The Rose of Tralee turns 60: Meet the trail-blazing women who dared to be different

She turns 60 in a couple of weeks and continues to divide opinion. Amid biting criticism, some of it justifiable, she persists, and still fetches over a million viewers across a two-night TV spectacle. For some she’s a relic of outdated values, for others an exemplar of poise and confidence; but love her or loathe her, the Rose of Tralee is still a bellwether for Middle Ireland. With its flouncy dresses, party-piece jigs and earnest personal soliloquies, it is certainly, in part, anachronistic. In its confines many subjects have been verboten – incidentally or otherwise. For example, it seems especially odd that a subject as frequently discussed – outside of politics – as abortion was not raised until Brianna Parkins broke the fourth wall in 2016.

Similarly, the ban on ‘unmarried mothers’ entering was not lifted until 2008, and a Rose with a child was not a thing until Shauna Ray Lacey in 2018. Then there’s the nomenclature. ‘Escort’ sounds like chaperone; why not refer to them as assistants, the role they appear to fulfil?

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That being said, there is the organisation and then there are its ambassadors, some of whom have been undeniable agents of change.

The first Rose, Alice O’Sullivan, says while she can empathise with some criticism, one can see the event as a lens through which to view “the history of modern Irish women”.

It also gave a profile-raising platform to women not in reach of such privileges as private schools and monied, middle-class networks.

Michele McCormack, the 1985 Rose who won an Edward R Murrow award and an Emmy nomination for her news broadcasting work, says that she saw her Rose year as an opportunity to gain useful experience.

“I was clear that I was interested in broadcasting,” she says. “The ability to watch Gay Byrne live was very advantageous to me. I followed that style throughout my broadcasting career. I was really impressed with the production.”

And then there are the firsts. The first Rose. The first mixed-race Rose. The first gay Rose.

When Alice O’Sullivan entered the inaugural competition of 1959, there was no inkling as to what it would become. “I was 19 and working in a bookshop. My father was from Tralee so he told me about a dance and I went along and was chosen as the Dublin Rose.

“There were five of us at the time – three from the UK, one from New York and me. The event was covered in all the newspapers, and shown in the cinema, because it was before RTÉ television.”

Mindy (Luzveminda) O’Sullivan was similarly unencumbered with expectation when she won in 1998. Her father is from Mayo, her mother, now deceased, was Filipino.

“A lot of people described it as ‘groundbreaking’ but I never thought of myself like that. I don’t think I ever thought to myself, ‘I’m mixed race.’

“At the time it was a big deal. I’ve kept all the press cuttings and people said the festival had embraced diversity. Was it intentional? There have been others since me, Clare Kambamettu, Tara Talbot and then Kirsten [Mate Maher].

“Still, I suppose, there have only been four mixed-race Roses and we’re in our 60th year. I don’t think people are chosen because of race. I assume that when the judges interviewed me, my skin wasn’t a factor.”

Mindy O’Sullivan embraced the opportunity to forge a stronger relationship with the community.

“I felt a huge responsibility. My mother died when I was 10 and she was very much involved, even though there weren’t many Filipino families in Castlebar, there were quite a few in Dublin and we would attend Christmas gatherings together. My father made an effort to keep us connected after she died and we have a lot of Filipino friends. After winning, they organised a huge party. I remember walking in and people looking at me like I was a representative of their community.”

  • Read More: ‘We’re women to look up to, it’s not just ladies who go on stage’ – meet this year’s Rose of Tralee contestants

Maria Walsh, now an MEP, says while she had learned about the Rose at eight when she returned from Boston with her family, it was Mindy O’Sullivan who was her real inspiration. “I remember thinking, ‘A Rose of Tralee lives half an hour away.’ She was the most diverse representative I’ve ever seen and she had a really thick Mayo accent. I remember thinking, ‘That’s someone you could be.’

“That’s someone who is from down the road and who is proud of where she’s from. It was less about dresses and her hair and more about that local connection.”

When she entered in 2014, Walsh was living in Philadelphia and working for lifestyle brand Anthropologie. She had entered the New York Rose in 2012 but was not selected. She was out to family and friends but says the issue of her sexuality was never raised during the competition.

The story broke on the morning after her win when a reporter from The Sun called the festival office.

“I was asked, ‘Is it true that you’re gay?’

“And I said, ‘Oh yeah,’ in a very nonchalant way.

“I was 27 – old enough to realise the potential complications. My only concern was that the story was more than ‘The Gay Rose’, that it was also about me being a pioneer and my volunteering.”

In the year before the marriage equality referendum, some might wonder if she was an intentional choice on the part of the organisation.

“If they did, I didn’t get asked to confirm,” she says. “A large part of me hopes that I got selected because of the person I am, rather than because of my sexuality.

“It would be remiss of me not to say that there are times, when I’m asked that question, I wonder if they knew and if I ticked a box. If I did, then it worked well. The greater side of me hopes that’s not the case.”

  • Read More: ‘My sister’s organ donor inspired me to go for Rose of Tralee’

Walsh says her win paved the way for her political career.

“The Rose of Tralee gave me the podium which I’m standing on.”

There were, however, downsides.

“It did open up Pandora’s box for negativity. To some I wasn’t gay enough, to some I wasn’t feminist enough. To others I wasn’t Irish enough. During that year I worked exceptionally hard to make people understand that the Rose of Tralee can encompass many things.

