The Rose of Tralee 2014: lovely, fair and gay
One of the hallmarks of a free society is that every citizen should be able to pursue whatever lifestyle choice he or she prefers, free from prejudice or discrimination, once those choices do not impinge on the rights of others. If you are one of the hundreds of thousands who tuned in to watch the Rose of Tralee earlier this month, for example, you can comfortably ignore the views of those who annually heap scorn on the pageant as a tatty relic of a benighted past. They are entitled to their preferences, and you to yours.
In truth, the Rose of Tralee long ago passed through the looking glass separating the pre-Lemass and post-Father Ted eras of Irish social history. Now that the newly-crowned Rose, Maria Walsh, has stated she is gay, a further stepping stone has been reached for this peculiar and unique Irish institution.
The festival’s organisers clearly view the announcement as a publicity coup to be exploited with Kerry canniness, describing Ms Walsh as “a wonderful person, an attractive, intelligent woman and a very worthy winner who happens to be gay,” and conceding that “her sexuality will no doubt create some interest, hopefully all positive”.
Public reaction has been notable for the genuine goodwill expressed towards the new Rose, along with a widespread sense that the news was not particularly earth-shattering. In less than a generation, gay people in Ireland have gone from being treated as criminals to being publicly accepted in a matter-of-fact way as being our friends, our relatives and our colleagues (which, of course, they always were).
That is not to say that prejudice and discrimination do not continue, or that further legislative reform is not required to address remaining inequalities. If the proposed referendum on marriage equality takes place as promised in the spring, then these issues will take centre stage as never before.
Let us hope that they will be treated in the same spirit of empathy and good humour we have seen this week.