I’n the first to admit my cynicism regarding the Rose of Tralee contest for the past few years. Never in a million years did I think I would enter it.

Never in 10 million years did I think I would have the time of my life, as I did last Saturday while competing for the New York Rose of Tralee crown.

When it was suggested that I enter, I laughed before I agreed. I battled with the notion of being associated with a “pageant.”

I had worked hard to achieve my academic success, so didn’t entering a pageant go against the very thing I wanted to be -- an independent, ambitious, empowered young woman?

But I’m in New York, I’m trying things I would never try at home, so I figured, why not?

The first thing to know about the Rose of Tralee is that it is not a beauty pageant. I’m no fool; I would never enter a beauty pageant. As my brothers remind me too often, the only modeling I could ever do would be for balaclavas.

So I signed up. I saw it as an opportunity to meet new people, dress up and have a story for the grandchildren.

The Rose of Tralee is a contest, not a pageant, as we know it. It is uniquely Irish and is about personality, Irish heritage and social awareness. It has nothing to do with aesthetic beauty.

Trying to explain it to my Indian, American and Australian friends who had never heard of it was a nightmare, because there is no equivalent. People just presume it’s a beauty contest, and it is everything but.

Last weekend was a busy one. The contestants had dinner together on Friday night, where we mingled and got to know one other.

It was a great idea, because we were together in a confined space for almost 12 hours on Saturday. The day began with breakfast, and then group interviews. The interviewers were friendly and made us feel at ease.

After a delicious buffet lunch we had individual interviews. These were about three minutes long, and we were asked general questions, like why we would like to be the rose, how we would be a role model, and others. After the individual interviews ended, the fun began. 

We had girls doing our hair and make-up, and we felt like a million dollars. We dressed up in our formal wear and headed to Legends, the venue for the selection.

The atmosphere in Legends was electric, and the roses, escorts, junior roses and rosebuds were downstairs, feeding off the ever-increasing noise of the crowds upstairs. Emcee Tommy Smyth was perfect for the job, and the night went excellently, without any hitches.  

The most impressive aspect of the experience for me was the quality of the girls. They were genuine, smart, funny, ambitious young women who were passionate about their Irish heritage.  

Being Irish born and raised, I lost sight of what the whole contest is about, and these girls reminded me. Some of their parents were highly emotional, and understandably so.

The Rose of Tralee began as a way of bringing emigrants back to Ireland and for them to celebrate their nationality at a time when there was nothing for them in Ireland. The contest is in its 50th year, and that is testament to the organizers and the Irish diaspora.

I had to remind myself that most of these girls had parents or grandparents who left Ireland with little choice, and to see their beloved daughter/granddaughter entering the Rose of Tralee meant the world to them.

When the lovely Genevieve O’Reilly won the New Jersey Rose Title, the first thing I thought of was her father, the Cavan man who was bursting with pride as he took pictures with her. I don’t think it could ever mean that much to my dad.

When the winners were announced -- Ashling Colton for New York and Genevieve for New Jersey -- everyone was genuinely happy for them. It sounds cliché, but there were real friendships made.

The seven New York Roses and the nine New Jersey Roses got on like a house on fire, and we’re already planning a reunion. The escorts brought the craic to the event, and the rosebuds brought the cuteness.

I regret my cynicism, and I can’t believe I doubted entering. I made some fantastic friends, and I have such faith in the Irish diaspora being kept alive. I recommend it to anyone.

The Rose of Tralee is one of the ways to keep our heritage alive, and I hope it continues for another 50 years. It was an amazing opportunity, and I want to thank the two main organizers, Rita Talty and Susan Stanek, who not only organized everything, but also were great fun while doing so. I also want to thank my sponsors, the Irish Voice and IrishCentral.com.

A big thank you goes to the other girls, who completely shattered the stereotype that is sometimes associated with the Rose of Tralee. And congratulations to the two winners, Ashling and Genevieve, who will go to Ireland and represent a great bunch of girls in New York and New Jersey.