2016 people: Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins. ‘Was it worth it? Yes’

‘Should I have kept my mouth shut? Honestly, I would have made a crap Rose of Tralee’

The 2016 Sydney Rose, Brianna Parkins, calls for a referendum on the Eighth Amendment while on stage in Tralee. Video: RTÉ


Everyone has their coping mechanism. Some have exercise, some therapy. Mine is biscuits. Preferably supermarket-bought and preservative-filled. Every time I got a death threat or a rape threat I bought a packet of biscuits. We ate a lot of biscuits in my office in that first month after the Rose of Tralee. I suspect it’s one the main reason my contract at work was renewed for next season.

The biscuits started after I went on live TV during the Rose of Tralee in August and advocated for a referendum on the eighth amendment of the Irish Constitution. Apparently advocating for women’s reproductive rights causes a bit of controversy when done in a an apolitical show gently mocked as a “lovely ladies contest.”

On the train from Tralee to Dublin two days later I wrote an article for The Irish Times about my mixed experience as the Sydney Rose of Tralee festival. The phrase “a Kate Middleton impersonation competition” might have been included.

I still field a lot of media requests. It’s strange being on the other side. Normally I’m the one begging people to talk to me, so I try to be empathetic. I know what it’s like to have a boss and a deadline and a page to fill. I’m asked probing questions, such as: So, do you believe in abortion on demand? What about late-term abortions? How should a referendum campaign be structured?

We would have all saved ourselves time if they had asked me these questions in the beginning, on the Rose tour. Instead journalists asked me how many shoes I had packed.

There is one question that keeps coming up: Was it worth it? My answer is yes. But it did cost me.

I realised there are points in life when making your family proud and making yourself proud are not necessarily the same thing. It’s hard for any parent to see their child being criticised, especially on a public platform.

I worried, and still worry, that I made a holy show of my parents, my grandmother and my extended family in Ireland. If I did they’re all too polite to say anything. Or maybe that’s just what good families do.

My biggest achievement in Tralee was managing to shock my father, a man whose day job is running into burning buildings. But I guess almost 30 years as a firefighter is poor preparation for sitting in a tuxedo on the TV while your daughter becomes an instant controversy.

Luckily, my dad is a typical Australian: unflappable, irreverent and dry-witted. “Look, Ireland has a long way to go to get blindsided, but there’s nothing like being the father of a Rose . . . And because you’re all over YouTube you saved us from having to buy the DVD for €60.”

The other question that keeps popping up in my inbox is: Do I think the Rose should continue? As a feminist, shouldn’t I resent it? The answers are yes and no. If you can’t love something fiercely but still be highly critical of it you’ve never had a mother-daughter relationship.

In the past month countless men have told me to shut up. Sometimes in 140 characters on Twitter, sometimes in long newspaper columns.

Which is why the Rose of Tralee, in its flawed and fabulous way, should remain. It’s one of the few platforms afforded exclusively to women to talk about things that matter to them.

I have issues with the festival, but I maintain that the best to way to influence change is by being inside the tent, and I challenge other feminists to do the same. Fill out that Rose selection form. We need you.

Since August the common theme among all of us Roses is that we have less tolerance for anything substandard: jobs, relationships, social issues. We all speak up louder and faster when things don’t seem right. It’s made me more sensitised to bullshit than ever and less inclined to be talked over the top of.

The Rose of Tralee really did provide me with an international girl gang. In our mid-20s we start to lose our precious female friends quickly to moves, marriages and babies. The Rose gives you a ready-made and fiercely loyal pack of new friends.

Back in Sydney my local Rose committee fought for me, both behind the scenes and publicly. Even when they were mad at me, especially when they were mad at me because that’s what good families do.

Before I left for Ireland last year’s Sydney Rose gave me a card that read “F**k the Begrudgers”. It now hangs above my desk. Everyone needs this kind of support committee behind them in life.

I also found a large and unexpected support group in the people of Ireland. Despite my criticism of your country’s laws, you stood up for me on the internet, at kitchen tables and in newspapers. You read my article. You wrote me nice emails. You wrote 6,000 compliments about me to RTÉ. You even took the time to write nice ones to my parents. The millions of “fair play to ye”s that came my way kept me going at low points.

You also wrote to me about your abortions. Your anger at having to leave your husbands and children behind to sit in foreign waiting rooms alone.

To these women I say don’t ever let anyone tell you it’s not the place to talk about the Eighth Amendment. Especially not by middle-aged, middle-class men, who seem to be the most excited to give their unwanted opinions about what I had to say. They will never have to sit bleeding on a plane or boat home. We have more skin in the game than they do. Always have. Always will.

Lastly, I was asked what I would do differently. Should I have kept my mouth shut and won instead?

In all honesty, I would have made a crap Rose of Tralee in the traditional sense. I don’t have Maria or Maggie’s discipline to stay apolitical.

I knew when I walked out on stage that I would rather go home as myself than as the Rose of Tralee. I know I’ve signed up for being included in the 10 most controversial Rose of Tralee highlights reel for life. But I would do it all again.

Still, there are some things I would have done differently – and I recommend them to future Roses and non-Roses. Speak up sooner and louder about things that bother you. Wear comfortable shoes. And, lastly, f**k the begrudgers.

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