Kelly Schlittenhardt said she always had a close relationship with her grandfather, so when he encouraged her to enter the Miss Irish America pageant competition at the Irish American Society of Nassau, Suffolk and Queens she listened.
“If I know you, you’ll blow them away with your talent,” Schlittenhardt said her grandfather, James Rafferty, told her.
Schlittenhardt took her grandfather’s advice and won the competition on June 29, singing Schubert’s Ave Maria and accompanying herself on piano.
Schlittenhardt said she enjoyed more than just winning the pageant, which was held in the Irish American Society’s headquarters at 207 Willis Ave. in Mineola.
“I enjoyed it. All the girls were lovely,” she said.
Six young women competed for the title in the competition’s fifth year, according to Betty McLoughlin, past president of the Mineola-based Irish American Society.
Contestants in the competition, McLoughin said, must be between the ages of 18 and 25 with Irish ancestry - one Irish parent or grandparent.
McLoughlin said a panel of five judges from outside the Irish American Society interviews each candidate preceding the talent competition, which entails singing, playing an instrument or dancing. First prize is $500 and second prize is $250.
The winner appears at events through the succeeding year, including an appearance at the Irish American Society’s annual Harvest Moon Ball, and marching in the Mineola St. Patrick’s Parade and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City.
“I’ve very excited to do it as Miss Irish America,” Schlittenhardt said of the New York parade.
But it won’t be the first time she’s marched in the parade. She marched with her grandparents in the parade when she was 18 years old. They marched with her father’s landsmen from County Ossaly.
Schlittenhardt’s grandparents took her with them to visit Ireland when she was 16 years old, showing her where they were born - her mother is from Limerick - and her grandfather’s old schoolhouse.
She said she also spent a lot of time with her grandparents, James and Maureen Rafferty, in their New Hyde Park home when she was growing up. And she still visit often when they have parties with their friends.
“When all their friends get together at their house, I usually go as well. They have me at the piano and I’ll play songs and they teach me songs. It’s a great connection to the Irish culture,” she said, adding that she’s always had a strong affinity for Irish music.
Schlittenhardt said she already had fond memories of the Irish American Society, attending events there when she was growing up and winning a bicycle in a Christmas raffle there when she was eight years old.
A resident of Islip, Schlittenhardt attended Islip High School and graduated with a bachelor of science in music and a concentration in vocal performance from LIU Post University in May.
Schlittenhardt, 22, said she started studying piano at age eight and violin at age 10. She started singing in high school and said she has aspirations for a career in musical theater.
“I’m going to start auditioning for cruise lines and national tours. My real goal is to be on Broadway,” Schlittenhardt said.
Her first appearance at as Miss Irish America will be at Irish American Night in Eisenhower Park on Aug. 5 and she said she may sing a tune with her uncle, who plays accordion.
The runner-up in the pageant is Bronwyn Hagan, 20, whose parents are Thomas Hagan from Moyne, Co. Longford and Margaret Fitzsimons-Hagan, whose parents hail from Cavan and Longford.
Hagan recently completed her sophomore year at the City College of New York where she is pursuing a double major in biology and psychology. She said she plans to attend dental school and become an oral surgeon.
“Irish dance has always been a passion of mine,” she said. Hagan said she competed both nationally and internationally.
She said she visits Ireland every year, and recently became a member of the Longford Association of New Year. She said she also enjoys participating in the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade as well as attending dinner dances and Irish events “to keep the tradition alive.”