Before I go on stage at the Rose of Tralee my big worry is dancing the samba. My opinions about women’s reproductive rights, and by extension about the eighth amendment to Ireland’s Constitution, are solid, formed when I was a teenager. But samba I started only six months ago.
As I walk out I imagine my white-girl hip-and-hand actions ricocheting around Twitter’s echo chamber of amateur comedians for a couple of hours before I fade into obscurity. Afterwards I come off stage sweating in my puffy rental dress, hoping I’ve kept my legs straight and my hips back. The hard part, I think to myself, is over.
I relax with my room-mate, the Mayo rose, who congratulates me on sneaking a cheeky Father Ted reference in on stage. I'm rubbing fake tan into her back when she lets out a shout. She tells me to check Twitter.
I was not supposed to be a rose. When I was crowned in Sydney my mother locked eyes with me and mouthed the words, “What the f***?” From the start she worried that I wouldn’t fit in, that I would be judged too harshly.
I have always been her rough-and-tumble Aussie daughter, running around barefoot with a swearing habit that would make a sailor blush. “Try not to be yourself too much,” she warns me kindly. But really it’s her fault I entered. She brought me up with too much confidence and grit to care what other people think, and taught me feminism at the table.
My grandmother cries and eventually books a ticket to come with me. This will probably be her last trip home, to a country she still gets homesick for despite being gone for 50 years. I don’t care what happens now, because I get to walk the streets of her city with her.
Until I visited Dublin the place existed only in family tales of the old country. They had lived in inner-city tenements around the Five Lamps and the Liberties.
When my grandparents swapped their family and friends Dublin’s dance halls for the dusty sprawl of Sydney’s west they did it to give their children and grandchildren a better chance.
It paid off. In two short generations I become the first in my family to have a university degree. It’s not because I’m particularly smart or ambitious. I’m just the first generation of my family’s women to have a real choice about when to start a family.
When I got my first journalist’s job I cried. Immigrants’ kids live the dreams their parents were denied, and I often feel guilty about what my mother and grandmother could have done. But I pack up all the guilt and pride and family baggage in my Tralee suitcase and bring it to the festival with me.
The night before it starts I meet my grandmother’s siblings, the Buckleys, for the first time. They add to my collection of family history and sing all the Irish songs that used to embarrass me as a teenager. “We never thought we would have a rose,” my great uncle says.
I don’t want to let them down.
I arrive at the festival hotel and feel immediately intimidated. As a journalist I’ve knocked on the doors of illegal brothels, argued with politicians and visited the clubhouses of biker gangs. But these girls in funny hats and matching shoes send me back into high-school levels of insecurity. My two degrees mean squat.
Everyone looks untouchably ladylike. I bet myself that they’ve never had to wee in a bush, wear mismatched underwear or drink wine from the bottle. After we’ve finished eyeing each other off we sit down for some “housekeeping” rules. There is a social-media ban, we have to be up at 6am and if we smoke we must do so away from prying eyes.
The festival’s media representative warns us that journalists will ask about the festival being outdated and the lovely-girls competition. “There’s nothing wrong with being called lovely,” he jokes. I look at the ground. He tells us that the festival is apolitical and that despite an American election going on we should avoid questions on that subject. I catch some of the Americans and Canadians stiffen in their floral dresses, and I start to feel uneasy.
I have strong opinions about everything from the best flavour of Taytos to Indonesia’s international relations. I put a lot of them on my application form. I assure myself that feminism is as personal as it is political and accept the wine I’ve been given.
Most of our tour consists of smiling and waving at photo opportunities for sponsors. Everyone calls us girls. “Pretend you’re having fun!” say the photographers. I get to pat two horses in one day in Kildare. They try to get us excited for visiting an outlet mall by telling us: “You even have a couple of hours to shop, girls!” Most of us buy flat shoes and food.
A documentary crew interview us about what the other girls are like and how we feel about the competition. I think we disappoint them with our honest but boring answers.
I discover that you have to sing on the bus and that the American and Irish girls can all sing much better then I can. They make us sing Lean on Me. I mouth the words and try to get in the spirit. We hear the song The Rose of Tralee about twice a day, but I still never learn the second verse.
We're starting to bond. My room-mate and I speak almost entirely in Father Ted quotes now. The roses have all cottoned that the schedule requires us to to be ready 15-30 minutes before we actually have to be, and small acts of rebellion appear.
My friend sends a “Repeal the 8th” shirt to me at the hotel. I think about doing a Facebook post but lose my nerve and stick to the rules. It becomes my pyjamas for the week.
The chaperones wink when they tell us we’ll be meeting escorts soon, and the girls whoop and cheer. We all pretend we’ve never seen a man before.
