This year’s New Zealand Rose on why the festival is still relevant


It’s been 58 years since Alice O’Sullivan was crowned the first ever Rose of Tralee.

The year was 1959, Éamon de Valera was President of Ireland, and Seán Lemass has begun his term as Taoiseach.

The first 12 female recruits were selected to join An Garda Siochana and Cliff Richard was No. 1 in the charts with Living Doll.

Representing Dublin at the inaugural event in Co Kerry, Alice could hardly have known that in the six decades that were to follow, hundreds of young women would continue to compete for the title.

But what is it about the event – often derided as outdated and sexist – which continues to appeal to young women around the world? We sat down with this year’s New Zealand Rose, Niamh O’Sullivan, in order to find out more.

Hailing from Co Cork, but currently living in New Zealand, Niamh admits that she understands some of the criticism levelled at this year’s live shows, but is at pains to highlight the event’s many merits.

“I understand this year there was some criticism of the live shows focussing too heavily on the woman's partners and had quite a "romantic angle",” she says.

“It is true there was a lot of time given over to the girls' partners, however the show is a family show and it aims to try to showcase the girls' personalities while also providing entertainment to all those watching.”

“Getting the balance between important social awareness topics and lighter, fun topics can be hard, and I'm sure it's something that RTÉ and the Rose of Tralee spend a lot of time discussing each year.”

“It's hard to please everyone and I've been talking to a lot of people who had completely differing opinions on what makes a good Rose of Tralee show so I feel there will always be criticism while there are differing opinions of the audience watching. “

Reflecting on the common narrative which suggests that the annual event is an outdated, anti-feminist spectacle, Niamh insists that one needs only cast a casual eye over its list of participants to see the inaccuracy of such a dialogue.

“[It] celebrates women – fantastic, intelligent and witty women who are proud of their Irish heritage and who get a chance to make their families' history of immigration known, and acknowledge the hardships that must have accompanied leaving Ireland,” Niamh explains.

“The women I met are shaping their communities, both in Ireland and all over the world. The work they do, in their careers and through voluntary work is highly inspiring and commendable and I'm very proud that Ireland has a festival that showcases these type of women for the younger generation to look up to.”

“In a world where there are a lot of questionable role models in the media shaping our young female minds, I feel there is a need for the Rose of Tralee and the type of female role models it portrays. If we continue to celebrate 64 new inspiring young woman each year, then I feel the festival will always hold an important position, and will remain relevant."

As viewers, our perception of the Rose of Tralee is born of the two nights of televised footage beamed out to us from the Kingdom, but in reality, what we are shown as viewers is only a snapshot of the womens' experience of the event.

"I won't lie and say I was prepared for the emotional rollercoaster that it turned out to be!" Niamh said of the week-long festival.

"So many businesses and people want to be part of the festival and host the Roses that we have a hectic schedule that leaves your head spinning! We are told of long days and short sleeps and you can try and prepare your mind for that but you can't ever prepare your body. It took its toll on both body and mind from Day Three for me."


Look out for this sign and you're at the entrance to Family Town! Starting today, Friday midday

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And while sore throats and sore feet are a common complaint, Niamh also struggled with practicalities of living with Type 1 Diabetes.

"There were definitely some extra struggles I knew I would face putting myself forward for the Rose of Tralee," she said of her decision.

"I manage my  blood sugars using an insulin pump which is a small device the size of an old block Nokia that I wear 24 hours a day. The block is attached to a wire which is inserted into my skin," the 27-year-old paediatric dietician explains.

In addition to managing her blood sugar levels throughout the day, Niamh relied on the event's chaperones to tend to the equipment she needs on account of the condition.

"This was the hardest part of the process for me – having to hand over control and rely on other people to help manage my Diabetes," Niamh admits.

"I have had Type 1 for six years and have always managed it completely independently. This was the first time I had to hand over equipment or back ups and I felt so worried relinquishing control and had a couple of melt downs feeling like I was burdening everyone."

"I felt I was drawing unwanted attention on myself and never wanted my Diabetes to be seen as a burden and I felt it was. I entered the Rose of Tralee to raise awareness of certainly the struggles but also the triumphs that come alongside having Diabetes."

"I wanted to show it does not limit what you can achieve in life and if anything for me it has shaped the type of person I am and made me want to strive for more in my life. "

And it appears Niamh's mission did not go unnoticed, as she recalls her stand-out moment from the event which took place during the Saturday parade.

"The ultimate highlight for me was halfway through the parade when the other two Roses on my float started wildly hitting me to look over to the opposite side of the crowd," Niamh recalls.

"There was screaming and roaring coming from a mother pointing at her teenage daughter who was waving her insulin pump around. She said her name is Caitlyn, she has Type 1 Diabetes and had been following my journey."

"I'm beyond proud to be able to represent the Type 1 community and be a role model to all the Caitlin's out there," Niamh adds.

2017 saw Jennier Byrne from Co Offaly take this year's title – a triumph felt passionately by Niamh, who shared a room with the junior doctor throughout their time as Roses.

"She was first and foremost my saving grace and best friend in the competition. We were perfectly paired in humour, laid back attitude and even our outfit picks were almost identical on several occasions! " Niamh laughs.

"Jennifer was my rock and no more deserving girl could have won the title," she adds.

And would she do it all over again?

"In a literal heartbeat. It was the toughest but most enjoyable week of my life – a whirlwind of dual exhaustion and exhilaration, laughter and tears but above all memories I'll keep with me over in New Zealand and the best closure on Ireland I could ever ask for. "