One of the stars of Pittsburgh’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade is the young woman crowned Miss Smiling Irish Eyes. The honor, presented for more than 50 years, promotes Irish culture and heritage.
Applicants must be between the ages of 17 and 22, of Irish birth or descent and of good moral character. Involvement in the community and Irish culture is a must. Of course, winners march or ride in the annual parade.
One of the earliest recipients was Mary Madigan Kennedy, who was active with the Irish Society for Education and Charity, the parade’s umbrella organization. She died in 2012 but her sister, Peggy Cooney of Green Tree, still runs the competition.
Miss Smiling Irish Eyes of 1967 was Patti Burns, who became a respected news anchor at KDKA-TV. Ms. Burns died of lung cancer at age 49 in 2001.
Patricia Ann Cloonan, 22, of Ross, won in 1992 and was invited to compete for the title of Maiden of the Mournes. That event, designed to promote tourism in Northern Ireland, is still held in the seaside town of Warrenpoint, near a mountain range called the Mournes.
“Since then, we have sent our Miss Smiling Irish Eyes every year,” Mrs. Cooney said. The young women participate in a week of events and meet people from all over the world. Ms. Cloonan is married, has four children and owns a local restaurant.
Laura Allison, another Miss Smiling Irish Eyes, became the first American woman to win Maiden of the Mournes. She received 500 pounds, a lovely piece of jewelry, some Irish china and an invitation to return the following year as a judge.
In 1993, Maura Jennings Stacey of Penn Hills was Miss Smiling Irish Eyes during the blizzard that descended on the St. Patrick’s Day Parade of that year. Snow was falling heavily when the parade started at 10 a.m. By day’s end, more than 23 inches of snow blanketed the city.
“For some reason, I had tennis shoes on,” Mrs. Stacey recalled. Film footage of the parade appeared on television news broadcasts in Philadelphia.
“There were a few bagpipers. No one stopped because you just wanted to get done,” Mrs. Stacey said.
Later, she traveled with her family to Ireland to compete in the Maid of the Mournes contest.
“My mom had never been to Ireland. My Dad got to reconnect with his family. All of his cousins are over there. It turned out to be a blessing,” Mrs. Stacey recalled.
Others who have worn the crown include Meredith McDonough, now a television news caster in Orlando, Fla., and Megan Schiller, a news caster in South Bend, Ind. Rita Allison earned a doctorate in English literature and is teaching.
Lauren Byrne, crowned in 2002, is executive director of Lawrenceville United, a community organization. Her sister, Bridget Byrne, won in 2009. She is a teaching associate at the Neighborhood Academy in Stanton Heights.
Finally, Margaret Philbin, crowned in 1974, jokes that she was three when she won. Now a public information officer with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, she joined other women who have worn the crown for a reunion in 2012 by marching in the parade together that year.
“I did it in heels. That’s what I’m really proud of,” Ms. Philbin said.