On the bus to Ballybunion I learn about taxation and statehood from the Washington rose. We talk about reproductive rights and equal pay. She tells me about losing her mum, and I hope she wins.
A few of us are beginning to feel uncomfortable with the smiling-and-waving tour that seems like a great big Kate Middleton impersonation contest. I’m told my judging interviews will be first, and I’m excited to be asked how I feel about something.
The Irish girls are asked about abortion in group interviews, and between photo ops and sash adjustments we talk about what we think. Some talk about friends making the trip to Liverpool and the stress a late period brings about. Some worry it will be used as contraception. Others stress the church’s viewpoint. They’re friendly exchanges.
I meet Dáithí Ó Sé for a preliminary chat, and we talk about my women’s activism and experiences interviewing sex workers. I overhear an official say that I won’t get through because I’m “too racy”, and I laugh. I’ve been PG-rated all week compared to myself at home.
But it shakes me: my family have told all their friends to watch me on TV, and my family have come a long way if it’s only to see me fail. I start caring more.
On the Saturday night a documentary crew arrive, and we’re told that from 6.30am on the Sunday we won’t be allowed to leave our rooms. Our phones will be taken from us and we’ll be put into groups. They’ll then take us to rooms where we’ll be told, on camera, whether we have made it through to the live televised competition. We’re told to trust the team and that this is how TV works.
My bullshit detector goes off and I surmise that this is not a documentary but reality TV. One girl wonders if they’ll turn the cameras off if we cry. I tell her that’s not how TV works. I think about breaking the social-media ban but don’t.
The next day girls are given different coloured roses and asked by the organisers what they think it means – even though we don’t know and the producers do.
They lead us into a room and tell us to look at the camera, which is positioned right in my face. We’re told that if we look backwards we’ll have to start the tortuous process again.
I round on the documentary team and a festival co-ordinator and explain that set-up shots in documentary cross ethical boundaries. He assures me, again, that this is how TV works. I tell him that I work in the sector, and it doesn’t work like this. My voice reverts to the housing-estate accent that I get when I’m angry, and I worry about the 19-year-old girls in the room.
They ask us to sing Lean on Me, and the judge tearfully tells us we got through. I refuse to react for the camera. A lot of us turn away and do the same.
Parents and roses are furious at this episode. The mood changes. We start rewearing clothes, don flat shoes and stop being on time. My room-mate doesn't make it through, and I tell the chaperone we are not going to the scheduled Mass. We watch Father Ted in bed.
I’m angry when I take to the stage on Monday night. I’ve spent months defending the festival, convincing my boss, family and friends that this is an event that respects and celebrates women.
My interview on stage seems to last for hours, and my comments on my brothel investigations meet silence in the dome. When the women’s-rights question comes up I know I will mention the need for a referendum. For all the platitudes about respecting women I think it is time for the festival – and myself – to live up to what we’ve been saying about empowerment. It takes a couple of seconds of sweaty bravery, but I walk off stage proud of myself . Then I look at Twitter.
I don’t know why a girl in a ball gown and sash repeating the same thing that Ireland’s women’s-rights campaigners have been saying for decades has made such an impact. But the threats come quickly.
I tell my parents to stop wearing T-shirts with my face on them and to leave the banners at home. I try to call my grandmother to see if she’s mad at me, but she’s gone to bed. I don’t sleep that night.
On Tuesday roses hug me and say they admire my guts and stupidity. One holds my hand and tells me I won’t win now. In the lobby a little girl comes over for an autograph, but when her mother reads my sash she pulls her away.
I get pulled into a room with the media manager, who tells me I’ve “let him down”. I tell him I feel the same way about having been exposed to the TV crew. He listens to me respectfully and tells me he won’t gag me or punish me.
I’m surprised but grateful.
We clap and hug Maggie, the Chicago rose, when she wins. I get nervous about the midnight parade. I tell the other girls on the float to stand away, anticipating that something might be thrown at me. But I’m greeted by mothers wanting to get selfies with their daughters and a “Thank you Sydney rose” banner. I cry for the first time in years. Loudly and unattractively.
The festival, with its frustrations and boob tape, and family pride and female bonding, has come to an end. I stand by the festival, but I believe it’s time for it to change. If it doesn’t accept that women who enter will want to have political opinions then it risks being on the wrong side of history.
Almost all of the 64 women have come up and hugged me by 6am as we celebrate in a sticky-floored pub in Tralee. I have couches to crash on all over the world. Even the escorts and some officials quietly congratulate me. At the end of the day we were all here to do our mothers proud and to represent our counties and cities. Every one of us walks away with our head held high.
I still can’t quite believe the hospitality I was shown in my family’s homeland. It has made me prouder then ever to have dual heritage. But for now I want to go back to my island home, and back to the newsroom where no one gives a damn if I wear a sash or not.