NEWLY crowned Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh said she has been hugely heartened by the positive feedback she has received since announcing that she is gay.
Miss Walsh, who has been openly gay for two years, discussed details of her personal life in a newspaper interview over the weekend and since the surprise announcement the response from the public has been overwhelmingly positive.
Rose festival managing director Anthony O'Gara said the organisers were "100 per cent delighted with her.''
Mr O'Gara said that while the Rose of Tralee judging panel knew Maria was gay the issue of her sexuality "was neither here nor there."
He said Maria was openly gay, but the judges were no more interested in her sexuality than he was and it would not be their business to question it one way or the other.
"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," he said.
Maria Walsh said she was proud to be the first gay winner of the Rose of Tralee and hoped her decision to discuss her sexuality would help other people who are struggling with their own sexual identity.
"If this can help any person to feel more comfortable with who they are then I'm happy," she said.
"I'm not ashamed of my sexuality by any means. To me, being gay is normal. I told my parents and they were supportive, as I knew they would be," she said.
The Boston-born winner, who grew up in Mayo, had been in a relationship with a woman for two years before splitting up recently but insisted they are still friends.
"For whatever reason, I instantly knew that I wanted to be with her and do everything to make that relationship work.
"We loved each other and that's what was so great about it. She's still love of my life. It ended on great terms, She supported me in Tralee this weekend. I'm certainly not ashamed. People have been so supportive," she said.
Maria also challenged the critics who have labelled the festival as old fashioned and outdated.
"I would ask those critics who have previously said the festival is old-fashioned if they had visited Tralee over the course of a festival weekend? This was my first time in Tralee and all I experienced was a modern, fun and craic-filled time," she said.
"I know the 31 other Roses who shared this moment with me were and are very far from old-fashioned. These women are classy, intelligent and identify with the many young women in this country and across the diaspora," said Maria.
The studio manager flew back to America on Sunday night after cheering on Mayo with her family and friends in Croke Park. Miss Walsh has agreed to appear on The Late Late Show on September 5 and is not giving any further interviews in the meantime.
Following Maria's announcement social media was quickly filled with messages of support. Former Rose of Tralee Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin tweeted "...Maria is a wonderful representative for both the festival and young women everywhere."
She also tweeted: "Sexuality needn't be a headline but at least a positive story like this brings Ireland's dinner table and political conversations to 21st century."
North Carolina Rose Nancy Boyce tweeted "We love, support and stand by Maria Walsh 100 per cent and are excited about her reign as the International #RoseofTralee!"
Anna McCarthy, of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Noise group said Miss Walsh's decision to go public about her sexuality was symbolic of a modern Ireland and a level of acceptance of LGBT people.