Mary Kennedy: 'Loneliness is a fact of life and anyone who says otherwise is delusional'
She admits to crying easily, so RTÉ's Mary Kennedy is already planning to stock up on the waterproof mascara ahead of her primary school teacher daughter Eva's marriage in November.
"I'll be very emotional," the popular Nationwide presenter confesses during our shoot at the Merrion Hotel. "I'm very relaxed as the mother of the bride and have my outfit, so I'm just waiting to be given my instructions on what I have to do. Then again, Eva is very chilled out too, and is not into fuss or bother. It's the first wedding in our family since 1993, so it's very exciting and I can't wait."
Weddings have a tendency to turn into mini-festivals these days, involving guests trooping all over the country or even travelling abroad to celebrate the happy couple's nuptials. Measured against this, Eva and Limerick fiancé Benny's wedding sounds like a refreshingly uncomplicated celebration, as they're getting married at her local church in Rathfarnham and are holding the reception at the Morrison Hotel. It's very much a family affair as Mary's younger daughter Lucy and niece Clare are bridesmaids, elder son Tom is writing the reflection after communion, and younger son Eoin will be allocated a role as well.
The hen party will be held in Waterford, but don't expect to see Mary wandering around The Déise wearing a pink feather boa and mother-of-the-bride sash any time soon. "Absolutely not," she demurs, in that warm-but-firm manner of hers. "I don't want to go on the hen, but I'm having an alternative hair and make-up night in the house in August for both the older and younger members. I love having parties and people in the house, so that will be great fun too."
Eva and Benny got engaged in New York and when they arrived home, they went straight to Kerry, where Mary was carrying out her duties as chairperson of the international judging panel at the 2015 Rose of Tralee International Festival. The happy couple came to her room and were touched to find about 20 people waiting there to toast their engagement with champagne. The organising committee had even gone to the trouble of putting roses all over the room. "The organisers are so family-orientated," Mary smiles. "My fellow judges were all there and all of my family, so we had a lovely little party to celebrate."
While Mary has been a judge for seven years, this year marks her fifth as chairperson. It's a full-on role. The festival is celebrating 57 years this year and it brings hopeful young women of Irish descent from around the world to Kerry for a global celebration of Irish culture. The week-long festival also includes street entertainment, a carnival, live concerts, a fashion show put together by Celia Holman-Lee, theatre, circus, markets, fireworks and Rose Parades. It's a massive festival drawing thousands of visitors to Tralee and the selection of the Rose is the pinnacle of the entire event.
It must be a daunting task for Mary ensuring that the right girl is chosen? "We've always been spoiled for choice, because the young women who've entered so far have been incredibly accomplished," she says. "They're elegant, caring and well-rounded, and they have also achieved an awful lot, whether through work, volunteering or academic achievements. They're just unbelievable. You have to actually go to the festival or else you have to be Irish to understand that it isn't a beauty pageant. These young people are very involved in their communities, they're very proud of their Irish roots and Irish connections, and they also all become involved with a charitable organisation and raise funds for it."
This year, 65 Roses have entered the competition: 31 from Ireland and 34 from as far away as New Zealand. There's a change to the format this year because for the past 11 years, a qualifying event was staged in the midlands at the end of May at which 32 Roses were selected to appear on the televised final in August. It wasn't feasible for the organisers to accommodate the others in Kerry, but this year, all 65 Roses get to go and enjoy the fun of the festival for the first time.
They will all attend the International Rose Ball, participate in various engagements during the week and then take part in two qualifying selections, also presented by Dáithí Ó Sé in the Dome. These will be judged by two panels of judges that are entirely separate from Mary's panel. From these selections, the final 32 girls will be chosen to proceed to the television selection nights on August 22 and 23. The 2016 winner will get to wear the brand new crown for the first time, designed and made by lead sponsor, Tipperary Crystal.
According to Mary, the final selection is not just made on the performance during the televised interviews with Daithí in the Dome, as all of the Roses meet with the judges individually for 15 minutes throughout the week and also have group interviews. Meanwhile, they are watched as they participate in the hectic schedule of events and interact with other people. Does that mean that the winner has already been identified before Daithí gets them in his clutches? Does it matter if they knock it out of the park while chatting to him or if they dance up a storm with the treble reel on stage?
