You never forget the first time you share an elephant with a carnival queen.
It was 1996 in rural Ireland and the Rose of Tralee, a yearly festival, was coming full circle. I remember this much: Being lifted on the rough, alien grey skin of a placid giant, and a woman hoisted on behind me. She was beautiful, with long brown hair. In my mind now, her features are blurred, reduced to a sash and a brilliant smile. And then, the realization that the whole world was smiling back at her—at us—and a flash of multiple cameras. It was like having the sun pointed especially in your direction. I squirmed in the face of it.
Her name was Colleen Mooney. She was from Toronto and in a matter of days, she would be the next Rose of Tralee.
There is a Polaroid photo of us somewhere, the flash blowing out both of our faces. Every August, I recall that memory, and the shine falls off it a little bit more.
Here's some background. The Rose of Tralee is a festival that has been running in the small Irish town of Tralee for 56 years, since 1959. Originally conceived (in a pub, as most of the good things in Ireland are) as a way to encourage more tourism into a relatively isolated area of south-western Ireland that had seen better times, it has expanded from a sort-of-a-beauty pageant with six competitors into a five-day event, with women from all over the world competing for the title of Rose in a two-day, televised extravaganza.
This year, the competition reached 1.7 million viewers, 42 percent of the Irish population. The Rose of Tralee is to the Irish what the Superbowl is to Americans—everyone watches it, even if their team isn't playing. It's the television event of the year. For those 1.7 million viewers, there are 1.7 million opinions; horrified, patronized, starry-eyed, pacified—or even all four. It's polarising. That's why so many people watch it.
The Rose of Tralee is not your typical beauty pageant, and most participants are reluctant to call it that. Instead, it is considered more as an inner beauty pageant, with the judges focusing on the ambitions, hopes, achievements, charity work and extra-special Irishness of the women involved. The winner gets a tiara, a hefty travel voucher and appears at events, but she also gets the chance to participate in a heavy schedule of charity work, fundraising and advocacy. There is no swimsuit section at the Rose of Tralee.
Every Rose must be Irish, an Irish resident or be of Irish extraction. Even with this broad criteria (the Irish diaspora stretches to 70 million people worldwide) the competitors are overwhelmingly traditionally good-looking, and also overwhelmingly white. Only two non-white Roses were crowned in recent years (Luzveminda O'Sullivan in 1998 and Clare Kambamettu in 2010). The first ever black participant in the Rose of Tralee was Sinéad de Roiste, who represented Philadelphia in 2004. There has never been a black Rose of Tralee.
But as the festival expands, it becomes more and more a mirror on the state of modern Irish womanhood: A collective one dirtied by hypocrisy, restriction and a history of systematic, horrific abuse.
In 1996, when Colleen Mooney won, the last Magdalene laundry in Ireland was closed. Started by the Catholic Church as asylums for 'fallen women' (the terms of which could be extremely vague, from having a child before marriage to just having a reputation as woman who liked to have sex out of wedlock), Magdalene laundries kept women imprisoned, in bonded labor, until they had done a stint of several years or managed to pay their way out.
When the Magdalenes gave birth, they were refused pain medication or any comfort or relief—absolution for the terrible sin of having sex. Women who died in these laundries (and there were many) were often buried in unmarked graves. The illegitimate children of many of the Magdalenes were sold by way of adoption to wealthy families without proper consent. Many orders in Ireland still refuse to contribute to the victims' compensation fund, despite repeated prodding from the UN Committee Against Torture.
In 2008, when the stigma of single motherhood had abated, unmarried mothers were allowed to participate in the Rose of Tralee for the first time. However, in almost every case, abortion is still illegal in the country. Constitutional change in Ireland requires a referendum, so abortion legislation will have to be voted in by a public majority. This makes many women skittish; are we all still recovering from a Catholic hangover?
But there is hope: A referendum on legalizing same-sex marriage was passed by an overwhelming majority in May. Ireland is so far the only country in the world to do this. And just nine months earlier, the first openly gay Rose of Tralee was crowned in 2014.
That year, my mother came home from work to announce that she had met the future Rose of Tralee. She works at the local library and is regularly on-shift during the local Rose meet and greet. Mother Waldron's choices are closely scrutinized—betting on who will win is huge business with the local bookies. (I remember, at 13, sidling into into a smoke-sodden bookmakers with my grandmother so she could put 50 pence on the New York Rose for me. She came in at 9/2, and I took my money and spent it on candyfloss and fairground rides.)
"The Philadelphia Rose is going to win it. She's lovely," My mother said. She paused. "But she's got short hair, Sarah. And tattoos!" Up until then, all Roses had been homogeneously beautiful. Androgynous…Not so much.
The next night, in the bar, a friend of mine whispered a rumor about Maria Walsh's sexuality. "Good for her," we all thought. And layered underneath that: "Dear God, I hope she wins."
When Walsh was crowned in 2014, she had already been out to her friends and family for a few years, but now she was front page news. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Anthony O'Gara, CEO of the Rose of Tralee, released a statement pledging support for her, and it was business as usual. For her first photo op, Walsh jumped into a fountain in jeans and bare feet. Her sexuality was absorbed smoothly into the business of being a Rose.
Walsh, who prefers to be called an 'ambassador' rather than a 'queen', found herself in an immovable, apolitical role in the run-up to the 2015 same-sex marriage referendum, and was unable to publicly choose a side. In a Facebook post, she asked people to vote—just vote.
