Saturday, November 22, 2008

Pádraigín McGillicuddy & the Rose of Tralee

© Maureen Hurley photo Literrata

I first met radio talk show host and Irish scholar Pádraigín McGillicuddy in the early '70s at the Rose of Tralee Beauty Pageant in San Francisco.* I was a highly unlikely Rose contestant, edging toward hippiedom while my straightlaced maiden Republican Aunt Jane was the tall, elegant one in the family.

Jane Reilly, an artist's model for the 1950s Gypsy Rose Gallo Girl billboard ads, was really a first generation San Franciscan Wild Irish Rose whose face was plastered on backs of magazine covers and Sunday paper supplements nationwide.

The Gallo ads were so ubiquitous in the 1950s and 60s we never thought to save them. It was disconcerting to finish reading the Sunday Funnies and glimpse my aunt's face on the back page. People were always stopping her on the street and saying, "Gee, you look familiar." My Aunt Jane met a lot of people that way.

After serving in the Korean War, my Uncle John was discharged in New York, and was greeted by a billboard of Jane, larger than life, looming above him in Times Square. He didn't know about the Gallo ad as he was overseas. "Hey, that's my sister!" he yowled to a fellow soldier who said, "Yeah right! You and what army?" to his query "What's she doin' up there?"

My Aunt Jane had that towering Times Square effect over people. The only person I met that had taller stature than her was Celtic entrepreneur John Patrick Whoolley, the passionate Irish radio producer, and founder/publisher of the West Coast's first Irish American newspaper, The Irish Herald, in 1962. With the founding of the paper, came the Irish Cultural Center in 1964.

John also opened the Irish Castle Shop on Geary Street and began the first West Coast chartered service to Ireland through his Hibernia Travel Service on Aer Lingus. He was a driving force in the rebuilding of the new United Irish Cultural Center out by the zoo.

John Whooley, a feisty red-headed West Corkonian, was a central figure in uniting not just the San Francisco, but the West Coast Irish diaspora as he was forever organizing Irish political and cultural events. John was also forever campaigning for a united Ireland, with "no border, no partition." He'd say, "Peace is coming soon..."

John was perhaps best known as the radio show host of the syndicated Irish music program, "Bits from Blarney." Every Sunday, my grandmother religiously tuned into his show.

Radio reception was poor in the crenulated folds of the hills of West Marin, but if she placed her hands on the radio, just so, and lo, it was a miracle—the station came in crystal clear. I was often deployed as an extra local hands on antenna. That's how I learned so many Irish ballads—holding onto that radio, as if with the hands of a faith healer, while looking longingly out the back door.

At one point or another, everybody got roped into one or another cultural event of John Whooley's. I guess they were in desperate need of more Rose of Tralee contestants if they were recruiting me. I was no Maureen O'Hara, though she was my namesake. (It was my mother's name too.) Or was it Maureen O'Sullivan?

Beauty pageants were not exactly vernacular in the 1970s, so I was cannon fodder for the judges. A hijacked body to fill the ranks. I don't recall if bribes were involved but I do remember a rather rare bribe in the form of a greenback $20 bill coming my way. I suspect my aunt Jane was on the Rose of Tralee committee... They needed a girl to represent each of Ireland's 32 counties, and they were a few counties short of a beauty pageant. And there I was, a deer caught in the headlights...

© Maureen Hurley photo Literrata

I grew up tomboy, on horseback, I was wild as the deer in the hills, as my grannie believed in nature, not nurture. On the occasions when I had to don a dress, I often wore other kid's hand-me-downs.

I'll never forget the time I wore my new-to-me gingham dress to the church social in Lagunitas only to have a snotty Nicasio girl tell me my hand-me-down with it's ruffled neck and sleeves was her charity give-away. I was so humiliated. When the hippie movement flowered, I was more than relieved to be liberated from the censure of the fashion police.

Between my horses, sibling hierarchy bouts with my brother and an unfortunate maiden toboggan run conjoined with the back of my best friend Sue Williams' head, my nose had taken on a few rounds more than Robert Mitchum's and looked the worse for it. My sole interests were horses, Ireland and art.

Suffice to say, with a deviated septum, I was self-conscious about my Streisand beak and looks—or lack thereof. My Aunt Jane had even sent me to the Patricia Ford Modeling Agency in San Francisco to get some poise. But it didn't take.

"You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," my grannie always said. In those days, I had long hair to my waist (still do), I bit my nails like a mad beaver (still true), never wore makeup (still true). I was barely 5 foot two, straight as a board and skinny as a rail (alas, true no more!). The Ford Modeling agency merely made me feel worse about my self image. They coldly looked me up and down with practiced eyes like I was questionable horseflesh at an auction and they found me wanting. I lasted about three sessions before I rebelled....

On horseback I was a centaur riding the wind but afoot I was gawky and shy— the proverbial wild wallflower, I'd never been out on a date, never went to Homecoming or Senior Prom. I preferred the hills and ridges of the great outdoors. I think my aunt was trying to socialize and rebuild me from the ground up. She had her work cut out for her.

