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The Rose of Tralee Festival: Empowering Irish Women Since 1959

The Annual Rose of Tralee Festival is an international event that brings people together through a shared identity. The first official Rose of Tralee Festival was in 1959, and it has continually grown to become one of Ireland’s largest and longest running festivals. As an event rooted in cultural tradition, a shared ancestral history informs the proceedings of the festival, but this is no way makes it irrelevant to the present day. The festival provides an opportunity for young women to travel as ambassadors to Ireland, make lifelong friendships with likeminded individuals, and mentor girls in the Rose Bud program. While everyone involved shares the bond of a common heritage, the festival promotes an atmosphere of progressive discourse in which all participants are encouraged to voice their perspectives regarding political and social issues. There is a strong sense of generosity and joy for life that is present in both the festival and its participants, to which I can personally attest. I had the pleasure of corresponding with two lovely women that embody the beauty of the Irish spirit: the 2016 International Rose of Tralee, Maggie McEldowney and the 2016 Southern California Rose of Tralee, Clara Murphy.

Rachel: How did you hear about the Rose of Tralee festival? Had you seen it previously? What made you want to participate initially?

Maggie: In 2012, my family and I took our first trip to Ireland to visit the home where my grandmother was born and raised. Rose O’Neill, the last living family member from my grandmother’s generation, still lived there and welcomed us into her home with open arms. We all sat together around the fire and told stories and truly had a very touching, memorable afternoon. Before we left, she mentioned the Rose of Tralee, and said I’d be a great representative for Chicago, and encouraged me to apply. So, I did what I was told. Growing up, my Grandma Bea would always say ‘who do you think you are, the Rose of Tralee?’ so I heard of it, but really didn’t understand what it was until after returning home from our family trip and doing some research. I was inspired by the service work these women (and escorts) do, the impact they have as their respective county/city Roses. I respect the true vision of the festival; to celebrate, encourage, and inspire young women of Irish descent to do and be better. That is something very unique in today’s world, and something I was proud to take part in.

Clara: My father was the one who found out about the festival and told me about it. He told me a few years ago but at the time I was in college and didn’t have the time to commit to participating in the Rose program. The winter after I had graduated from college I saw the applications were open again for the Southern California Rose. It was perfect timing! I wanted to make new friends with motivated, inspiring women my age, and connect more with my Irish heritage. At that point I finally had the time to apply to be a Rose. I was eager to explore my Irish heritage and connect with the Irish community in Southern California.

How has your Irish heritage influenced who you are today? Are there any traditions that help you stay in touch with your ancestry and this part of your identity?

Maggie: There are certainly the more well-known aspects of Irish culture that I enjoy; we have local trad sessions all over the city, a good family party always ends in a sing-song, and you can always find a proper pint of Guinness in your local pub. To me, growing up in an Irish family was more about how you treat people, the way you view life, and always finding a way to have a laugh through the ups and downs. I attribute so many of my positive qualities to learning habits from my family members. I think that would be the best way I keep in touch with my ancestry, honoring my family through my positive actions towards others.

Clara: The Rose of Tralee festival was a very humbling experience because everyone involved was extremely genuine, kind, and inspiring. It was that “Irish Hospitality” that I appreciated more than words can say. Once I was in Ireland for the festival I really realized how big of an impact my Irish heritage had on my personality. My sisters and I were raised with this kindhearted Irish hospitality, and my parents were brought up the same way. These traits have been passed on from generation to generation. It was amazing to see these qualities in the other Roses and people involved with the festival when we went over to Ireland. The importance of family has always been a strong factor in my life. Our family moved frequently when I was younger because my father was in the military. No matter where we went, we always had each other to lean on for support. When we moved to Hawaii, no one had ever heard, or tried, Irish soda bread. My mom makes the best Irish soda bread! So on St. Patrick’s Day we always wake up early and help her make a fresh batch of Irish soda bread to bring to our teachers. I loved sharing my culture with people in this way!

“The Rose of Tralee,” the ballad that gave the festival its namesake, repeats the lyrics “’twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning,/that made me love Mary the Rose of Tralee.” What is your truth and how do you live it out daily?

Maggie: I guess this would go back to my answer from the previous question. I attribute ‘the truth in my eyes’ or any of the positive qualities I have to my family. My parents have put my brother and me before themselves our whole lives; they have taught us through their actions the importance of love and family. They taught us to treat others the way you’d want to be treated, and to give back when you’re able. I am surrounded by the greatest role models anyone could ever hope for and I’m lucky enough to call them my mom, dad, and brother.

Clara: My truth would be to follow the “Golden Rule” and treat everyone the way you want to be treated. Showing someone kindness does not take much from you, and if you can do one gesture to make someone’s life better, then you start making the world a better place. Nothing good comes from talking negatively about anyone, especially talking about other women. We need to keep building each other up. The Rose of Tralee Festival is all about highlighting and celebrating the ambitions and personalities of Irish women around the world. Supporting your fellow Roses in the festival, and all over the world, is one way to live out this truth.

If you could give yourself one piece of advice before beginning the journey of becoming a Rose, what would it be?

