How a Kerry Rose challenged my assumptions
As a 1970s emigrant I looked over my shoulder at the Rose of Tralee as a kind of Father Ted Lovely Girl Contest, but a meeting this week revealed a different side to the competition, writes Felicity Hayes-McCoy
Back in the 1970s, I took the mail boat to England and, ever since, I’ve been an emigrant. When you’re only just across the water and you come home regularly, it’s hard to see yourself that way. It’s even harder now that my life’s divided between a house in the West Kerry Gaeltacht and a pied a terre in London’s Bermondsey. But that’s what I am. And, to my shame, like emigrants everywhere, many of my unconscious assumptions about the country I was raised in are actually way out of date.
I left Dublin as a card-carrying feminist. It’s a generational thing. I was born into an Ireland in which the aspirations of women like Hannah Sheehy Skeffinton and Constance Markievicz had been crushed by the steady State erosion of women’s rights. As a member of Cumann na mBan, my mother’s cousin Marion Stokes had been one of the garrison in Enniscorthy’s Athenaeum during the 1916 Rising. Yet I grew up in a society in which, according to the Constitution of 1937, the proper sphere of women was declared to be the home.
The Ireland of my childhood and teens was the product of repressive legislation supported by the extraordinary level of influence held by the Catholic Church. Contrary to the position only forty years or so earlier, female representation in affairs of state was almost unknown; women had presided over republican courts during the War of Independence, for example, yet by 1927 a law had been passed refusing us the right even to sit on juries. That law remained on the statute book until 1976. The marriage bar, which required female public servants and women who worked in banking to give up their jobs when they married, was enforced in 1933. It was still in place in 1973, and we had to wait until 1977 for The Employment Equality Act, which prohibited discrimination on the grounds of gender or marital status in almost all areas of employment.
My mother worked in a shop in Grafton Street before she married but, like many of her generation, found herself pressured into giving up paid employment and settling for the role of housewife. She and my father wanted more than that for their daughters, but the state clearly didn’t. There was little career advice and definitely no sex education when I was at school. During my eldest sister’s time at UCD, female students were forbidden to wear trousers and were policed by a fearsome Dean of Women Students whose main function appeared to be to confine them to their own common room, segregated from the men. But by the time I reached university, the winds of change were blowing, and what’s now known as the second wave of Irish feminism had begun.
Those were the days of bad-ass women like Nell McCafferty, Mary Kenny and Nuala O’Faolain. I remember the euphoria of my peers when, early in 1971, Mary Robinson tried to introduce a bill on liberalising the law on contraception into the Seanad, and our fury when, because it wasn’t allowed a reading, it couldn’t be discussed. Then came more euphoria – and outrage on the news and in the pulpits – when a group of feminist activists travelled from Dublin to Belfast by train and came back waving banners and armfuls of contraceptives. In that instance, it wasn’t just the repression of the law that outraged us, it was the illogicality. I remember getting a prescription for the pill at Dublin’s Fertility Guidance Clinic, which had spotted a loophole in the legal ban on selling contraceptives and begun to give them out free. The volunteer doctor there looked as if she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when it turned out I’d already been taking the pill for a year without knowing what it was, the male GP who’d prescribed it as a “regulator” for my painful periods having failed to mention its contraceptive properties. My mind still occasionally does somersaults imagining his thought-processes.
So that was the Ireland I left in the seventies. In London, concentrating on the kind of career my mother had been denied, I suppose the detail of the continuing political struggle at home became remote. The element that stayed with me most clearly was the hypocrisy I’d known when growing up. For me, women on pedestals were always suspect. I’d seen too much of the sentimental worship of mothers, and the elevation of “purity” to cult status, alongside the bland acceptance of wife-beaters, rapists and abusers as divils without a bit of harm in them or as put-upon victims tempted beyond their strength.
Cut then to a football pitch in Lispole last week and the Rose of Tralee Festival 2013. I’d an appointment to meet Gemma Kavanagh, this year’s Kerry Rose. It was a photo-op squeezed into her schedule in the run up to festival week. I was to present her with a copy of my memoir, The House on an Irish Hillside, have a few words and get out of her way. But, as I approached our rendezvous at the clubhouse, I found myself wondering what a card-carrying feminist should say to a contestant in a beauty pageant. At the back of my mind I’d always seen the Rose of Tralee as a kind of Father Ted Lovely Girl Contest, perpetuating all the awfulness of those hypocritical years and, with its huge international involvement and reach, spreading images I’d long rejected as both harmful and outmoded.
Turns out it was my assumptions that were outmoded. Gemma Kavanagh’s as bad-ass as they come. We met at the side of the football pitch where, without a hair out of place, and complete with stacked heels and satin sash, she was preparing to throw in the ball. Local kids, both boys and girls, crowded round her in tracksuits, eager for autographs. Later, in a side room in the clubhouse, when I said the beauty pageant words – which was probably bloody rude of me – her eyebrows rose and she asked very politely why I’d imagine, since she’s “an educated Irishwoman in her twenties” she’d “have anything to do with something that’s just a beauty pageant?” Then, having mentioned her degree in law, her Masters in journalism, and her regret that most of her contemporaries at university have been forced to leave the country to find work, she proceeded to shake up my assumptions and bring me up to date.
This is a woman who takes her role in the public eye very seriously, and was motivated to compete for it by a sense of its value to her community. The extent to which she herself values community is evident in her fixed determination not to emigrate. She insists she’ll ride out the recession at home and, more than that, she’s convinced that the tide’s going to turn. It hasn’t been easy. When it became clear that, despite her degrees, she could find no work in Ireland, she took another qualification, this time in medical practice management, and now works for her dad, who’s a GP.
Quiet, intelligent, and immensely self-assured, she sat on a table talking to me while a group of women in the hall next door sweated energetically through an exercise class. Outside, local volunteer trainers laid out the medals she’d shortly hand out as prizes to the chattering kids in their tracksuits, football boots and shorts. Her mum and dad who’d driven over with her from Killarney chatted in the evening sunlight and walked the family dog around the pitch. Gemma’s grandfather, Dan Larry Ó Cíobháin from Dhún Chaoin, played for Kerry in the All-Ireland in 1946. Roots matter, she says, these things are remembered. She sees her position as local Rose as an opportunity to boost positivity at a time when emigration’s kicking the heart out of rural communities. Her grandfather played in America as well. People go away when they have to. But they come back. Young people need to know that. They need to know it’s not all doom and gloom. The diaspora needs to know that Ireland’s still open for business. The Rose of Tralee doesn’t just provide local employment, she says, it’s one of many focal points for international awareness of Irishness, and whatever it projects is a reflection of the values and aspirations of those who make the choice to become involved.
We perched on a wall to have our photo taken. I was feeling a bit windswept but the Kerry Rose was poised and elegant. I don’t know if all Rose of Tralee contestants are so impressive and confident, or so certain that Ireland’s a great place to live and build a future. I know that I wasn’t when I was her age. Perhaps if I had been I wouldn’t have become an emigrant.
Felicity Hayes-McCoy is a Dublin-born writer who lives and works both in London and the West Kerry Gaeltacht. Her memoir, The House on an Irish Hillside, was published by Hodder & Stoughton UK and Hachette Ireland last year. She blogs at felicityhayes-mccoy.blogspot.ie.