The Rose of Tralee started life as a revival of the Carnival Queen – a cunning plan to attract tourists to the town of Tralee, in County Kerry. Since its start, the event has blossomed big time and in 2014, the festival had 50 per cent of the Irish television audience, draw in 200,000 visitors and attract international attention.
The Rose of Tralee is now seen as one of Ireland’s largest and longest running festivals. The criteria for winning the festival is, astonishingly, still based on the lyrics of a romantic ballad, ‘The Rose of Tralee’, written by a wealthy 19th century merchant who was in love with a ‘lovely and fair’ maid.
To become a Rose, an entrant must take part in a Rose Selection in her local area, if selected takes part in the Regional Festival, and if selected from there takes part in the International Festival. There are now nearly 70 Rose events, held in the months leading up to the International Festival, to find the Roses that will represent Irish territories around the world.
To its critics, the Rose of Tralee is nothing more than a show of pretty girls in dresses. While the festival also judges entrants on their personality and skills, critics say it promotes archaic ideas of ‘debutante-like’ womanhood: entrants must be unmarried (although the competition only opened its doors to unmarried mothers in 2008).
However the new Rose of Tralee would have to disagree.
Maria Walsh, 27, was recently crowned Ireland’s Rose of Tralee. A few days later, she came out as gay.
“I would ask those critics who have previously said the festival is old-fashioned if they had visited Tralee over the course of a festival weekend? This was my first time in Tralee and all I experienced was a modern, fun and craic-filled time. I know the 31 other Roses who shared this moment with me were and are very far from old-fashioned. These women are classy, intelligent and identify with the many young women in this country and across the diaspora.”
While she confirmed that organisers did not know about her sexuality until a newspaper request for an interview on the subject occurred.
On her decision to come out Walsh said.
“I’m sure there’s some negative critique out there. But critique is not bad, it just makes you a better person…
… Sexuality has not got anything to do with achieving this role and being an ambassador [for Irish women]. People are saying the Rose of Tralee is now modern but it has always been modern, and if a story like that helped a few people see that, then it’s been great. I hope it would have been as positive 10 years ago as it is now, but Ireland is great for accepting any Tom, Dick or Harry, so I think even back then it would have been fine.”
While keen to stress she does not want to simply be seen as the first openly gay Rose of Tralee, Maria said she is happy to use the interest in her private life to encourage young people who may face the same situation as herself to have confidence to be who they really are.
Maria, who had a number of boyfriends while growing up, before a two-year relationship with a female colleague on a GAA team in Philadelphia, said the reaction from Rose of Tralee officials and other contestants to her news shows how open Ireland is to the topic.
“It’s great a lot of the feedback was ‘sure what does it matter’, because that’s the times we’re living in, whether we knew it or not. All of us [festival officials] sat around and said it is a great story; it was such a positive story. I texted the girls beforehand and said I have a little bit of gossip for you that’s going to hit the headlines and they were like, gee that’s great. Sexual orientation has become such a thing of the past,” she said. “If [my experience] could even help one person come out and deal with it in a positive way and have positive reinforcement around that, then my year as a Rose of Tralee has already been completed.”
Yet although Walsh may have won the Rose, the country that crowned her would still deny her the right to marry another woman; same-sex marriage remains illegal in Ireland. Despite this, some hope that Walsh’s win could influence the outcome of the referendum on same-sex marriage to be held next Spring.
Walsh refuses to comment on the referendum – as the festival’s ambassador she must remain apolitical. But there’s certainly a determination to use her newfound fame in a positive way.
“It’s fantastic if I can educate people who don’t understand what gay is like, or if I can be an example to anyone voting. Anyone can be gay.”
The Walsh has said she has received positive feedback since going public on being gay. The question of her sexuality never came up during the Rose festival and was not relevant in any case. She told The Irish Times that her achievement in winning the Rose of Tralee confounded critics of the festival who described it as old-fashioned.