'To me, being gay is normal. I'm confident in who I am'
SHE has been inundated with messages of support and goodwill since coming out as the first gay woman to wear the Rose of Tralee crown.
Maria Walsh was bowled over as she donned a jersey signed by the entire Mayo team when she took to the pitch at Croke Park in a special appearance for Inclusion Day.
She got a huge cheer as she put it on immediately over her skimpy black lacy dress - and looked doubly glad of the extra layer on a bitter day.
As the 56th Rose of Tralee, Maria has welcomed the positive feedback she has received following the revelations that she has been living an openly gay lifestyle for the past two years.
She welcomed the support of former minister Mary O'Rourke, who, on the Marian Finucane Show on RTE radio, had said the news underlined Maria's worthiness as the Rose of Tralee, with "the truth of her eyes ever dawning," just like the words of the song.
"I don't know if that was what William Muchinock had in mind when he wrote the Rose of Tralee but it's a lovely comment from Mary O'Rourke," said Maria.
She revealed how one of the first people she had met that day was a shopkeeper in a filling station en route to Croke Park, who had congratulated her.
"I asked him if it was for being the Rose of Tralee or after reading the story in the Sun. 'Both,' he replied," she said. Maria said her family are very proud of her, adding: "The most important thing to them is that I'm happy and healthy.
"Right now I'm more excited about the fact that Mayo will have another chance to overcome Kerry next week and hopefully reach next month's All-Ireland Final," she said.
Maria (27), who grew up in Shrule, Co Mayo, revealed she had come out to her family when she was involved in a long-term relationship with a woman.
She is now single.
"I'm confident in who I am as a person. To me being gay is normal," she said.
"My family and friends have been extremely supportive. My parents were very much about ensuring their children are healthy and happy.
"Their only concerns were that my career and health and future were safe."
Maria also hopes that by speaking openly she will be able to help other young people who are struggling to come to terms with their sexuality.
She said: "If this can help any person to feel more comfortable with who they are then I'm happy.
She is being applauded for her openness about her sexuality and the Rose of Tralee organisation are firmly backing their girl.
Executive chairman of the Rose of Tralee, Anthony O'Gara said he was delighted with the choice of Rose.
He said: "She is a wonderful person, an attractive, intelligent woman and a very worthy winner who happens to be gay.
"Her sexuality will no doubt create some interest, hopefully all positive. She wants to be celebrated as Maria Walsh in the complete sense of her person and hopefully everyone will respect that."
Expressions of support for Maria have also been pouring in with 2005 Rose Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain describing her as "a wonderful representative for the festival and young women everywhere".
The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) said it was hugely positive for young gay people having a "huge role model at the heart of Irish culture".
After enjoying the dramatic draw with Kerry as a guest of GAA President Liam O'Neill at the semi-final in Croke Parke, Maria said of the team that "they make it so hard to leave".
Unfortunately, her return last night to Philadelphia means she will be unable to attend the replay next Saturday.