to write about it, but instead I became a contestant.
The Mayo Association is a nonprofit Irish organization that consists of descendants from County Mayo. The group has been around for 104 years. Through different fundraising events, the Mayo Association has worked with other organizations to help in the construction of the Galway Cathedral in Ireland and the Irish Memorial at Penn’s Landing. They have also given donations to Philadelphia charities and assisted physically and mentally challenged children, both here in the states and across the pond in Ireland.
The Mayo Association’s main fundraising event is the Mayo Ball, held annually at the Irish Center located in Mount Airy. The Mayo Ball combines music, dancing, food, drink and the elegant Miss Mayo pageant. I decided to test my Irish heritage by attending this ball and also competing in the pageant, which resulted in a highly entertaining night.
After sending in my Miss Mayo application, I had to buy a formal gown for the big event. On November 7, I was dropped off at the Irish Center. I was draped in black silk, my head covered with hair spray and bobby pins. There were 12 other contestants mainly from the Philadelphia area, ranging from ages 17 to 24, all of Irish ancestry and eager to compete for the grand prize: a round trip to Ireland. The new Miss Mayo has other duties, such as representing the association in the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day parade and also making appearances at other social events.
We all arrived around 5 p.m. in our pageant garb and anxiously sat around, waiting to be interviewed by the four mysterious judges waiting in a different room. We then attempted to make small talk with each other, but really this was a way to scope out the competition. Who was wearing the nicest dress? Who had the nicest earrings? And, of course, who has the most qualifying attributes? We talked about our high school endeavors, and I became witness to what low-key pageant girls like to emphasize.
“I don’t really like to give speeches although I was captain of the speech team in high school.”
“Oh, I just threw my hair up in like a half-hour and re-used a prom dress. Yeah, thanks, I know it looks really nice, but really I don’t put much effort into what I look like.”
As we all know, of course, the judges are really looking at what’s on the inside.
I was contestant number 10, and as each girl resurfaced after her interview, the others discretely preyed on her knowledge, wanting to know what kind of questions were asked in order to formulate some exceptional responses beforehand.
I didn’t quite care. I entered into the interview hoping to fully express my undying love for Ireland and service through my responses. The four judges sat on a panel, I sat awkwardly close in front of them and answered questions for about five minutes. They were, of course, on a time limit because the dancing, food and drinking was more important. I’d have to agree.
After the interviews, the 11 contestants and I ate some sandwiches and fruit (must keep the pageant girls skinny) and then took some solo and group photos. I guess this was my first shot at modeling; it took me 10 minutes to decide where to place my arms.
We then entered into the large ballroom where there was a large stage and many tables filled with guests of all ages dressed to the nines. The music started and soon the Irish were jiving, waltzing and smiling through set dances as the band played old Irish hits.
Around 9 p.m. we had to line up with our escorts to walk across the ballroom. Two bagpipers led a group of about 30 Irish dancers from the Rince Ri School of Irish Dance. As they danced, we lined up with our escorts. I did not have one and was assigned to walk with the president of the association’s husband. A large age gap, yes, but at least his tux matched my dress.
We walked across the ballroom, lined up onstage in front of the eager audience and then waved when we were introduced. I tried to stand like a pageant lady, which of course means I had no idea how to stand, and I believe my wave looked like a cross between Miss America’s delicate gesture and a raptor claw.
Then the festivities continued. Supposedly the judges were watching our every move, and this prompted me to talk to strangers and do the twist with a nun. I tried to learn dances and had to hold myself back from guzzling pints of Guinness. I was not completely sure if an Irish pageant condoned drinking.
11 p.m. rolls around. It’s decision time. We all congregate around the stage, and some girls giggled, trying to decide who they think the winner is. The dang photographer kept snapping photos, and since most of the girls knew I was writing a story on this, they began to ask me if I was a spy who actually knew the results from the get-go. Not true.
On stage we go, and sweating in the spotlight I stood waiting as the MC started to announce the winners. Second runner up, first runner up and the winner is… not me. The new Miss Mayo is Caitlin Lotty, and she is all smiles and instantly congratulates all contestants with so much joy even I could not stop smiling.
“I am totally floored! I can’t believe this!” Caitlin said. And as she was crowned and given flowers, all the guests clapped and clapped as her mother jumped around with excitement.
Cue the music and dancing, and everyone continued to drink and be merry. I had a pint of Guinness, did some networking and left with a large grin.
I lost the pageant, yes, but I now know of an adorable Irish tradition located in a great Irish center in Philadelphia. Although this experience does not quite add up to a free trip to Ireland, I still had fun. Cheers, Mayo Association, thanks for a good night.