Rose of Tralee: ‘I am gay. I hope some day I can and will be married’

Maria Walsh’s feet have hardly touched the ground since winning Tralee competition

Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh on critics of the festival and being a gay role model. Video: Ronan McGreevy

 

There’s no rest for the Rose of Tralee. “I think I’m still on the Ferris wheel,” Maria Walsh (27), the 56th Rose of Tralee says.

Her first media engagement took place just seven hours after her victory was announced. She spent a week in Ireland after that and went straight from her flight to work in Anthropologie, the clothing store where she works as a studio manager in Philadelphia.

There’s no time for jet lag. On Friday she flew back into Dublin for the first Late Late Show of the season, did a round of media engagements on Saturday and flew back to Philadelphia yesterday for work on Monday morning. “I asked my boss to be in a good mood on Monday when I go through the calendar,” she jokes.

Walsh was a popular Rose of Tralee and was nearly unbackable by the time she took to the stage in the dome. When she won, nobody was surprised other than herself.

The biggest surprise was the following Sunday when a newspaper revealed she was gay. Nobody in Tralee, not the judges nor the organisers, knew she was a lesbian, but she would have told them had she been asked. She has been openly gay for two years.

“It is normal,” she says. “Lesbian, is that the word you are looking for? If I can’t make a joke out of it, who can?”

When she told the Rose of Tralee organisers “after the fact” that she was gay, they were “delighted”, she recalls.

Of course they were. In one fell swoop, Walsh has confounded all the criticisms which are as perennial as the festival itself; that it is twee, stuck in the 1950s and attractive only to women who aspire to become the Irish version of a Stepford wife.

She is comfortable with the idea of becoming a gay icon in Ireland, saying on the Late Late that her year as Rose of Tralee will be worth it if it helps one young gay person to be happy with their sexuality.

As for same-sex marriage, she is understandably in favour. “I am gay. I hope some day I can and I will be married. If any country that I call home welcomes that, that’s great.”

As much as she is a gay icon, she is also an icon of the modern Irish emigrant. Not for her the familiar lament of a lack of opportunities at home when she left Ireland as tens of thousands of her contemporaries have done since the recession started.

“I was extremely fortunate here [in Ireland]. I had worked all through college in the TV world working with great production companies, Shinawil, Endemol, Adare, ” she says.

She moved to New York four years ago. “I had always wanted to take a bit out of America and make a little stamp there.”

When she moved to New York, she knew one person; when she moved to Philadelphia a year later to take up a job in Anthropologie she knew nobody.

She comes from a family and a county (Mayo) where emigration is a way of life. Her parents moved back to Shrule in Mayo from Boston when she was seven. Was moving to Philadelphia knowing nobody a wrench?

“There is so many before me who have done it. It was never something that could not be achieved. There was always a great home to come back to if it didn’t work out.”

Within a day she got a call from the Notre Dame Ladies GAA club in the city to join them. It was there she met the woman with whom she fell in love, an Irish woman who had come over to play football for the summer. They are no longer together but her former lover did come to Tralee to support her.

She is a fan of the Rose of Tralee festival because it too gave her an entrée into a city where she knew nobody. She even entered the Philadelphia Rose competition in 2012. “Shucks, I didn’t win,” she says, but the woman who did, Elizabeth Spellman, was her centre representative at the festival.

She described critics of the festival as “small” although it is unclear whether she means in mind or in number. “When you think 200,000 people make the Rose of Tralee their family holiday, how could there be any negative stigma towards that?”