The Mary from Dungloe festival is nearly here and that means that 22-year-old Debbie Rodgers will soon be handing her tiara over to the next lucky young lady. Debbie says it’s been “a wonderful year” and she’s enjoyed every minute.
“This last year has been wonderful, just incredible. I can’t believe the local people – they’re so supportive, it’s floored me. From the week I entered as the Dungloe Mary, they’ve been great, and very heartfelt. It means a lot.
“The night that I won it and we came down the town took my breath away. The town was absolutely blocked. I’ve never seen anything like it.
“We were on a float and I couldn’t believe all the people I knew who were there with cameras. I heard they even shut up McDaid’s Bar in Burtonport so everyone could come down.
“Each of the Mary’s sort of adopts a bar in Dungloe as well and the owner of Breedy’s said it just emptied out for the parade.”
“Over the year, I got to see a lot of the county and attended a lot of charity events. You don’t actually realise how much fantastic work goes on in Donegal until you go to all these events.
“For some reason, I went to a lot of motorbike runs and my mother joked that I was really the Honda Mary!”
So what’s next for this ebullient, multi-talented lass?
Debbie’s ambition is to use music therapy to help children with autism. She already has a degree in Music and English and now plans on building on that.
“I’m going back to UCD to do a Masters in Musicology. My dissertation will be about the therapeutic benefits of music. This is one of the few courses available that will allow me to explore the aspects of music that I want to.”
Music has always been “a massive” part of life in the Rodgers’ household.
“Pauline Glackin is my aunt. My father Joe plays guitar, as do pretty much all of my uncles. And all my aunties sing.
“My grandfather, who was from Belfast, was also big into music. He travelled around playing support for ?? and he tells great stories from those days. He moved to Dungloe to get away from The Troubles.”
Debbie’s father taught her to play guitar when she was just seven –“I had a little baby one!” Surprisingly, though, she didn’t study music at secondary school.
“Music wasn’t on offer at Rosses Community School until around 2007 and I didn’t take it up. I had too many other subjects and it was a bit too late for me.”
So she found other ways to develop her musical talents. “I was in the Crickamore Marching Band from the age of thirteen to sixteen and I absolutely loved that.”
She also played guitar, accompanying her sister Gemma who sang ,in talent competitions.
She danced as well. “I did Irish dancing from the age of five up until I was eighteen, with the Anne Marie McCafferty School.
“But I hated the competitive element. I was a very anxious child. I’d be so silent in the car on the way to the feis and a different person, laughing and chatting, on the way back.
“It was the same in the talent competions. Even though I sing too, I was happier just playing the guitar while Gemma sang.”
Debbie found her vocation just over two years ago, when she experienced something that left a lasting impression on her.
“My Mum Mary looked after a woman who was in the Ballybofey Nursing Home and is in Harbour Lights now. She took Alzheimer’s and can’t remember anyone’s names at all. One day, my sister and I sang Panis Angelicus while Dad played guitar and she sang along. She remembered every word and it was in Latin. That showed me just how powerful music can be.
“While I was at UCD, I did a dissertation on The Benefits of Music on a Child and I did a chapter in it specifically about kids with Asperger’s Syndrome.
“After I complete my Master’s, I hope to go on to do a teacher training course.”
Meanwhile, she’ll keep working weekends and summers at McElwee’s Pharmacy. “Gerard and Mary are wonderful, you couldn’t ask for a better place to work or a nicer boss.”
The pharmacy was the setting for a particularly romantic moment last month, when Debbie’s boyfriend, Patrick O’Donnell, who teaches History and English at Rosses Community School, popped in for a quick visit.
“I met Patrick at work just after last year’s festival. He bought a pair of sunglasses.
“I got the shock of my life one day last month when he walked into McElwee’s while I was working and started playing Lady Antebellum’s ‘Can’t take my eyes off you’ at full volume.
“He got down on his knees, took a diamond ring out of his pocket and asked me to marry him.
“We had talked about it but still I was completely shocked, especially because he proposed in the shop.”
The couple don’t plan to tie the knot straightaway though.
“It’ll be three years at least before the wedding. I want to be financially able. I’m not going to be a kept woman!”
Considering Debbie’s warm, engaging personality, her strong work ethic and determination as well as her many talents, there’s not much chance of that happening!