Rose of Tralee comes down to earth without a bump

Skydiving holder ‘running on adrenalin’ as she completes one of the last tasks in her reign

Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh parachuting into Tralee Town Park  with skydive instructor Karl Carey, at the Skyfest Air Display on Sunday. Photograph: Domnick Walsh

Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh parachuting into Tralee Town Park with skydive instructor Karl Carey, at the Skyfest Air Display on Sunday. Photograph: Domnick Walsh

 

Maria Walsh is afraid of heights but it did not stop her performing a tandem jump from 10,000ft yesterday, parachuting into Tralee Town Park.

Despite being described by the Rose of Tralee chief executive Anthony O’Gara as a “force of nature”, the forces of nature almost thwarted her skydive as low cloud and drizzle threatened to scupper her plans, but the skies cleared.

Midway through the dive, her tuxedo-wearing escort and skydiver handed her a rose. “I hope this becomes an annual thing. Tralee looks pretty sweet from up there,” she said.

The sky dive is one of her last acts as the 2014 Rose of Tralee. “Come next Tuesday night, I think I’ll go to sleep for a few months,” she joked. Since becoming Rose of Tralee a year ago, Ms Walsh has exhibited an inexhaustible reservoir of energy to become arguably the most high profile winner of all.

Her journey to Tralee is of a piece with the manner in which her year has progressed. She left her native Shrule in Co Mayo on Tuesday and cycled and ran to Tralee, a journey of 242 kilometres, over four days.

“I’m on this thing called adrenaline right now. Come Wednesday morning, there will be nothing left in the tank.”

She was in the Maldron hotel at Dublin Airport 63 times in the last year, she estimates. “I did so many flights, I didn’t bother counting them.” As for jet lag, you don’t get it when you are always on flights, she points out.

The relentless carousel has all been in a good cause. “I love people, it has never been tiresome.”

From August to Christmas last year she flew home every weekend from Philadelphia for engagements in Ireland. She has been to Calcutta, Chernobyl and Tanzania and all the 32 counties of Ireland.

Something had to give. In June she left her job in Anthropologie, a fashion chain in Philadelphia, but on amicable terms. Her employer had being understanding beyond the call of duty, she says, but it was time to pursue new opportunities. “They were very sweet. They’ve said I can come back if and when I want.”

She is now looking to pursue a career in Ireland, possibly in the media field (she has a degree in journalism from Griffith College) or by starting her own company. She will speak at Tralee’s first International Women’s Business conference on Monday, which is being run in conjunction with the festival.

No longer being Rose of Tralee will be “bitter sweet”, she says. “Each year a baton is passed. I’m just the 56th Rose. There’s a lot of Roses behind me and in front of me.”

Barely a week after winning the contest, Maria Walsh made it public that she was gay. In one fell swoop she challenged the entrenched perceptions of the festival being a bastion of conservative values.

No agonising

“But it has been so positive. It goes to show that Ireland is probably a lot more progressive than we give it credit for. I was at the Ploughing Championships in September and I met a few of the older generation. You would take the view that they wouldn’t understand my sexuality choices, and they came up and congratulated me for coming out and being proud about that.

“The more communication we have around sexuality, the more you are going to see a reduction in suicide, in depression and the closet effect. I was blown away by the positivity. Even if it turned negative, I can’t change who I am.”