Big year for the festival

Simon Brouder

Next August The Rose of Tralee will mark its 60th anniversary, and this year's festival is sure to be an occasion to remember.

However, the world-famous pageant also had a notable year in 2018, with last year's event giving rise to some of the most memorable events in the Rose's storied history.

Ireland's best-known festival - love it or hate it - is always one of the most talked about TV events of the year, and last August provided plenty to talk about around the office water cooler.  

The main talking point was, of course the winner, and the 2018 Rose of Tralee, Kirsten Mate Maher, has proven to be an inspired choice.     

The Waterford woman - who is the first African Irish woman to win the title - has proven enormously popular and, following in the footsteps of Maria Walsh, has helped breathe new life into the festival.     

Unfortunately - and sadly predictably - much of the focus after her win was on Ms Mate Maher's cultural background, though the ebullient 21-year-old has done her level best to move attention away from her heritage.   

That hasn't come without its challenges, as was evidenced at her very first press conference - in Tralee Town Park - the morning after her win, when the issue of ethnicity was raised repeatedly. The line of questioning may well have irritated the young woman but, displaying characteristic poise, she dealt with the matter in polite but withering fashion.        

Asked if she found the obsessive focus on her race annoying, Ms Mate Maher was forthright in her response. 

"I'm really proud of my Zambian roots and I do want to bring that across. Yes I'm half Zambian, but you shouldn't be focusing in on the fact that I'm tanned or the fact that my hair is a little bit different," she said.

She saved the best for last: "There actually are other Irish people with curly hair like mine."

While the media focus on her background (and I appreciate the irony that I am dwelling on it here) was surely an annoyance, worse was to come. Just days after her victory, Kirsten and her boyfriend were subjected to some horrendous abuse when, at the end of an evening out in Kilkenny, they were accosted by a pair of racist lowlives in a take-away. Gardaí were called and an investigation was launched, but Kirsten, again displaying a commendable degree of restraint, sought to dampen down media discussion of the disgusting incident and opted not to discuss it publicly.             

The Rose of Tralee company did issue a brief statement on the matter but, like Kirsten, they were also eager to end the focus on the Rose's race. "Regrettably, Kirsten has been subjected to racial abuse from people in the past, and it is something that she and many others in Ireland have to deal with on a regular basis," a spokesperson for the Rose of Tralee festival said. 

"As the Rose of Tralee, Kirsten intends to highlight the fact that society in Ireland is becoming more diverse and that there is no place for racism."

While her win made her the most high profile of last year's Roses, Kirsten was certainly not the only contender to make an impact in the Dome. 

Unmarried mothers have been allowed to enter the Rose of Tralee since 2008, but it took until last year before a mother actually took part in the final of the competition. That mum was the Carlow Rose, Shauna Ray Lacey, though the fact that she is a mother was quickly forgotten following her stirring on-stage interview with Dáithí Ó Sé.

Ms Lacey took the opportunity to address the issue of drug addiction and revealed both her parents had been heroin addicts. Her frank and open discussion about her upbringing made for a striking moment in Rose history, and it earned the Carlow woman deserved admiration around the country.   

In the wake of her televised interview, Shauna and her mother went on to discuss the matter further and, in so doing, offered a much-needed insight into addiction and its impact on families.   

In her interview, Ms Lacey spoke movingly about how her late father, Francis, and mother, Angela Ray, had been heroin addicts and how she had not been "given the best hand of cards" when growing up.

"I was living with active addiction in my life," she said. "In every second home there is someone living with addiction."

After her daughter's appearance on TV, Angela, who has been clean for four years, said she was proud that her daughter had gone public on dealing with addiction in the family in front of a live audience.

"You are not who your parents are," Angela said. "The freedom to be able to speak your mind and not to feel judged at all ,I think it is the most powerful thing. I'm absolutely speechless. I don't care who judges me any more. The freedom of that is amazing."

Away from the events of the festival itself, the Rose of Tralee company also admitted defeat and announced some major changes for next year's competition.

Next August, the Rose of Tralee will revert to a smaller format following the decision to axe the controversial qualification system that, in recent years, saw half the Roses cut from the contest before the televised selection nights.

Rose of Tralee Executive Director Anthony O'Gara described the qualification system, which had caused considerable consternation, as a "well-intentioned" but failed "experiment."

The system was introduced in 2016 when the Regional Finals in Laois were scrapped.

That year, the method of telling the Roses if they had qualified for the TV show - which was filmed and broadcast by RTÉ - was heavily criticised by many viewers, who called it cruel and insensitive.

While the qualification process - quickly dubbed locally as the 'Rose Culling' - was subsequently modified to make it less upsetting, it has now been decided to scrap it altogether.

From this year onwards, most Rose Centres will only send a Rose every second year, but every Rose will take part in that year's televised selection nights.

An exception will be made for Kerry, Cork and Dublin, who will take part each year.

Some larger international centres will also be allowed take part in two years out of every three years.

"The experiment was well-intentioned, but it hasn't worked. She [the Rose] feels that if she doesn't get through, she is letting down her friends and family and locality. It isn't the case, but that's how she feels," Mr O'Gara said when the announcement was made.

Earlier we mentioned former Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh, who is arguably the best-known winner of the contest and remains enormously popular nationwide.

Ms Walsh - the first openly gay winner of the title and a powerful advocate for LGBTQ issues -is apparently considering a career change, and the word is that she is currently mulling over a possible move into the world of politics.

The 2014 Rose of Tralee has said she is interested in running in next year's European Parliament elections under the Fine Gael banner.

If the 31-year-old, who took part as the Mayo Rose, makes an official declaration, she will run in the Midlands North West constituency, where it is believed that Fine Gael will be running two candidates with a view to winning two seats in the constituency in May 2019.

Ms Walsh, who is a member of Fine Gael, has, as yet, not made any official comment on her political ambitions, but it is understood that talks have been held with a view to getting her into the race.

MEP Mairead McGuinness, who will also contest the election, did address the rumours and said she would be happy to see the Mayo Rose as a potential running mate.

"I'm running in the next European election, and I'm delighted that Maria Walsh is a possible candidate. The election will be important for Ireland post-Brexit and for the European Union," she said.

Interesting times lie ahead for Ms Walsh, whose high profile should see her make a significant electoral impact if she does run for office.

From the Dome to the European Parliament in just five years? It might sound a little over-ambitious, but anyone that knows Maria would tell you that she's more than capable of making the step up.