“Nothing will ever take away from the fact that five years ago this summer I was introduced to the world as a short-haired tattooed girl who was gay and who talked about being a pioneer.”

When the Rose began, professional achievement – such as that of Walsh – was not expected of most Irish women. Expectations, Alice O’Sullivan recounts, were low.

“There was no expectation of me – the eldest in a family – going to college in 1959. And my next brother, there was none for him either. My third and fourth brother went to college. For the oldest girl, though, it wasn’t considered.

“The American contestant, she was chock-full of confidence, talking about her major in college.”

O’Sullivan says that change came slowly, and didn’t really occur until later, when Donogh O’Malley’s free education had taken effect. “That – if anything – was what brought Irish women on.”

After graduating, O’Sullivan worked in Aer Lingus but had to resign upon marrying, because of the marriage bar.

“Jobs didn’t have a career structure for women at the time. Your expectation was that you’d retire at 27 or 28 and stay at home and raise your children.”

A keen skier, in her 20s she became a ski instructor at Kilternan, and in later years, a special-needs skier.

She retook her Leaving Cert at 40, having had her family. She followed it with a BA Mod in Trinity and a postgrad in the UK in Environmental Psychology. “I came back from the course in the UK very, very well equipped to speak or to be actively involved in environmental issues.”

The country was rather hostile for women changing careers mid-life.

“I put a huge amount of effort and spent all of my savings to emerge to an Ireland that still wasn’t open to married women coming out of their little houses and it was almost, when I did interviews, like the dishwasher had gone in and was there being interviewed.”

It is a grim reminder of the country’s recent past.

“There’s no point being angry. I had – at great expense – got very good qualifications, but nobody would pay me to use them.”

Rather, O’Sullivan put herself to work redoing her house and garden, including mixing and laying her own concrete. “I think I’m the only Rose with my own concrete mixer,” she says. Subsequently she devised a third-level module for students of the School of Built and Natural Environment (it was initially devised for UCD, but also ran across other universities).

While the change in circumstances may have been hard for many, quietly the former Roses of Tralee have assembled themselves into a sorority of sorts (the FROTs?), adopting each new winner and supporting her through her year and beyond.

Brenda Hyland Beirne was a trainee garda in Templemore in 1983 before she entered.

She slipped out of the training college with a male friend who drove her to the qualifying round in Waterford and drove her back, unnoticed. However, the contest was covered in the local papers, quickly coming to the attention of her colleagues and superiors.

“One of the higher-ranking officers approached me and did his best to help me get organised and they got me suitcases. The girls in the ‘April A’ class were wonderful. There was one girl, Dee, who used to make her own clothes. She gave me all the dresses she could muster up and I wore those.

“I never thought I had a shot at the title – I was so unpolished at the time.”

On winning, she was assigned to community relations in Garda head office.

She also modelled for over a decade after handing back her title. Hyland Beirne, who now runs the Irish School of Etiquette with her business partner, Kate Breslin, and whose daughter is the model Alannah Beirne, is alert to the temptations of “getting carried away with any kind of celebrity style status”.

“It’s passing through your life, but I have met people who think they’re different to everybody else. You can be brought back down with a bang. I always advise people to enjoy it while it’s there, but I am worried sometimes the girls will be taken advantage of,” she continues.

“Through inexperience and naïvety, I have been taken advantage of. And many others will be.”

What kinds of things?

“When I look back, there would have been people who took advantage of me. If I went to a corporate gig, you wouldn’t even get your travelling expenses.

“Then I would listen to the international Roses over the years; we have a strong bond and our experiences are valuable to pass on to the younger international Roses.

“Through our discussions it was obvious that international Roses were taken advantage of in the past.

“We make it our business to support and empower the younger international Roses coming through.”

Neither do all Roses long for a career on the catwalk.

Josie Ruane took the sash in 1961 and launched the Kerrygold brand in 1962. However, she was suspicious of some of the offers presented to her.

“Going to launch Kerrygold butter was amazing. I was with Miss Helen Joyce, who became Mrs Terry Wogan, and the Miss Ireland, Miss Olive White.

“If I had never won the Rose of Tralee, I would never have met these people. I would never have been selected for that if I hadn’t won the Rose, because Tony O’Reilly would have never heard of me.”

Modelling wasn’t for her.

“I didn’t like the people involved in [modelling]. I wasn’t going to go into men’s offices at half six in the evening. I didn’t fancy it,” she says.

“Modelling was never going to work out for me. You went for interviews and you sat there and you waited for people to make up their minds. I didn’t like the whole thing, taking off your clothes and putting on other people’s clothes. I was never going to be anyone’s clothes horse.

“I was supposed to be going to Paris to launch a high-profile drink and we were supposed to go in to sign papers. It never happened.”

The ‘FROTs’ are quite maternal to new recruits and Hyland Beirne believes the challenges of a life in the public eye are greater now than previously.

“When you put yourself out there, you bring all sorts of attention to yourself, most good, but some bad. I even see on social media the very lewd innuendo and comments which can be very offensive. When I was modelling, I did build up a thicker skin. You’re in a group of people doing the same thing; you have support. Girls out in the public eye now need to be savvy, need to be strong.

“That is the one thing the Rose gives you: a great support system. We take that girl under our wing; we advise her. We meet a minimum of twice a year as a group. She gets all that positive support from us when things go wrong, and when things go right. We’re all only a phone call away.”

The Roses would like to pass on their condolences to the family of Betty Butler, the Ulster Rose organiser, who passed away earlier this month.

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