First Published June 2018
TEA AND A TIARA – THE CROWNING OF OUR JENNIFER!
When Offaly Rose Jennifer Byrne was crowned the Rose of Tralee last year, it was a proud and historic moment for the Faithful County. After all, Emma Kirwan had been our first Rose to even make it all the way to the Dome only the previous year, representing us brilliantly along the way, it should be noted. So to see the famous tiara being placed upon Jennifer‘s head just one year later was certainly a reason to celebrate. Jennifer‘s year as the Rose of Tralee still has a few miles of road left to cover, but her time as the Offaly Rose drew to a close recently when she handed over the Offaly sash to our new Rose, Katie Kehoe.
Now, I should mention that Jennifer is actually my cousin, her mam and mine being first cousins, you see. But funnily enough, the first time I even realised that was when I heard she had been selected as the Offaly Rose last year, because Jennifer and I had never actually met. Then, the next thing I knew was that Jennifer was THE Rose of Tralee as well! Over the course of the last year I’ve been to numerous events where Jennifer has been the special guest, but no time ever seemed like the right time to suddenly announce, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re cousins!’
However, at this year’s Offaly Rose selection night, I did – finally – get to meet and sit down for a chat with Jennifer before the evening commenced and her time as the Offaly Rose officially came to an end. In or around a year ago, Jennifer was in exactly the same position as all of Offaly’s potential Roses for 2018. So I began by asking Jennifer if she could take me back to that evening, and how she was feeling at the time?
“Yeah, so actually I think one of the hardest parts of the whole year was actually deciding to go for the Offaly Rose in the first place, because it is a big step. And the girls who are going for it tonight should be very proud of themselves for taking that step and going for it. It was an absolutely life-changing experience for me. I remember going into my sponsor, who was Ferbane Total Health Pharmacy [for the first time], and Anne-Marie has been so good to me this past year. She really got behind me from the very start and even travelled down to Tralee, her and her husband and her child. I remember being nervous, but at the same time bursting with excitement at this time last year. I wasn’t expecting it, ya know [to win], so I kinda just went with the flow and enjoyed the whole experience from the very beginning. When my name was called out here in the Bridge House as the Offaly Rose, it was just absolutely fantastic because I knew then that I was going to Tralee and that I’d get to enjoy the whole festival. But this time a year ago, I had a fantastic night here in Offaly and I’ll always remember it.”
Having been crowned as the Offaly Rose, what expectations or hopes did Jennifer take with her to Tralee last year?
“It’s very hard to describe to someone what the Rose of Tralee Festival is like unless you’re actually there and experiencing it yourself. But I heard a lot from the 2016 Offaly Rose, Emma Kirwan, and from people in the Offaly Rose Centre, and I was told really that it’s such a fantastic experience and you’re going to make so many friends. And to be honest, I just had THE most fantastic experience of my entire life. So many things along the way were just so memorable, it was all so exciting, and exhilarating. All of the Roses who enter are phenomenal women. People think it’s just that one week, but it’s really not, it goes on for the full year. And there’s so many of them [the 2017 Roses] here tonight to support me which is really nice. The parade, the Rose Bud party, the Rose Ball, the two selection nights in the Dome, and all of the experiences that came with all of that, it was just fantastic.”
There must have been a moment on the night Jennifer was crowned Rose of Tralee last year, where finally, she was alone again for the very first time. In that particular moment, what went through her mind?
“The main thing that was going through my mind was that, ‘I just can’t believe that this has actually happened! I can’t believe that I’m THE Rose of Tralee!’, ya know? [laughs]. It was actually just the fact of coming to realise that this had all happened and it wasn’t just some dream! Because you know when you dream sometimes and you think, oh wouldn’t it amazing IF….whatever it might be. So I was looking in the mirror and thinking to myself, ‘This is really it, this is happening!’ That night was really exciting. I was brought into this room where there was a lot of Irish celebrities, and then after that I went up to my room with my mam and dad. And I remember we literally just had a cup of tea! [laughs]. And we were sitting there talking about what had just happened….with our tea! There was just so much excitement about everything and I think I was still in shock that night. It still hadn’t hit me. And probably didn’t until about a week after! [laughs].”
As Gerrie O’ Grady, the 1999 Rose of Tralee, reminded us in this column over the past few weeks, your whole world changes in that very moment when the sash is placed over your shoulder and the tiara upon your head. Thinking back to that moment in the Dome, and the hours and days immediately thereafter, could Jennifer recall any piece of advice that came her way which really helped her to adjust to the sudden life-changing impact of becoming the Rose of Tralee?
