First Published May 2018
A ROSE THAT BLOOMS FOREVER
As we all remember, Jennifer Byrne made history in the historic Dome in Tralee last year by becoming the first Offaly woman to be crowned the Rose of Tralee. And it’s hard to believe, but Jennifer’s year of representing Tralee, Offaly, and indeed Ireland, is entering its last stretch of road. Very soon a new Offaly Rose will be on her way to Tralee.
One woman with a better idea than most of what life has been like for Jennifer during the last year, is Cork’s Gerrie O’ Grady, the 1999 Rose of Tralee. Gerrie and I happened to cross paths at the Hot Country Awards recently and as well as enjoying the pleasure of her company on that particular evening, she very graciously agreed to have a chat about her own experience as the Rose of Tralee. And as it happens, Gerrie was also involved in the process of selecting Jennifer as last year’s winner. So with the selection night for the new Offaly Rose due to take place on Saturday, May 26th, what better time than now to hear from someone who quite literally has been there, done that, and worn the tiara – and sash!
As someone so steeped in the Rose of Tralee festival, being a former winner herself and now being involved in the selection process, I began by asking Gerrie what the festival means to her….
“Well really what it means is it’s an opportunity for every woman who enters to bring her own personality and identity to the festival. I think sometimes that’s where people misinterpret what it’s about, because they think there’s a mould that you have to fit into. But I always say well all you’d have to do is come along to a Rose of Tralee reunion and you’ll see the variety of personalities that actually are there from previous years. It really is about every single person who enters bringing their own personality, and advancing it a little bit more. And in that way, it has evolved over the years. And that’s what the beauty of it is, that nobody can discount themselves as not being somebody who should be a contestant. Because that’s certainly what I had thought. I thought I was the farthest thing from Rose ‘material’, ya know [laughs]. But really it’s wide open.”
Does Gerrie think that what it means to be the Rose of Tralee has changed much, in terms of what the Rose does or is expected to do, from when she wore the crown to the present day?
“I think that social media has definitely changed expectations, in terms of accessibility, with people expecting to be very connected these days. And I think that’s part and parcel of being a public figure in 2018. I didn’t have that, so I always think of that particular challenge that’s there for a new Rose. For me, I was straight out of college, I was twenty-two, and it was an entirely different world. Suddenly you’re into liaising with the media, and with the public, and it was all a bit of a learning curve at the beginning. But now it’s even more so, because you have to be always vigilant, and conscious that more than ever, you are very accessible and anybody at any time can interact with you. So it has changed from that point of view, I think. But in some ways it’s still the same. It’s just those sort of things that really do change the nature of it.”
I wondered would something like that – thinking about how people might deal with, and react in, and be able for certain situations – play a big part in the selection process, and what the judges have to consider?
“That’s such a great question! And yes! That’s the short answer [laughs]. The longer one is that now on every Rose panel there’s a former Rose of Tralee – I’m judging Cork now in the next few weeks – that’s how it is nowadays. And it’s absolutely essential [that the chosen Rose is capable of handling such situations and circumstances] because you have to be ready to hit the ground running. You don’t get a lovely long lead-in where it’s like, ‘O.k, we’re going to do six months of prep with you now…’, ya know! It just doesn’t work like that [laughs]. Throughout the judging process you have to weigh up so many different things, and one part of it is is this person resilient enough, and I suppose clued in enough, too, to be able to respond straight away and instinctively at whatever is thrown at her. Because now you just can’t be sheltered. Even before, pre-social media, back in the dinosaur days when I was doing it [laughs], I had to be prepared. Because you could be faced with any sort of question at any time, so you have to be able to speak up and think fast. So definitely, when you’re in the judging process, that’s one part of what you’re considering, how would a person navigate those sort of situations.”
Given that Gerrie is so entwined in the festival herself, what does she think about the view that some people have (wrongly, I believe) of the Rose of Tralee as being almost outdated, or pretty close to what was portrayed in the ‘Lovely Girls’ competition in Father Ted? Because that is a view that’s out there among some people….
