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Dublin: 12 °C Tuesday 17 September, 2019
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Opinion: Having an openly gay Rose of Tralee sends a powerful message to middle Ireland

Maria Walsh is a beautiful, smart, confident and normal young woman. She may change the hearts and minds of those who are wary of gay people.

Brian Finnegan

I WAS JUST setting out on the March For Marriage last Sunday, when a friend breathlessly told me that the winner of this year’s Rose of Tralee had just come out as a lesbian. I can’t say my reaction was one of immediate surprise, given that in The OutMost offices speculation about Philadelphia Rose, 27 year-old Maria Walsh was rife, mostly because a certain female staff member thought she was hot and checked out her Facebook profile.

But after the march was over and I’d cheered the rousing speeches along with 8,000 other people, gay and straight who want to see equality for same-sex couples in Ireland, I found myself with the headspace to think about Maria Walsh, and surprise set in.

These days the Rose of Tralee has a kind of post-ironic appeal for younger Irish viewers, who watch it for a laugh and share the most cringe-worthy moments on their Facebook profiles. Famously sent up on Father Ted as The Lovely Girls competition, there’s always been a whiff of good, Catholic Ireland about the pageant, with its focus on the charitable works of unmarried, virginal looking women (an unmarried status is a prerequisite for all entrants, and unmarried mothers were not allowed to enter until 2008), its patriarchal presenters, and its community hall feel.

Something relevant to Irish life

This is bolstered by the pageant’s American/Irish entrants, who arrive on these shores steeped in nostalgia for an Ireland that never quite existed, but at the same time did.
This year I brought myself to watch five minutes of the show, and the American/Irish Rose on stage, before doing an interpretive dance, announced the big man in her life was Jesus. At this point I had to switch channels. Hilarious irony and all, I’m not comfortable with the subtle insistence of The Rose of Tralee on representing Ireland as a place of full of Catholics dancing at the crossroads.

So, I wasn’t watching when Maria Walsh took to the stage, which I’m sad about. Because her appearance has not only changed The Rose of Tralee from a trumped-up celebration of lovely girls to something actually relevant to Irish life, and the representation of Ireland abroad, but I believe it will be a game-changer in the lead-up to the referendum on same-sex marriage next spring.

Of course, Maria didn’t come out until after she’d taken the crown, which is understandable. It’s hard to imagine she would have won if she’d told the jury she fancied women during the show. But she lost no time in pinning her colours to the mast in the aftermath, telling the Irish Sun: “The Rose of Tralee is about celebrating women’s intelligence, careers, their volunteer work. The question of sexuality never came up. To me, being gay is normal; it’s natural.”

But much more importantly, Maria said: “I told my parents and they were supportive, as I knew they would be.”

A message to middle Ireland 

For along with being a celebration of Irish heritage, The Rose of Tralee is a celebration of family. The Mammy and the Daddy are always in the audience, beaming with pride for their daughter on stage, reflecting Ireland as a place of traditional family values, the kind of Ireland that couldn’t even begin to imagine or countenance a family with two daddies or two mammies. It is a show that celebrates heteronormativity, in every respect of the word, through the generations.

The Irish people who watch The Rose of Tralee for good family entertainment, rather than to laugh at it, come from this world. They are middle Ireland, and they are the ones that anti-gay marriage campaigners are going to be depending on when it comes to the referendum next year. They are the ones who might have doubts about gay people getting married, who may be subtly swayed to vote no based on those doubts.

And into this mix has arrived a beautiful, smart, confident, normal Rose of Tralee, who, as the suddenly homo-friendly Rose of Tralee organisers say, “just happens to be gay,” and whose parents support her. She’s not going get married to a man and have his babies, and her parents support that. I assumed her parents will support her in whatever relationship she has, and will support her family, if and when she forms one.

Lots of people who watch The Rose of Tralee don’t know any gay people. Well, they didn’t. Now they know Maria Walsh, and I have an inkling that they’re going to be seeing a lot of her in the coming year, as the race is on to change hearts and minds. She’s doing her first interview on that other bastion of middle Ireland, The Late Late Show, on 5 September. I have a feeling middle Ireland is going to adore her, and everything she stands for.

Brian Finnegan is the Editor of GCN and the author of The Forced Redundancy Film Club, follow him on Twitter @finneganba. This article originally appeared in The OutMost.

Read: Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh reveals that she’s gay

Read: Twitter has completely fallen in love with the new Rose of Tralee

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Brian Finnegan

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