Unlike Sarah Bullock in "Miss Congeniality," I never transitioned from ugly cygnet into graceful swan. I didn't have a coach like Michael Caine niggling my every step along the way. I was more like the scrapper in "Little Miss Sunshine." Besides, it was the surreal '70s, everybody was tuning in, turning on and dropping out of the "oh wow, far out" reality like flies anyway.

To be fair, the Rose of Tralee contest winner was selected for personality, poise and cultural ambassador potential—there was no bathing suit section. A good thing too as I usually swam in my birthday suit. Originally, only Irish-born women were allowed to compete, the contest was later expanded to include anyone of Irish descent. Regional finals are held in June, and that year, girls from all over the world—from Rome to Sydney—competed, but to date, a San Francisco girl has never yet won a contest.

We were all lined up backstage ready to go on stage to announce the county we were representing when I overheard one girl say "County Longford," she deliberately took my assigned county! I couldn't compete without a county. There I was, standing in the wings, literally without a county. That's how I got into this mess to begin with.

After a a hurried huddle behind the curtain with my aunt, I discovered that I had Reilly relatives in County Cavan too, so there I was, Miss Cavan. I'd never even heard of County Cavan before that evening, and I mispronounced it in front of God and all. Ouch!

I'm the one with eyes closed.


Neither "lovely and fair," like in the Rose of Tralee song, I was in way over my league competing with the polished city-bred Irish American beauties bedecked in their pastel taffeta prom concoctions and they let me know I was not welcome in no uncertain terms—especially some of the Healey Irish dancers.

When I was in the loo stall, right before the Finale, I overheard the girls gossiping about someone in the powder room: "Did you see that get-up she's wearing? What a slut." As I stepped out of the stall, I wondered who it was they were shredding to bits until I overheard: "Yeah, and did you see, she's got no bra on either."

A pause. I glanced down at my scoop-necked red dress with its prim white Fauntleroy collar wings. You cold hear the angels tap-dancing on a pinhead. We all froze, even the air stood still. I faked a deaf ear, but my cheeks aflame, betrayed me. There was nothing I could do. I buttoned the matching bolero jacket to my slinky halter dress, with its comical red Humpty-Dumpty buttons, all the way up to the neck.

The only way out was to push brazenly through. The contestants parted like the Red Sea—silk rustling like the outgoing tide—as I marched up to the vanity mirror. I applied some red lipstick, turned and smacked my lips. One girl sufficiently recovered her wits to say, "You look kinda nice in makeup, you really should wear it more often." I said, "Peace, man. Beauty is more than skin-deep," and walked into the spotlight.

But I was crestfallen. I had tried so hard to fit in. For the big occasion, I even bought a brand-new $17.95 polyester knit cranberry wine dress at the Macy's sale rack on 4th Street in San Rafael. Maybe I had been a bit too practical as I'd bought a dress that I could wear again later—sans the prim white collar—not like those girls in their elaborate strapless quilted chocolate bon-bon box frilled gowns. In comparison, my svelte halter dress was a real culture-clash Jezebel number. It never dawned on me that wearing red would also make me a prime target.

One of the judges, Pádraigín was savvy. She was the only one who made me feel at ease. Uppity women, we were both there under false pretenses. Instead of asking inane questions that I couldn't answer, she asked me about my horses and to explain to the panel how to paint or how to make a clay pot. Never articulate, I relaxed. A vortex opened in the distance of air between judge and contestant and I was able to talk to her about what I knew best.

I think we both knew the Rose of Tralee Contest was nonsense (and probably rigged, to boot). Never much of a joiner, I didn't want to be part of that community, I just wanted to win a free all expenses paid trip to Tralee for the winner and three runners up. I was pretty stunned to make it to the first round of ten runners up as Miss Cavan. I was either number five or seven—a prime number, thanks to Pádraigín. I was in complete shock to make it to the final heat. But of course the other judges didn't agree.

And what do you want most? Whirled peas. Right.

I still have my Rose of Tralee Miss Ireland contestant's sash, the green gilt lettering has long since faded and flaked off the white satin ribbon, but every year I haul it out and wear it St. Patrick's Day, just to buck the system. The look on people's faces is positively priceless....




* But years later, when I mentioned the pageant to Pádraigín, she didn't remember it. It had to be her. I mean, how many Pádraigíns could there have been in SF? A name as rare as the name Maureen. When I later found the press clipping, the name Tobin rang a bell—there could've been a Pádraigín Tobin. Was it merely a case of crossed wires? We never did resolve how we knew each other. But know each other, we did.

1 comment:

shug said...

My God a poet and Miss Cavan. What more do you want out of life?

My mother once entered my photo in a beautiful baby competition but i came nowhere. I think I was cute as a child, though. It all went wrong in my mid teens.