Rose of Tralee 2023: Brianna Parkins on the real winner of this year’s competition

Television: Only the strongest can survive the contest’s format of doing a tell-us-about-yourself exercise in Spanx and a ball gown on live television

At the end of this year’s Rose of Tralee International Festival (RTÉ One, Monday and Tuesday) New York’s Róisín Wiley takes the 2023 title, the car and the crystal perpetual trophy for her hallway or, maybe, her downstairs loo. Perhaps the real winner, though, is mental-health advocacy, not to mention the spirit of openness required for Roses to tell tales of resilience in the face of devastating grief.

We’ve been back in the Rose Dome, aka Munster Technological University’s sports hall, for the 2023 competition’s final night. Kathryn Thomas began it in a fetching pink dress with delicate marshmallow sleeves before making an exciting half-time change into a black-and-white strapless number. Dáithí Ó Sé has been wearing a tuxedo throughout, which is far less interesting, but we don’t want to upset him by leaving him out, wee lamb.

It’s important to remember, as the cohosts talk to the Roses, that the televised section is the smallest part of the contest. If you sense that the participants feel unnatural or awkward at some points, it’s because the competition process is unnatural and awkward. The format is essentially for each Rose to do a corporate-icebreaking tell-us-about-yourself exercise in Spanx and a ball gown on live television – something only the strongest of us can survive.

Think on that if you’re ever tempted to point at a Rose’s dress and go, “I wouldn’t have worn that now.” Of course you wouldn’t, because you’re sat on your hole at home with biscuit crumbs in the lap of your tracksuit bottoms.


The Germany Rose, Megan Wolf, is eloquent about her passion for pole dancing, but there’s no demonstration, not even from Ó Sé. It was a “step too far to get a pole in”, Thomas says. A woman cohost is enough progress for one year, thank you very much.

In a test of presenting segues, she then moves seamlessly from spicy gymnastics invented by sex workers to Minister for Education Norma Foley. But not before Wolf is asked about her response to people who “think the Rose of Tralee is outdated”. This is the second time a question like this has been asked over the two nights, which suggests the criticisms have touched a nerve. It’s odd timing, though: the same accusations have been levelled at the festival for decades – and the Lovely Girls episode of Father Ted first aired in 1996.

Then it’s time to get the tissues out, as the New Zealand Rose, Kelsi Wallace, makes us cry the first tears of the night by talking with dignity and grace about her brother, “who lost his battle with mental health”.

We need more tissues when the brave and resilient Clare Rose, Aisling O’Connor, talks about the deaths of her parents in tragic circumstances. There isn’t a dry eye in the house as she talks about the fridge strapped to the gatepost at the end of her lane so the people of Feakle could leave food without intruding on her and her siblings’ grief.

“We have the cleanest kitchen in the parish,” O’Connor says, which she adds is the doing of her five brothers, who stepped up to shoulder household duties. In a fantastic advertisement to the eligible women of Ireland, she explains that “they cook, they clean, they do it all – and a couple of them are single”.

Just as the Boston Rose danced to I’m Shipping Up to Boston, the Texas Rose treats us to line dancing, which creates a reassuring sense of constancy – sometimes things staying the same after too many “unprecedented” years is just what we need. But, in keeping with the true nature of the competition, we hear about her harrowing experiences as a court-appointed children’s advocate in her home state, because life, if anything, is about light and shade.

Ó Sé’s attempts at Boot Scootin’ Boogie proudly fly the flag for arrhythmic but enthusiastic Irish men on dance floors everywhere. Representation is important, as we well know.

Speaking of which, the South Australia Rose, Charlotte Burton, has broken ground as the competition’s first married woman and as autistic woman, for whom taking part in an event like this can at times be neurodivergent stimulation hell.

She tells us that we “can all make small adjustments” to make situations more inclusive and comfortable for everyone. “Just small things, like allowing me quiet time on the bus or allowing me to have a quick fidget. Those small things make a world of difference,” she explains in what amounts to a public-service announcement.

Then she shows she has our number by explaining that Irish people are reluctant to seek help because of intergenerational trauma. “We’d rather just grin and bear it than acknowledge we need extra help.”

Like the Limerick and Philadelphia Roses before her, she represents an honesty about neurodiversity that I didn’t think could exist in the Rose of Tralee competition. Their presence and the raw discussions of mental health have broken the old suck-it-up-and-smile model that previous generations (like mine) didn’t dare breach.

The Longford Rose, a midwife named Grace Kemple, then shows us a real talent by demonstrating infant CPR. People give out about practical party pieces like this, but what’s more impressive, breathing life back into a child or warbling out Hibernia? Exactly.

The Sydney Rose, Aoife Butler, speaks about hearing over the phone, at the age of 21, that her brother had died by suicide while he was living in Australia. She became a mental-health nurse and, despite the heavy emotions it entailed, followed her brother’s footsteps to the last place he lived. She urges people to seek help if they need it. “There are professional people like me who will hold hope for you,” she says as we sniffle along.

Then it’s time to hear who’s taking home the tiara. Except it isn’t: it’s time instead for lengthy clips of Roses smiling, then waving, then smiling and waving, then smiling and waving while doing things like canoeing. The programme cuts to a break. When it returns, we must first hear from The Tumbling Paddies, who are, unfortunately, a band and a troupe of acrobats.

They seem like nice lads, but in fairness we want to know who’s won so some of us can go to bed and the Roses can finally go on the lash. Their rendition of The Irish Rover is, surely, all that stands between us and freedom.

But then we have another speech while the Roses nervously wait in the background. Finally, we get to the part we’ve been waiting for, when we get to find out who’s won (if we’re nice people) or (if we’re terrible people) when we try to spot who’s raging they haven’t won in the split second before they rearrange their faces.

As Róisín Wiley, the New York Rose, who’s a vice-president of sales at a marketing company, floats off into the confetti for her reigning year, the rest of us put away the tissues and change the channel, frustrated that, once again, the earnestness of young women just doing their best, plus our Irish compulsion to say “fair play” to people putting themselves out there, has got to us again.

Brianna Parkins, an Irish Times columnist, was the Sydney Rose in 2016