Maggie: How about one I DID receive? One piece of advice that I received which I took to heart and I’m very grateful I did was to enjoy the experience. Be in the moment. You have one year to represent your county/city, so live it up! Travel, volunteer your time, attend events, don’t miss out on any of it! This will make more sense once you get to Tralee, but this isn’t a competition; they will choose a woman to represent your class based on who she is… not a dress she wears or a single answer she gives. I still look back and am baffled why I was chosen; I was surrounded by some of the most inspirational, driven, talented, accomplished women I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. They most certainly didn’t pick the perfect Rose when choosing me. I think they picked someone who represented little pieces of our class as a whole.  It’s so hard not to get wrapped up in the little things- each girl invests so much to be a part of this festival, so it’s no wonder emotions run high when the time comes to choose a single representative. But it’s so important to realize that aspect of the festival is just a piece of the HUGE pie that is to being a Rose. I am very grateful that I was a part of a class that saw it the same way I did; this is a once in a lifetime experience, and we all focused on enjoying the experience. We had a blast, and those memories will be what stick with me the rest of my life.

Clara: The best advice I could give would be to stay true to yourself so you can highlight your uniqueness. When you are going through the selection process, your life experiences are specific to you and make you a unique individual. Once you are selected, it’s important to be yourself throughout the festival as you represent your center because you were chosen for a reason! The questions you will be asked are all about your life, and your perspective on the world. You don’t need to be nervous because you already know all the answers! So remember to relax and take it all in, because this festival is an incredible once in a lifetime experience.

What has been the most empowering experience for you during the Rose of Tralee festival or during your reign as the International Rose? How does the Rose of Tralee festival, rooted in a shared heritage and traditions, stay relevant in an ever-changing world? 

Maggie: I think it’s the Roses and the fascinating women who partake who keep the Rose of Tralee Festival relevant. This festival draws the fierce women it needs to carry on; what it means to be a “Rose” in this generation is completely different than what it was 30 years ago. Not that we’re any better or worse; it’s the difference between us that makes us individually remarkable. That’s what I love about it. I am so inspired to think that I am now a member of a 58 year-long tradition, and my classmates and I have taken our place among thousands of women around the world who have built the history of this festival. We can now sit back and watch, support and encourage the next generation of girls who will pick up where we left off. I am so proud to represent Chicago, just like the Chicago Rose was 30 years ago in her own way. Ireland is what brings us together, but beyond that we are all so fantastically unique; and that is the real beauty in the Rose of Tralee Festival.

Clara: The Rosebud program was an empowering element that makes the festival vastly different from a pageant. Each one of the international Roses is paired with a young girl, or Rosebud, from Ireland. The Rosebud accompanies the Rose during different events during the festival, like the parades, night fireworks and even a Rosebud tea party. This friendship between the Rose and Rosebud is a fantastic bond because the Roses get to mentor the Rosebuds and encourage her to follow her passions and pursue her dreams. The Roses all have vastly different careers with an incredible array of accomplishments and hobbies. I think it is very powerful to connect with young Irish girls and encourage them to grow up to be whatever they want to be.

In what ways has being the International Rose of Tralee changed you as a person? What is your favorite charity to work with, and how have you been able to change the lives of others during your reign?

Maggie: I’d say my perspective on life has been most significantly altered after this year. I actually appreciate the ‘little things’ now. The first night back from India, I remember not being able to sleep from the guilt of lying in my bed, my mind racing with the thousands of people I watched curl up on curbs and sidewalks trying to fall asleep. Returning from Chernobyl, I cried when I hugged my mom, knowing the children I just snuggled the past week will never hug theirs again. I’ll never forget the rush of pride and joy I felt when crossing the finish line of the Tralee Half Marathon; knowing I surpassed by fundraising goal for both the Baile Mhuire Centre in Tralee and the Young Irish Fellowship Club in Chicago. We had a blast creating the charity single for Crumlin Hospital thanks to our Escort of the Year John Slowey; I’ll never forget the children I visited that day. I am proud of what I’ve accomplished this year. There’s no way to pick a favorite charity, as they are all so uniquely special to me. I will never forget the faces of the children in Belarus and India who I was able to make smile. The hugs I received from the elderly people in the Baile Mhuire home. The letters from the families who were directly impacted by the funds raised by the YIFC. The people I’ve met, the friends I’ve made, the places I’ve been… It has been a truly wonderful year, and I am so incredibly grateful for the opportunities granted to me by the Rose of Tralee Festival.

Clara: Participating in the Rose of Tralee International Festival has given me a platform to inspire women to be strong, smart, confident and proud of their heritage. Looking back after a year of representing Southern California, I feel more empowered and confident to take on any new situation. I am extremely thankful for all the new friendships I have made, and the fantastic events I have been able to attend involving the Irish community. The people I have met throughout this journey have been so immensely gracious, and it has made me want to get even more involved in my community. One volunteer project I was able to work on was with the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. In just one day our crew was able to sort through thousands of pounds of food and prepare it for people in need. It was really rewarding to see people from all over Southern California come together to support our neighbors. Moving forward I am excited to stay involved with the Irish community in Southern California, and all over the world!


If you would like to connect with your heritage, get involved with an event that celebrates the modern Irish identity, or simply learn more about the Southern California Rose of Tralee Center, visit their website at https://www.southerncaliforniaroseoftralee.org/. Applications to participate in the Southern California Rose of Tralee May 6th 2017 Festival have been extended to May 4th  2017.

I am a Senior English Major, Dance Minor. If I'm not scribbling into my journal or reading three books at a time, I am most likely in the drive thru line at In N Out, walking on the beach, or daydreaming about that one time I lived in Italy. All I want out of life is a perfectly curated collection of turtlenecks, a rescued poodle, and more than one Taco Tuesday in a week.
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