“For sure. And every year the same thing comes around again and again. Some people have this idea that it’s a very retrograde thing. But the Rose of Tralee is a platform to speak and the voice of the woman who wins is very important. So I would say well look at the people who are entering, look at their accomplishments, look at what they’re doing and what they’re achieving, and what they go on to achieve afterwards, and all of that speaks for itself. The evidence is all there. The women who enter are accomplished women, confident women, and it’s not just all one ‘type’ of woman, it’s very diverse. The Rose of Tralee doesn’t squash anyone into a mould. It doesn’t insist that you are a certain ‘type’ of woman, nor do you emerge from it a certain ‘type’ of woman. And again, I always go back to the reunions and say if only people could come along and see how different all the former Roses are it would allay a lot of those fears or concerns that people express about it. And often times what’s interesting is when you sit on a judging panel with someone, and they’d say, ‘God, this is completely different from what I expected!’ That can be a very eye-opening experience on the inside, and I suppose maybe that’s not always as apparent on the outside. The other thing too, which surprises me, and I really got to know properly as a contestant and then as a judge of the international qualifier two years ago, is the sense of international pride that’s out there, with people coming from second and third generation Irish families entering it, and learning what it means to them culturally, too. That’s sometimes missed, that kind of connection. There’s a lot more to it than somebody just having to be a ‘nice’ girl and being able to nod and smile. And all you have to do is look at any interview with previous Roses to know that’s not the case at all.”
Getting around to Gerrie’s herself, how did her own Rose story begin?
“Well, as I said, I thought I was atypical when it came to Rose material! [laughs] So I was in my final year in college, I was doing a feminist dissertation when it was first suggested to me. My dad, who was a Guard, and he said in Macroom, where I’m from originally, the Guards have been asked to put somebody forward to the Rose of Tralee and we all want you to do it. And I literally laughed at him, and said sure I’m completely not what they’d be looking for! [laughs]. I thought I’d be far too outspoken and different from the preconceived notion of what I thought they’d be looking for. So I took a lot of convincing! [laughs]. And in the end, it was really for my dad and for the Guards that I did it, because I felt, oh lord, they’re after going to all this trouble already so I felt like I should honour that. But right up to the last minute I was going, I don’t know if this is a good idea at all! [laughs]. But I did it. And a lot of people you’ll find do it like that, where they’re thinking, ‘Really?! Me?!’, ya know! So during my Cork Rose interviews and all along I spoke really from the heart about what was important to me and what my passions were, and the thesis I was doing, and people were so open to that. It was a really positive experience.”
What did it actually feel like when she was announced as the winner? Did she have any sense at all that it was about to happen?
“Oh none, none whatsoever. Absolutely none! There genuinely is a sense of shock. They always talk about the moment when they announce that you’re the Rose, and you can almost feel all of the energy in the room just concentrated into one funnel, and it’s all coming at you! It’s quite a profound feeling. One moment you’re just standing there, just one of the women on the stage – and I had actually had a really strong feeling that a particular one of the others was going to win – so that’s what I was thinking! So I was genuinely, to my heart, shocked when it was announced that it was me. It wasn’t expected at all.”
Now involved in the judging process, I wondered what was it about Jennifer – from Gerrie’s point of view – that made her stand out last year?
“One of the essential qualities that we all look for when we’re judging is an honesty and an integrity. That’s what we all respond to. And Jennifer is a very authentic woman. She’s very true to herself and she has a very positive energy about her. She has a remarkable sincerity and she’s a very intelligent, accomplished woman. Her work means so much to her, and her recreational activities mean so much to her, but there’s something else there as well [about her] that’s really quite powerful to be in the presence of. It’s an authenticity, and you can see it in the way everybody warms to Jennifer.”
Was that something that Gerrie felt and sensed about Jennifer from the first time she met her or did it kind of grow over time?