"No," says Mary, showing a flash of what I presume is the firmness she honed in her teaching days at Coláiste Bhríde in Clondalkin - her own alma mater. "We take it very seriously and convene after every meeting, but we wouldn't have chosen the winner by then. Hopefully you'd have it down to about four or five in your head, and somebody's performance on stage would cement what you were thinking. Pubs around Tralee are assigned a Rose to go there at a certain time and take photos with the people, so it's all about community and I'm big into community. Then they go to the library and meet children, so we're watching them all the time, and not just at the interviews."
While there can only be one winner, Mary believes that all of the Roses are special and points out that they still get to carry out their duties as the Rose of the country, city, state or county they're representing for the rest of the year until their successor is selected. Great lifelong friendships get forged and many of the Roses go to Kolkata, India, the following February to do some work for the Hope Foundation.
While the festival is great fun and huge for Ireland in terms of tourism and profile, detractors say that competitions where women compete for titles like this are sexist or old-fashioned. Mary disagrees with such viewpoints and says the women who enter are all highly-intelligent young people who have decided they want to make a difference and a contribution.
"The girls are amazing. There's me with my little BA from UCD and they're all doing master's degrees and doctorates," she says. "The Rose of Tralee is definitely not sexist. It's important to have good manners, gentility and a bit of decorum, and the Roses should have wholesome values. I don't think that's old fashioned, and while it might be in decline in some aspects of our modern lives, it shouldn't be. It's about respect and dignity, and I think the Rose of Tralee is a great vehicle for showcasing those values, as you see them in the escorts as well as the Roses."
The other very salient point Mary makes is that the festival is evolving all of the time. Last year, an International Business Women's conference ran as a fringe event and was hugely successful, and it is happening again this year. In addition, each Rose is paired up with a Rose Bud - a little girl aged six to 10 chosen by lottery from all parts of the country. The Roses take the young girls under their wing and they feature in the parade and at certain events.
"These little girls look up to the Roses, who are excellent role models and I think a lovely element of the festival is that it fosters inclusion and brings different generations together," says Mary.
- Read more: Mary Kennedy: I still have regret about my divorce, but my children are the loves of my life
Mary's son Tom was an escort to the Boston and New England Rose, Deirdre Walsh, in 2013 and loved the experience. However, she says that while she and her late mum watched the pageant religiously and truly loved it, she wouldn't have considered entering herself when she was younger. "There was absolutely no way I would have had the confidence at that age," she says. "I was a late bloomer."
Last year's Rose of Tralee was the Meath Rose, Elysha Brennan, and before her, the 2014 winner and Philadelphia Rose, Maria Walsh, was revealed to be the first openly gay Rose. She has since gone on to develop a blossoming career in media and Mary has been personally delighted to see her success. After all, it isn't that long ago since gay celebrities, media personalities and regular citizens felt obliged to hide their sexual orientation out of fear of how they would be treated in this country.
Mary says that the judging panel were aware that Maria was gay during the selection process and proving that the competition is a thoroughly modern and progressive one, it wasn't discussed in the pre-selection interviews, nor was it a consideration. "It simply wasn't a factor," says Mary. "Maria has become a very prominent media personality because she has that personality and charisma as well as being very genuine. She won the year before the marriage equality referendum was passed, and I think she became a great spokesperson for it."
The festival is centred around The Rose Hotel (formerly the Fels Point Hotel), which was bought last year by Dick and Eibhlín Henggeler. Their daughter Dorothy (Dott) was a Rose in 2011, but she sadly passed away from a brain tumour in 2014. Dick and Eibhlín have come on board as a major sponsor of the Rose festival in memory of their beloved daughter and they plan to build a permanent dome to replace the temporary structure that is erected every year for the festival. Once completed, it will be a conference centre and concert venue, along with being a permanent home for the Rose of Tralee.
