The Rose of Tralee, Maria Walsh, addressed a packed out GMB last Wednesday. Hosted by the Students’ Union and Trinity TV, the Philadelphia woman spoke of the importance of her Irish roots, her experience of living overseas, being the first openly LGBT rose and the upcoming marriage equality referendum.
Addressing the festival’s stereotype as a “Lovely Girls” competition – a Father Ted reference many say haunts the Rose of Tralee festival – and how she didn’t understand the negative connotations associated with the concept of being a “lovely lady”. Commending the festival for being more progressive than people give it credit for, Walsh spoke in glowing terms about her fellow competitors, calling them “beautiful, confident, extremely professional and ridiculously educated and full of banter and craic”. She assured the audience that despite the fact that she has short hair, tattoos and is the first openly gay rose, she was certainly not the first modern rose.
She also emphasised the sense of family inherent in the competition, speaking about the friendships formed and her confidence of a warm welcome in any of the seventy centres worldwide by her “rose sisters”.
Turning to her last six months as Rose of Tralee, she mentioned her favourite moments as being her presentation with a Mayo jersey in Croke Park, meeting members of the public and her visit to Kolkata with the Hope Foundation.
Turning to the future, she mentioned a forthcoming visit to Chernobyl with the Adi Roche Foundation and her role as ambassador for non-profit organisation Development Perspectives.
When asked about the media reaction to her sexuality, she praised the Irish Sun article by Aoife Bannon in which she first came out publicly as “truthful, warm and genuine”.
As the floor was opened to questions, Walsh was asked her thoughts on the upcoming marriage equality referendum. Although the position of Rose of Tralee is an apolitical one, she decided she was “sassy and culchie enough” to comment, insisting that she wasn’t worried about what way people voted, but hoped that they voted at all, emphasising the importance of civic duties and respect for all opinions. She also stated that marriage should not be about sexual orientation but rather a respectful and compassionate relationship, saying that she “wouldn’t brush everyone with the same colour, otherwise we wouldn’t have a rainbow”.
When asked about the media reaction to her sexuality, she praised the Irish Sun article by Aoife Bannon in which she first came out publicly as “truthful, warm and genuine”. She noted it had also reported on the other aspects of her personality, such as the fact that she’s a Pioneer and her volunteering interests, which she thought emphasised the fact that her sexuality is only one aspect of her personality. She added that she hoped the article would open up a conversation about sexual orientation, particularly amongst young people.
As the Q&A drew to a close, Walsh concluded by reiterating her praise for the festival, emphasising that the televised competition is only one aspect of it and highlighted the opportunities competitors get through meeting corporate clients, NGOs and politicians, as well as empowering women such as Adi Roche,Lily O’Brien and Mary Ann O’Brien. She finished with a call for audience members to attend and indeed enter the competition themselves.
Photo: Kevin O’Rourke