"Given the year that it's in, would I prefer to be apolitical? I mean…The funny thing is, in hindsight, I would have said the exact same thing as I've said in all my interviews in the run up to the referendum, regardless of whether I was an ambassador for a festival or not," she told me.
"I take my grey areas. So, if a journalist asks me [about my opinions on the same-sex marriage referendum], of course I want to get married in the country I was raised in—I have no problem saying that. But, equally, I think as a gay member of society, I would have lived as a gay member regardless of whether we passed the referendum or not. Do I think it's a human rights issue? Yes. Do I think the country is more ahead of its time than people think? Yes. And the referendum shows that."
Walsh firmly believes that the Rose of Tralee isn't outdated, antiquated, harmful or twee. Rather, she thinks that it's a reflection of contemporary Irish society, and a vital beacon for highlighting the role of modern Irish women in society today.
"I wanted to do two things," Walsh said. "One—showcase the fact that the festival was more than just two days on TV, and that, as a modern woman, you can achieve anything and everything if you put your heart to it, you roll up your sleeves, and you're willing to work hard. Bear in mind, I had kept my full time job and only left it in June in order to fully immerse myself in the festival for the past couple of weeks. The balancing act was obviously difficult. I was doing five days in Philadelphia and weekends here. I was doing that, pretty much for nine to ten months. For me, that's a modern woman. You're willing to balance yourself. You have to work extremely hard for a certain period of time to achieve the goals that you need to achieve."
"Yeah, we always get told, 'Oh, you only wear dresses,' or, 'You look lovely,' but how ever 'lovely lady' gained a negative connotation is beyond me. That's who a modern woman is now. She's adaptable, she's eager, she's confident. She's indeed beautiful, but that beauty could be external as well as internal. I think we're now, more than ever, looking at our balance of global and social active citizenship as well as our entrepreneurial side of the brain, and I think the modern woman has a nice balance of that."
Maria Walsh is correct: She is an ambassador. But she is also a beauty queen, and the Rose of Tralee a beauty pageant. That fact is beyond dispute. It is also a tourist attraction, an economy booster, a television event. It's complicated.
There are those that say that the Rose of Tralee operates within a deeply patriarchal framework and serves to patronize the women who enter and the women who watch in hundreds of thousands.
There are also those who would say that participating in the Rose of Tralee and framing it as a feminist choice may ultimately be harmful to Irish women, that it is a beauty contest hiding in plain sight underneath a pretty satin sash of neoliberal values.
And there are those who see the Rose of Tralee as a necessary thing. It is the one television event in Ireland that explicitly honors women. Those who enter are just doing what they can with the choices available to them, pushing to change it from the inside, and not to burn it down.
And then there are this year's Roses. Women who are anything but empty-headed. Women with bite. Women like the Perth Rose, Denise Lynch—whom I went to school with—who ably deflected a patronizing question about future marriage plans with the story of her boyfriend (not fiancé) giving her an engagement ring box… with a baby dwarf hamster in it. The Cork Rose, Aoife Murphy, who went from a bachelor's degree straight into a PhD because her grades were so high. The Meath Rose, Elysha Brennan, who was eventually crowned the 2015 Rose of Tralee, found out she had Hodgkin's lymphoma just before doing her final school exams (which she aced—she is now studying to be a doctor). Women you'd fight for in almost any circumstance.
Like I said: It's complicated.
It always rains on the Rose of Tralee. Every year, without fail, the clouds gather and a light sprinkling falls on the participants. On Saturday, the second day of the festival, it was different. It was sunny. Each Rose was twinned with a different pub in the town, and a sharp, clean light shone down on them as they paid their obligatory visits—a moment of real symbiosis in a culture so deeply enamoured with the business of drinking alcohol.
In the local McDonald's on the outskirts of town, Maria Walsh ran out of paper for autographs and had to sign napkins for the heaving, starstruck mass of young girls. Some had come prepared with notebooks; one page for every Rose, with pictures carefully inserted for visual reference. The children approach the Roses with reverence, and are rewarded with beatific smiles and kind words. For a week, these women are local celebrities.
The real autograph hunt happens during the Rose parade that evening, when families pack the streets and children run back and forth between floats, passing their notebooks to escorts (think a cross between a bodyguard and a personal assistant) to Roses and back again. The parade route goes by my house and every year, I watch it from my bedroom with friends, glasses of gin in hand, flailing our hands furiously at every Rose who looks in our direction. We wave and wave and wave until our arms hurt.
The floats go by. One a garden gazebo, a Cinderella's carriage, another mocked up to look like a slot machine. One looks just like Thomas the Tank Engine. In between are local drum and bagpipe bands and groups of children, dressed up and dancing in unison. Some of them are dressed up like Sweethearts candy.
The Rose of Tralee does represent modern Ireland—in all of its hypocrisies and contradictions, its amazing woman and all the restrictions placed on them. It represents Ireland as it is, not what it should be. Without it, people would be talking a lot less about the ways that Irish women are kept down and, unlike other behemoth cultural institutions, the festival does changes with the times, albeit at a slower pace than many people would like.
The church won't move and the government refuses to legislate for bodily autonomy. But the Rose of Tralee moves forward incrementally, year by year, powered by the remarkable, smart, vital women of substance behind it. Maria Walsh was right—it is a mirror of modern Irish womanhood: Full of difficult choices and irreconcilable things.