Mary says that she is at a very happy stage of life, where she is loving her job at RTÉ on Nationwide, and has a great family and circle of friends. She has written four books so far, all of which have been very well-received, and is regularly asked to speak at writers' festivals, which delights her. Her most recent book, What Matters: Reflections On Important Things In Life, resonated with many people, particularly where she spoke about loneliness.
Mary became divorced from her husband Ronan Foster in 2005 after 15 years of marriage and she wrote in the book that she "found it increasingly difficult to settle into subsequent relationships". While she is very close to all of her children, some of whom still live at home, there are occasional moments when everyone is off doing their own thing and loneliness strikes. It's a universal human feeling, of course, and it elicited a huge response from readers, many of whom contacted Mary to share their feelings with her.
"I hit a nerve with the third book, which was about menopause, and I also hit a nerve with this one," she says. "Loneliness is a fact of life, and anyone who says otherwise is delusional or not living in the real world. Even yesterday, there were two letters in the office from women who read the book and found that it struck a chord with them. The thing is that we are all in this world together and are all just doing our best."
Mary's eldest child Eva (32) has been at home a lot this year because she was teaching in Dublin, and would either go down to Benny in Limerick at weekends or he would come up. Lucy, the youngest is 25, and she has just come home from Australia. Tom (29) is also living at home, while Eoin (26) and his girlfriend Nicola have just bought a house in Crumlin and are in the process of doing it up.
Even though they are all busy, Mary and her four children make a point of going away for a weekend together every year. No partners or friends, just the five of them, which sounds like a great idea. "It's really lovely," agrees Mary. "This year we went to Westport and cycled the Great Western Greenway, so it was really nice and very special."
Friends are very important to Mary, who was a teacher for eight years prior to joining RTÉ. She believes that we have to nurture our friendships, and says that one of her biggest challenges is doing so while keeping all of her many balls in the air. "I also want to make the most of life because I'm 61 and unless I live to be 120, my days are numbered," she laughs. "I want to embrace challenges and opportunities, and also want to be there for my family."
Mary looks amazing and as you will see from this shoot, she has a slender figure that a 20-year-old would envy. She doesn't like being heavier and went to Weight Watchers two years ago and shed 18lbs when she found her clothes becoming tight. She used to run, but doesn't anymore as her knees are not able for pounding the pavements these days.
She walks with her two dogs, Larry, the Maltese/pomeranian cross, and Daisy, the bichon frise. She's had Larry for a few years, but Daisy only came into her life in January, when her previous home didn't work out.
Mary always looks stylish and immaculately groomed and, of course, nature helped by giving her great bone structure and a gorgeous face. She says she doesn't mind the ageing process because getting older is a privilege denied to many. She drinks three litres of water per day and is careful about what she eats Monday to Thursday, but is less strict at weekends. "I don't mind wrinkles and have never been inclined to get anything done to my face," she says. "Mind you, I would never allow my hair to go grey."
Mary believes that society dismisses older people at its peril because every generation and every age group has so much to offer. She enjoys working with young people, because she loves their energy, exuberance and even occasional naivety, and is constantly amazed at their confidence and achievements.
"I'm very grateful that my children have a huge respect and love for older people because they have so much wisdom, time, love and compassion to give," she says. "There is a quote I really love that says: 'First you were young, then you were middle-aged, then you were old and now you are beautiful,' because we are the amalgamation of all the ages and stages we have been."
So as she gears up for this year's Rose of Tralee, it looks like the very busy Mary might get another opportunity to test out that waterproof mascara prior to Eva's wedding.
"On the Friday night, we go to the International Rose Ball and it is actually very moving," she says. "I find it very emotional and beautiful when all the flags of the countries taking part are flown."
The Rose of Tralee International Festival takes place from Wednesday to Tuesday, August 17-23.
See www.roseoftralee.ie for further information.
'The Road To The Dome' will be aired on RTÉ One at 6.30pm on Monday, August 22. The 58th International Rose of Tralee Selection will be broadcast live from the Festival Dome in Tralee, Co Kerry at 8pm on Monday and Tuesday, August 22 and 23, on RTÉ One.
Photography by Patrick Bolger