'I had death threats and rape threats - but it was worth it' - last year's Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins reflects on a 'strange' year
As Brianna Parkins looks at her Facebook memories this week she’s greeted with reminders of her time as the Sydney Rose – and inevitably that moment that came to define her year.
The 26 year old journalist tells Independent.ie that she thought she was going for a nice “two week holiday in Ireland” but during the first night of the televised broadcast of the Rose of Tralee on RTE she became both a hero and a villain in the raging abortion debate.
During her interview on stage at the festival dome with Daithi O Se she called for a referendum to repeal the 8th amendment and the traditionally apolitical ‘lovely girls’ competition was thrust into the same murky territory as the abortion debate.
While some commended her for her comments, others were horrified, not least chair of the judging panel, Mary Kennedy, who said that the festival was not a “political platform” and presenter Daithi who later agreed that the festival stage “was not the place” for such expressions of political opinion.
Brianna says she “didn’t go into it intending to be divisive” and never expected to become a “figurehead for a referendum” but when Daithi asked her about women’s activism she felt she had to address Ireland as well as Australia.
“To be honest I had about five second pause on stage and I thought, ‘Do I want to say what I have to say?’ It was not planned and I wasn’t sure I was going to say it and then Daithi asked the question about being a women’s activist and I thought I’ve got to put my money where my mouth is,” she says.
Among her harshest critics were members of the Pro Life movement in Ireland and beyond. However, she is anxious to point out that the Irish Pro Life movement were “not as extreme” in their response as other nations.
In the days following the festival she debated the issue with Pro Life campaigner Cora Sherlock on radio and found her to be “respectful” and considerate of views despite the fact they were diametrically opposed to her own.
Beyond Ireland, however, she received death threats and rape threats.
“It did get quite hairy at one point, quite confronting, thanks to the Internet,” she tells Independent.ie. “One person put up pictures of my family and pictures of younger members of my family which was disconcerting.
“I did worry about my family’s safety for a bit but those threats… I’m a journalist and female journalists cop a huge amount of abuse, not so much me [in my job] but other colleagues and friends but we’re tough and it washes off my back.
“Was it worth it one year on? It definitely was.”
This is despite the fact that the ripples of that moment were felt across her personal and professional lives.
Her relationship with her boyfriend ended. She says there were “pre-existing issues” but the experience “did put a lot of pressure on us”.
“I’m in my 20s, I’m not going to marry every bloke I date but he is a great guy and we’re still very close and still talk every day,” she says. “Looking back, he had no idea how big the Rose was. He’s Australian and he said recently ‘I’m sorry for not making a bigger deal about it’. I said ‘I’m sorry for throwing you into this!’
“He came over and got thrown into being the ‘abortion’ Rose’s boyfriend, which he handled really well.”
Her family has, of course, stood by her, including her grandmother, who travelled to Ireland and witnessed her interview on stage.
“She’s been completely supportive,” says Brianna. “I’m her granddaughter. She lived through a time of not being able to access contraception and things like that. She’s very very supportive but she’s also very Catholic at the same time. She’s still very proud of me. I’m very lucky.”
Professionally, things have also been tough as she struggles to marry activism and a journalism. Irish women still contact her for support.
“It’s been really tough not being able to campaign and write op eds but the best thing I can do is write back to [women dealing with abortion-related issues] and put them in contact with journalists and TDs and help them get organised,” she says.
“I’m incredibly impressed with Irish women. Almost every county has a sort of support group for women who have had abortions or a ‘Repeal the Eighth’ campaign. There are local groups they can reach out to so I’m trying to put them in contact, trying to make sure they’ve been heard. A lot of the time they have nobody to talk to. They can’t even talk to their own families.”
She adds, “Your heart breaks for these women. There was one particular story I remember… a woman who had to choose between two different types of abortion – medical or surgical. Medical is a pill and surgical is an operation. She had to choose the more painful surgical option because she had to be back on the plane that evening and couldn’t risk bleeding out on the plane. Women are having to choose care that is not right for them. She was trying to get back on the plane the same day because her husband was at home with her kids. It’s really sad.”
Contrary to what you might expect, Brianna still loves the Rose of Tralee and is an active member of the Sydney Rose committee.
“I love the Rose, especially when you’re part of the diaspora… I’m an immigrant child who grew up in Australia – I had a mother and grandmother who brought a teapot to the beach! No shit, that’s true! So, I always felt a bit on the outside. And the Rose is a good place to be on the outside,” she says.
“I have to say once a rose always a rose. I strongly believe that if you want to see change in something you can’t just shut it out and walk away.”
Some day she’s hoping to be approached by the festival to look at ways of changing the format. She notes that several centres have had trouble attracting young women already and she feels she can help make it more appealing to modern women.
“It’s quite hard. It’s a 50 year old festival so it’s hard to maintain tradition but also make it relevant,” she concedes.
However, a good start, she says, would be to make it more inclusive. Earlier this year she called for “feminists, mixed-race, queer and trans ladies” to enter the festival.
“I don’t think the festival represents diversity,” she says. “ All the roses are all white and I know for a fact a huge amount of the diaspora are mixed race, especially in America and Australia. There is a big community of mixed Irish indigenous women and I’m talking even in my own family.
“Maybe [we could] find a way to encourage them to bring in diverse women. There’s a huge immigrant population in Ireland. What about the children of immigrant parents? Also, women with disabilities, trans women. It’s more interesting to have a range of life stories.”
She would also get rid of the ‘boyfriend’ questions and bring back the poems.
“The Rose of Tralee poems were great,” she laughs, adding that they used to play drinking games. “I miss the poems!”
As for this year, however, she believes it’s hard to gauge whether or not there are some ardent feminists among the 65 roses and whether or not they will express their views on the televised show on Monday and Tuesday night.
She says she did not understand how many feminists and fellow Repeal the Eighth campaigners were amongst her fellow roses last year until she got to know them after the festival.
“It’s hard to gauge when you’re in that weird environment where everyone is trying to kind of fit the model of what they think a rose should be so some of it is self-censorship,” reveals Brianna.
“When you’re a rose you have so much pressure riding on you, particularly Irish girls whose whole county is behind them, the parish, the GAA team, so they don’t want to step out of line and wreck their changes and disappoint people.”
Brianna says that speaking her mind was worth it but she does have two regrets over her TV appearance last year…
Firstly, she bemoans the fact that her samba will live on the Internet forever more and secondly, “I feel bad because I told Daithi to be less ‘Irish’ in terms of dancing. I’m sorry about this!”