“Jennifer makes an immediately great impression on everyone who meets her! She’s a very special woman.”
I wondered about the other side of a year as the Rose of Tralee. When it’s over, and you step back out of the limelight, is that as much of a shock to the system as the way your world changes in that moment when the crown is first placed atop your head is?
“That’s another really good question! They’re things people don’t usually ask. But yes, it’s a transition. Everyone’s story is different, between what their life was like beforehand and what it becomes like afterwards. For me, I won the Rose of Tralee just after I finished college. My plan had been to take a gap-year before I did my masters. And I ended up thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’ve just had the most unusual gap-year you could possibly imagine!’ [laughs]. I wasn’t expecting that! [laughs]. Afterwards I had to take some time to think, o.k, where to next? What do I actually want to do next? And it does take some time to adjust to a different pace [of life] again. Because being the Rose is such an intense and wonderful year. At the end there’s a sense of o.k, I can sleep now…for three months! [laughs].”
I wondered if Gerrie had a favourite or stand-out memory from her year as the Rose of Tralee?
“There are so many memories. I’m being flooded with them now, just thinking back. My homecoming in Macroom was one highlight. You’re in a little bubble in Tralee and coming out of that and realising that life has now changed and also impacted those around you can be very profound. As I was coming home to Macroom after the win, my parents started beeping the car horn as we got closer to home. I had no idea that they were warning our neighbours that we were nearby. I was met by so many family friends and it was very moving. A few days later, we had the formal homecoming welcome and I was completely shocked and overwhelmed that thousands of people attended. Many of the memories that stand out are to do with my family and what the win meant to them. As I’ve gotten older, that has become even more special to me. In the years since my win, I’ve lost my dad and I’ve lost my grandparents. My win meant so much to them and those memories are very precious to me. And that’s what stays with you as the years go on, what it meant to people around you. That’s worth everything.”
Gerrie continued, “And then of course you have the more public experiences. The travel opportunities were amazing and Texas in particular was a stand out! You have these extraordinary, huge experiences and think my God, I can never hope to replicate these! But there are lots of more intimate interactions as well and they really stay with you. Those personal connections. Like, you’ll meet somebody who’s always wanted to meet a Rose of Tralee and never has and it means so much to them.”
Has the fact the Gerrie is a former Rose of Tralee stayed with her throughout her life since that time? In the same way, for example, that Oscar winners or Grammy winners are foreverafter known as ‘the Oscar-winning…’ whoever it might be?
“Yes, definitely it has. In my day-job, I manage a deaf charity and I use Sign Language every day in work. People are often given a Sign-name in the Deaf Community so you can sign out your name in letters, or you can have a symbol that represents your name. And my symbol is a sash made using the letter ‘G’. That’s my Sign name. So in work that’s how people refer to me, and people who don’t know my story will ask’ So, why is THAT your sign-name?’ [laughs]. So even in that small way it stayed a part of my life. And of course every year I tend to be involved in one way or another [in the festival], either in judging it or attending a selection. We also have a reunion every January. So there’s always a sense of staying connected. And people will often say as well that they remember something about when you were the Rose. You’d be surprised that people can have such long memories.”
So what advice would Gerrie offer to the Offaly Roses as they prepare for their selection night this Saturday, and indeed, to whoever goes on to become the eventual Rose of Tralee for 2018?
“What I would say is to leave all of your preconceived ideas aside. Go in to show people who you are. And use it as an opportunity to explore who you are as well. You love, as a judge, getting to meet all of these wonderful women and getting to hear their individual stories, so make sure you’re telling your story. That’s the most important thing you can do. And for the new Rose, both whoever ends up winning the Offaly Rose and the Rose of Tralee as well, I would say the same. Maximise your opportunities throughout year. Remember everything. Keep a diary! [laughs]. I always wish I’d kept a better diary to record all of those moments, because it goes by in a blur! Soak in every part of the experience because this is once in a lifetime!”