Meet Ireland’s first lesbian Rose of Tralee

Rose of Tralee

Maria Walsh is sitting in a Dublin hotel after a long day of interviews with the Irish press. The night before, she appeared as a guest on Ireland’s Late Late Show, the country’s longest-running chat show.

But you would be forgiven for admitting you’d never heard of Walsh; just a few weeks ago she was an ordinary 27-year-old from County Mayo.

Then, at the end of last month, everything changed. Walsh won one of Ireland’s oldest and most popular festivals: the Rose of Tralee – a competition to find the ultimate Irish woman, judged on beauty and talent.

And there was more. Just days after she was crowned, Walsh revealed to a newspaper that she was a lesbian. In doing so, she became the first gay Rose in the festival’s 55-year history. Predictably, the revelation caused shock waves across Ireland.

Dreamt up by a group of men in a pub in 1957, 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. Little could they have known that in 2014, the festival would claim 50% of the Irish television audience, draw in 200,000 visitors and attract international attention.

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. Although Walsh, with her Natalie Portman-esque good looks is undeniably beautiful, she probably wasn’t quite what he had in mind, as she herself admits.

“It’s caused a bit of a scandal”, she tells me, with a slightly tired smile. “It’s all still very much a whirlwind.”

To its critics, the Rose of Tralee is nothing more than a show of pretty, giddy girls in dresses, sashes and strings of pearls, memorably parodied in Father Ted as the ‘Lovely Girls’ competition. While the festival also judges entrants on their personality and skills, critics say it promotes archaic ideas of ‘debutante-like’ womanhood. It speaks volumes that entrants must be unmarried and the competition only opened its doors to unmarried mothers in 2008.

But Walsh disagrees. “It’s not just about pretty dresses”, she tells me forcefully. “It was at the forefront of Irish culture and celebrating women even before its time. Over a million people watched it this year, so it’s almost comical when people say it’s irrelevant or not celebrating women in the right way.”

Yet, just days before the festival began, Ireland attracted international indignation when a woman who had been raped was forced to give birth against her will. As one Irish commentator put it, “womanhood in Ireland remains a strictly policed construct.” Many would argue that the Rose of Tralee only reinforces this view.

But Walsh believes that attitudes to the festival’s women are progressing – the overwhelmingly positive, although completely frenzied, response to her sexuality, is proof.

Yet people in Tralee tell me there are many who privately think she should not have won. And while Walsh is full of praise for the festival organisers who barely raised an eyebrow when they found out she was gay, there have been comments in the press hinting that she wouldn’t have won the title had they known beforehand.

Despite this, Walsh claims her sexuality was never a secret – she simply wasn’t asked about it.

Walsh is relentlessly upbeat about the attention she has received since. “I’m sure there’s some negative critique out there,” she says. “But critique is not bad, it just makes you a better person.

“This is how much of a boring story it is,” she says laughingly recounting the moment she knew she was gay. “I met someone on a random Friday night, as millions of people do, and instantly connected with her. And I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to be with her’.”

Walsh’s family supported her decision, although there were questions about what it would mean for her personal life and career (she has a journalism degree and now works for clothing brand Anthropologie). The Late Late Show’s presenter, Ryan Tubridy, riled some viewers by asking Walsh’s father in the audience what his ‘concerns’ about his daughter’s sexuality were.

But for Walsh there was no inner struggle, or conflict with her Catholic faith. “My friends think when I hit 50 I’ll have a nervous breakdown because I never had to worry about my inner demons. I am who I am and I’m extremely proud of who I am.”

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.

Disappointingly, 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”, she goes on, meaningfully, as if to say, even the Rose of Tralee. It’s a hugely powerful message to send to Middle Ireland and the voters who will need to be convinced next Spring.

To think there’s nothing more to this newly crowned Rose than blinding smiles, pretty frocks and saccharine ideals, would be to underestimate her.

With brains, wit and polite charm, Walsh may just be the person who springs to mind when the Irish cast their vote in favour of marriage equality next year.

From a festival steeped in tradition and stuffed with sentimentality, there has emerged a powerful, influential new role model.