2014 newsmaker: Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh
‘It became a conversation point for young people not comfortable talking about their sexuality’
Rose of Tralee: Maria Walsh after her victory. Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus
Maria Walsh is still adjusting to the pace of being the Rose of Tralee. In the past four months she has visited impoverished children in Kolkata, helped to build schools in South Africa and met more people than she could have ever imagined.
Acting as an ambassador for the festival, she says, gives her the chance to celebrate Irish communities abroad and set an example as a nondrinking volunteer with an exceptional work ethic.
But Walsh realised that her coronation may be notable for another reason when, shortly after winning the festival, a reporter asked if the 27-year-old would be comfortable announcing that she was the first gay Rose of Tralee.
“I’ve been living as an openly gay person for nearly three years,” says Walsh, a studio manager for the clothing brand Anthropologie in Philadelphia.
“My only concern [with the story] was my parents, because, like any child, you want them to feel secure – as I’m sure they felt about me. I remember both my parents saying, ‘Are you sure, Maria? When this comes out it’s going to be everywhere.’ But we all felt good about it. The Rose of Tralee committee supported me, and I was delighted at how it came out.”
Someone’s sexuality needn’t be headline news, as many observed, but the reaction proved notable for the widespread goodwill Walsh received.
“The positives overwhelmingly outweighed the negatives,” she says. “So many people reached out. I’ve gotten handwritten letters to my workplace. My parents got phone calls and were stopped on the street just so people could say ‘Fair play’.
“I’ve been inundated with messages saying that it became a conversation point for younger people who are not [otherwise] comfortable talking about their sexuality with family or friends.”
Walsh appreciates that, from an outsider’s perspective, the Rose of Tralee may have appeared more relevant following the attention that surrounded this year’s festival. But she says that if you ask anyone on the inside, such as the 200,000 people who attend every year, they’ll know it simply shed light on something that already existed.
“The Rose of Tralee is always looking for ways to celebrate women, and it’s far more modern than people give it credit for,” she says. “Some people don’t see that. I understand the Father Ted-isms, but if calling us ‘lovely ladies’ is the most negative thing someone can say about the festival, then I’ll take that.”