In Dungloe - There’s Online One True Mary

Donegal’s “Mary of Dungloe” festival brings people from all over the world. But the flavor is still very local.

By Ces Cassidy

Mary of Dungloe Festival, Donegal, Ireland
Mary of Dungloe Festival, Donegal, Ireland

It took 37 years, but a local girl finally won the title of “Mary of Dungloe” at the festival of the same name in the Rosses area of North West Donegal. It was big news to townspeople, and to the 15,000 plus enthusiasts who come each year from the USA, Britain and France to partake of this celebration that features concerts, an agricultural fair and exuberant parades up and down Main Street, all with a marvelously local flavor.

Irish Culture Festival, Donegal, Ireland
Irish Culture Festival, Donegal, Ireland

The 20 or so “Marys,” competitors for the title “Mary of Dungloe,” came this year from such far flung spots as New York, Glasgow, Melbourne and Bayonne, New Jersey and, of course, all corners of Ireland. Entrants, who are required to have an Irish family connection, are treated like Royals during the 10 day festival, and the winning “Mary” receives 1,000 Euros, as well as jewelery, cosmetics and a trophy. Festival organizers stress that a pretty face alone is not enough to win the coveted title. “This is not a beauty contest,” stresses Judy Lea, a member of the festival committee, “It’s all about personality.” The winner helps represent the town of Dungloe at marketing functions for one year.

And the winner is…

Dungloe native Lisa McKelvey, last year’s winner, is a 21-year old student studying english and politics at Queens University, Belfast. She’s also a world champion Irish Dancer. The big crowd on Main Street let out an unusually loud roar as the local hero’s victory was announced on the final Sunday night of the festival. The 10-day festival takes place every year in late July. For exact dates, call 011 353 74 9521254.

Who was Mary From Dungloe?

Donegal, Ireland: Mary from Dungloe Festival
Donegal, Ireland: Mary from Dungloe Festival

“Mary From Dungloe” was a real 19th century character, who became a cultural icon because of a song that became a hit almost 100 years after her death. She lived in the townland of Lettercaugh, near Dungloe, in the mid-1800’s. Renowned for her beauty, she was the youngest daughter of Paddy and Annie Gallagher. On “Summers Fair Day” in Dungloe, in 1861, she met, and fell in love with, a young local man who had just returned from working in the USA.

The young man, whose name is unknown, had sufficient wealth to provide for a wife and a home in Ireland. But Mary’s parents, though they’d been initially been in favour of the match, “took against” him, and forbade the marriage. Broken-hearted, Mary’s young man returned to the USA in the fall. Mary was never reunited with him. She eventually emigrated to New Zealand, marrying another man there she had met on the boat, and died shortly after giving birth to a baby boy.

She entered the realm of legend in the 1960’s, when stonemason and composer Padraig MacCumhaill, who was a neighbour of the Gallagher family, wrote the ballad “Mary From near Dungloe” about the unfortunate lovers. In 1968, a group called the “Emmet Spiceland” recorded it, and scored a big hit, capturing the number one slot of the Irish charts for many weeks. A committee that was forming to promote a new festival in Dungloe at the time decided to name it after her. The ballad and the festival continue to keep Mary’s sad tale alive.

Song: Mary From Dungloe

Oh then fare thee well, sweet Donegal,
The Rosses and Gweedore,
I’m crossin the main ocean
Where the foaming billows roar
It breaks my heart, from you to part,
Where I spent many happy days,
Farewell to kind relations,
I am bound for Amerikay.

0h then Mary you’re my heart’s delight,
My pride and only care,
It was your cruel father
Would not let me stay here.
But absence makes the heart grow fond,
And when I am over the main,
May the Lord protect my darling girl
‘Till I return again.

And I wish I was in sweet Dungloe,
And seated on the grass,
And by my side a bottle of wine,
And on my knee a lass,
I’d call for liquor of the best,
And I’d pay before I would go,
And I’d roll my Mary in my arms,
In the town of sweet Dungloe.