I met with 2015 Rose of Tralee Winner, Maria Walsh.
Like all things popular, the International Rose of Tralee Competition has received its fair share of mixed commentary in the past. From being compared to a beauty pageant and parodied in what is now a famous Father Ted episode, where Ted presents a “Lovely Girls Competition”, the festival is no stranger to being both mocked and marvelled.
But for 2015 Rose of Tralee winner, Maria Walsh, being called a lovely lady is something she views as a compliment. “There’s a lot of talk of Father Tedisms, but I don’t know. I really am confused as to when lovely lady became such a negative connotation. I would love to be called a lovely lady”, begins the 27 year old who was born in Boston, but raised in Co. Mayo. “You meet someone and you say she is lovely, what’s wrong with that?”
Having moved back to the United States to work, Maria is currently based in Philadelphia where she has lived for the last three years. Working for the high profile fashion company, Anthropologie, which is linked to Urban Outfitters, Maria has had a lot of explaining to do for her American colleagues with regard to what the Rose of Tralee actually is.
“When I speak about it with them they see the similarities to Miss America, and I say ‘No, it’s far from it’, but I understand why they would think that. For me, it’s a celebration of the quality of Irish women in our diaspora” Despite the confusion among her workmates as to what the Rose of Tralee actually entails, Maria admits that the company came to a standstill for her stint on television representing Philadelphia in Tralee.
“The entire company watched the Tralee show. A lot of them have generations of Irishness in them, so it was great for them”
.The Rose of Tralee had been on Maria’s mind for some time and with only a few more years left to enter, Maria decided to submit her name in 2014.
“When I moved from Boston to Mayo I grew up watching the festival and like many women it was something I wanted to do, it was always on the bucket list and as I got older I understood everything it encompassed .I wanted to represent Mayo or some place I called home and that really became Philadelphia for me for me in the last few years”
Being an active member of the Irish community in Philadelphia, Maria has fallen even more in love with her Irish heritage and culture since moving from her native West of Ireland home in Shrule, Co. Mayo.
“Yes heritage becomes more important when you move away. I play football so immediately wherever I go I try and find a football team. You just want to embrace what you know and you meet other people who’ve travelled the world and who are trying to build a base. Philadelphia has a wonderful Irish community, a lot of older members, members from Mayo and Tyrone. We are a bit of a new age coming through at the moment.
Having enjoyed her experience as a regional rose, Maria was shocked when Dáithí O Sé crowned her as International Rose of Tralee last August. Being a bit more outspoken than former winners, Maria Walsh believes her family and indeed the entire Rose community where surprised by her clinching of the title.
“No I wasn’t expecting it”, says the Boston born brunette. “I think the Rose of Tralee committee are still shocked to be honest! People at home only see what’s on TV. It’s such a shame they don’t see the real depth and quality of each girl. For me, I was so lucky because I got the chance to meet fifty-nine other young women from different parts of the world. It was such an exciting time”
Winning the Rose of Tralee title has opened many doors for Maria, allowing her to develop as a person and achieve things she would never have thought possible, such as charity and community work in both Ireland and further afield.
“I travelled to Kolkata with the Hope foundation in November. It was a fantastic experience. It was a different part of the world, probably something I would never have seen and that’s what’s so brilliant about this Rose of Tralee family, it gives you the opportunity to do that. I also travelled to South Africa and will be travelling to Chernobyl with Adi Roche”
Another aspect of Maria’s personality which she holds dear to heart is the fact she is a Pioneer, abstaining from alcohol and other substances. In a culture where night-life and socialising seems to revolve around alcohol and binge-drinking, I ask the Rose has she ever struggled with her life-long pledge?
“I grew up with it”, begins the Rose in her unique accent which combines both North-American and Mayo quirks. “People are more curious as to how I spend my Friday and Saturday nights even though I’m always first on the dance floor. I get a range of questions- ‘Have you ever drank?’ ‘No’. ‘You must have had champagne?’ ‘No’.”
Since it’s a decision Maria made at the tender age of twelve, being a non-drinker is an integral part of her identity. “It’s fairly easy for me. I think it is harder for people who have drank and then choose to give it up than it is for me. This is how I’ve always been. I made the decision to be a pioneer when I was 12. My mother is a pioneer so it’s no foreign concept to me”
Another aspect of Maria’s identity, which she spoke about upon winning the competition, is being gay. As being the first openly gay Rose of Tralee, was it difficult for the Rose to publicly come out as homosexual?
“No, because I have spoken out as being gay for a number of years”, admits Maria in her never less than eloquent style. “My folks knew and so did my friends. It was just something that was one aspect of me, Maria Walsh, another part of my identity. I would talk more about being a Pioneer than being a member of the LGBT community. Like I said earlier it’s wonderful that we can allow a young person to feel more comfortable in their own skin. I hope that if one person feels more comfortable in themselves and are able to talk about their sexuality with their close friends or family, then I have definitely fulfilled my role as a Rose”
Like many gay or straight people, we all struggle with something”, continues the Rose “We’ve got an incredibly high suicide rate, particularly with young people, sexuality can be the number 1 culprit of that. It takes a while regardless if you’re 14 or 27 like I am, but you need to remain in the mind-set that you are here for a reason”
While Maria is obviously an ambassador for members of the LGBT community and young people as a group, the term “role-model” is not something that Maria likes to refer to herself as “Role model doesn’t sit with me. We’ve so many other great role models for the LGBT community. If I help one person I’ve fulfilled everything I’ve ever wanted with the Rose of Tralee”
Continuing in our conversation about equality and sexuality, I ask whether or not the Rose would identify herself as a feminist, a concept which has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent months due to celebrities such as Emma Watson doing wonders for the cause. Perhaps not expecting the question the Rose instead promotes general equality.
“There is parts of all of us that should be feminists” says the Rose “Women in the workplace, women in the home, I am a young woman and I push for any rights that promote equality between men and women”
Maria and the Rose of Tralee team are currently completing a gruelling fifteen-day trip around Ireland visiting schools, charities and other Rose centres in order to promote the Rose of Tralee Festival. In a world where young people seem more engrossed in the idea of social networking, rather than networking in front of an a jam-packed dome in Tralee, Maria and the team have quite a task on their hands encouraging young women to enter. Maria’s answer to recruiting entries for the festival is very much Carpe Diem-like, encouraging young women to grab life’s opportunities.
“Life is too short, you can always say maybe next year, but the age group is 18-27, so there’s not a whole bunch of next years within that”, says Maria “We all have great personal stories to share and I think a lot of people get lost in the idea that you need a talent -that you need to be able to sing or dance or recite a poem, but that’s not the case.It teaches you to be a lot more comfortable in your own skin and I don’t think we promote it as much as we should. It helps you prepare for college and work life. And how do deal with different personalities and charities, like I have”
As my time with the Rose in demand comes to a close, I ask her one final question – how would she like to leave her own special mark as Rose of Tralee?
“I’d like to gain awareness for how great the festival is and get people to respect it”, muses Maria philosophically “It’s far ahead of its time than people give it credit for and always has been. I’d like to raise awareness and get people to talk about it more.
“Sometimes I say that I wish there were more days in the week or I wish I could have achieved a lot more, but you have to take each day as it comes, there is always tomorrow”