It would be hard to find an event more closely linked to the Irish heart than the Rose of Tralee.
Annually more people watch the event than any other program on Irish television as young women from all over the world vie for the crown and seem to become the very embodiment of what Irish identity is about.
The festival is based on the famous ballad “The Rose of Tralee,” and over the decades it has become a powerful tourist draw to Tralee, Co. Kerry in late August as well as a media mega event especially in the slow last days of summer.
While some find it twee and patronizing to the women, the event captures the Irish imagination year after year, a late summer confection that grabs the attention of the entire country.
It would be a grave mistake to portray the Rose of Tralee as a beauty pageant because it is much more than that. It’s an event that celebrates the Irish diaspora, an event that embodies so much about the Irish spirit and a mirror in which Ireland and the Irish abroad can see its own changing mores.
The latter was certainly the case this year when the winner, Philadelphia Rose Maria Walsh, stated she was gay and proud of it after her victory.
Such a statement would have been utterly impossible only a few short years ago and it certainly captured the headlines in dramatic fashion.
The extent to which Ireland has moved on was obvious from that reaction. Former Irish cabinet minister Mary O’Rourke put it best when she stated, using words from the Rose of Tralee song, that the “truth in her eyes ever dawning” made Walsh’s statement a great moment for the event.
That is certainly true. Ireland has had more than enough hidden truths over recent years, many of them malevolent and dark about guardians of society there.
About the only good to emerge from those scandals is the move towards transparency and openness and the elimination of hidden agendas.
The Rose of Tralee story is certainly an example of that. Walsh moved quickly to talk about how her identity as a gay Irish American woman was nothing she was trying to hide or conceal.
She was dead right to come out, so to speak. The sun rose and the Irish absorbed the news calmly.
It is a different Ireland now and a different Rose of Tralee too. The country will be better off for such openness and transparency.
Walsh embodies much of the Irish emigrant experience. She was born in Boston, moved back to Ireland and Mayo at an early age, and returned again as a young woman to Philadelphia. Now she has taken the Rose of Tralee crown.
Rose of Tralee executive international chairman Anthony O’Gara said the festival was "delighted to have chosen Walsh as this year’s Rose."
“She is a wonderful person. An attractive, intelligent woman and a very worthy winner, who happens to be gay.
“Her sexuality will no doubt create some interest, hopefully all positive. She wants to be celebrated as Maria Walsh in the complete sense of her person and hopefully everybody will respect that.”
Amen to that.