RÍONA O’Mahony jokes she must have been pre-destined to win this year’s Miss Cork, as her name translates as ‘Little Queen’. The 20-year-old from Cobh was still in a state of shock at winning this year’s title when The Echo called her, the morning after the night before.
“I woke up in complete disbelief to see the crown on my desk,” said Ríona, a second year Irish and History student at UCC.
Nonetheless, the young woman was remarkably composed for her first official interview after taking the crown and has lots of exciting and original plans on how to use her platform for the coming 12 months, including to promote a message of supporting local.
“That comes from my love of the Irish language, and my desire to preserve Irish culture and traditions and I think the best way to do that is by supporting local businesses,” she said.
As well as studying full-time, she works part time in Bakestone Café in Carrigtwohill, and her mum Ali previously ran her own wedding cake business, so she’s well used to seeing what it takes to run your own enterprise, and all the work that goes on behind the scenes.
Ríona would also like to use her Miss Cork year to promote Irish, and having attended a gaelscoil until fourth year, she loves everything about our native language.
“My dad Kieran is also a history fanatic, something I’ve picked up off him, and I think one love sort of lends itself to the other,” she said.
Ultimately, she wants to be a secondary school teacher, and during the coming months she’d like to become a role model for younger students and show that there’s more to the language than the drudgery of the modh coinníollach.
“I think the way that Irish is taught in schools can sometimes discourage people, there’s so much more to it than grammar. It’s such a gorgeous and poetic language, with wonderful sayings.
“Since Paul Mescal had his cúpla focal on the red carpet, there’s been a bit of a revival which is great and I’d like to do my bit too,” she said, hitting the ground running with a nice smattering of gaeilge on her Insta stories from the Miss Cork final.
She got lucky with her on-stage question on the night of the competition.
“The top 10 girls got asked a question in front of the audience and mine was ‘What’s your favourite thing about Cork?’ I said that I love our heritage and tradition and would love to push an Irish revival here, and in the Miss Ireland competition,” she said.
Describing herself as a people person, she said she’s really only found her confidence in herself in the past while. Her first year in college, she admits, was a little overwhelming. With over 300 students studying arts, making friends was challenging to begin with, and social media didn’t help. In fact, she thinks it’s one of the single biggest challenges facing third level students right now.
“It just brings pressure on how you’re supposed to look, and to always look like you’re having a great time, and it’s easy to forget that it’s just highlights and not real life.
“Social media negatively impacted my mental health when I was in first year and just made it all seem a bit more daunting,” she honestly admits.
“I was very lucky though with a recent history group trip to Rome where I made some great friends, and it’s easier then to expand your circle. My advice to anyone in the same situation is that, as daunting as it might be, to sit beside someone you might not usually at a lecture and get chatting. College is a great way to broaden your horizons and make friends with people you wouldn’t normally meet.”
Right now Riona’s living with her mum Ali Cullinane in Cobh and is commuting to the city but she’s hoping to move up next September. Her parents, she says, are ‘both amazing.’ They separated when she was 14 but she says they’re incredibly supportive of her, and her sister Lauren, 24, who is currently in Australia and was disappointed not to have been there to see her younger sis on her big night.
“The most emotional part of winning the crown was seeing how proud my parents are of me,” she said. Riona also had a group of friends and co-workers there to see her moment of glory, and boyfriend Jamie Collins from Midleton.
When she’s not working, or studying, you’re likely to find her with her nose in a book.
“I know it sounds boring, but I’m a book- worm, and love reading. I also like yoga and pilates, but it’s mainly books!”
At the moment she’s reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and her guilty pleasure is anything by American fantasy author, Sarah J Maas.
“I also love Downton Abbey and Call The Midwife – any period drama really!” she laughed.
And, to any knockers of the pageant, she has this to say: “It’s all about beauty with a purpose. The pageant enables girls to use their confidence to support good causes.”
For now it’s about doing her end of term exams, enjoying what the year brings, including the Miss Ireland competition in September, and selecting her chosen charity for the year.
It’s a cliché, she said, but it’s about grabbing all the opportunities that come her way in this exciting new chapter.
Other well-deserved winners on the night were Rachel O’Leary, Miss Cork City, and Molly Dennehy, People’s Choice.