“Yeah, I actually remember that straight after I was picked as the Rose of Tralee I was brought off over to this side room, and I met all the former Rose of Tralees there in that room. And that was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. I don’t remember exactly who it was that said it to me, but somebody said, ‘Take moments out of tonight, and just cherish them, and remember them. Look around you, don’t let the night pass you.’ And that was really good advice. Then I remember on Denny Street, I literally just stopped for five seconds, and looked up at the fireworks and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ It was just a little moment to myself that I’ll really treasure. And I think I really remember so much of that night because I got that piece of advice. And the advice that my mam has always given me, even from the start as the Offaly Rose, was to be myself. Don’t try to be anybody else. Because you get picked as the Offaly Rose for being who you are, so there’s no point in pretending to be somebody else. Because you have to be that person for the year! So that was very good advice from my mam and dad, and I think I’ve definitely done that anyways.”
And of course the other huge life-changing moment of someone’s time as the Rose of Tralee comes at the other end of the line, when it ends, and normal life – in some shape or form – returns. And a return to normal life will still be quite busy for Dr. Jennifer Byrne!
“Exactly, yeah. Well ya know this year has just been so busy and I’ve been really fortunate with the support that I’ve had from everybody in Offaly, from the County Council, to so many businesses, so many sponsors, everyone has been so good to me. And of course my family and friends have been as well. I start back work in July, so I’ve had four months off now and that’s been really nice because I’ve got to enjoy it. But at the same time, when I was in at the Queensland selection – like I just came back from Australia yesterday – and Tara [Talbot] who was a previous Queensland Rose and who was the Rose of Tralee in 2011, she talked about the moment of handing over the sash, almost like giving me advice. She said it’s a really weird feeling when you hand it over, because all the attention is on you…and then it’s just not! [laughs]. And then you just move to the side, and it is kind of a starnge feeling. But it’ll be kind of nice getting back to normality at the same time. I’ve given this year everything and I’ve really enjoyed it. But it’s good to hear previous Rose of Tralees who have gone through those moments already giving me advice, but reminding me as well that it’s not over after this because there are so many Rose of Tralee reunions, and you go down to the Rose of Tralee every year. So I guess I have that in my mind now, and I think I’ll be ready for it.”
In the same way as any Oscar-winning actor is foreverafter known as the Academy Award winning whoever it might be, Jennifer will now always be known as Dr. Jennifer Byrne, former Rose of Tralee. So in that regard, being the Rose of Tralee has certainly changed her life. But I wondered if being the Rose of Tralee had changed Jennifer as a person?
“Yeah, I suppose it has. I’d say I’ve definitely gained confidence in myself. And even travelling, like Ireland, I’ve seen so many parts that I hadn’t seen before, and so much of the world as well. And I suppose it’s really opened my eyes, first of all to how kind and generous Irish people really are and how much they really respect me, as the Rose of Tralee, I’ve been so welcomed everywhere. So yeah, I’d be much more confident now, say if I had to go and say a speech or if I found myself in a situation where I just had to say a few words. Little things like that. And even I’ve become so used to meeting people on a regular basis, and making new friends with people. That really has affected me in so many positive ways. I remember this time last year, before going on stage, I would have been nervous going up. Whereas nerves haven’t even crossed my mind for two seconds tonight. Tonight it’s purely just been all about excitement and looking forward to it.”
Given that the Rose of Tralee is such an important and cherished part of Irish culture, and something that remains a living, breathing link to their Irish heritage for Irish people and those of Irish descent all around the world, did Jennifer find her year of being what is, in many respects, an ambassador for the country, as well as Tralee and Offaly, very emotional?
“Yeah, a little bit. Ya know one of the really great things about being the Rose of Tralee is that, in general, maybe not in Offaly [laughs], but if I’m walking down the street or just doing something myself, people don’t really recognise me too much. But then if I put on the sash and tiara and all of a sudden everyone wants a selfie! [laughs]. I guess I probably have been more aware of things that I’ve been doing this year, and parts of it are emotional. Whenever I’ve seen family members who are older, say…, like I was very close to my granny, Julia, who passed away seven years ago, and the one time I did actually cry in a speech was when I was at an event where a lot of her friends were at. That was just really emotional for me because I would have loved for her to be here. She loved the Rose of Tralee so much. So yeah, parts of the year were emotional because you’re going so much, and doing so much. But it’s all been just fantastic!”
And finally, as the clock ticked down to the start of this year’s Offaly Rose selection night, what advice did Jennifer have to pass on to whoever would soon wear the sash of Offaly Rose, and indeed, to whichever Rose from around the world over whose shoulder Jennifer will place the Rose of Tralee sash later this summer?
“I guess the main advice that I would have, would be to first of all just be yourself! And enjoy the whole experience. Just go into it and give it everything. Make friends with everyone that you can, meet people, do whatever events you get invited to, because sometimes you get invited to things that you don’t think are particularly exciting [laughs], and then they end up being the ones that you end up remembering the most, and you meet the best people! So my advice would be to be yourself, and give it everything, go to as many things as you can, and enjoy the whole experience.”