A VISIT to an orphanage in Chernobyl was one of the most valuable experiences Cork Rose Erinn O’Connell had during her year as sash-holder.
The 25-year-old nurse in CUH travelled with a group of other Roses and escorts as part of a trip organised by Adi Roche’s charity Chernobyl Children International, and it’s something she’ll never forget.
“It was one of the most difficult and profound experiences of my life and yet also one that filled me with utter joy and love.
“In spite of having little to nothing, the children living in the orphanage were amongst the happiest and most wholesome I have ever encountered, so genuine and caring that they really stole a piece of my heart and it has stayed in Vesnova ever since.
“Myself and the other Roses are still struggling to understand all the emotions we went through in a single hour while volunteering there,” added the young woman from Aghabullogue in mid-Cork
The visit also shows that there’s a meaningful side to holding the title for a year, she says.
“From a nursing perspective, a lot of the things we saw while there could be rectified, except for the confines they were dealing with, so that was very hard and eye-opening.
“I still remember, and I always will, two girls in particular in the orphanage — an 18- and 13 year old who were both profoundly disabled but who have stuck in my mind,” she said.
The keen sports woman, who plays camogie with her home side, visited Arc House to present a cheque, which was the proceeds of fundraising by her home club, and the work for cancer sufferers and their families being done behind the scenes also resonated quite strongly with her. And she intends to return in her own capacity.
Erinn, who will turn 26 shortly after this year’s Rose selections on June 7 and 8, has continued to work full time on an adult surgical ward in CUH during her reign.
Earning a living and being the Cork Rose are compatible, she said!.
Her love for her work is very clear to see, despite what she says are the ‘well documented’ challenges they face on the front line.
“I love my job, being with people, nursing them back to health or being with them in their final hours. I think if we keep listening to too much negativity it will have an impact; I get a great deal of satisfaction from my work and that’s what keeps me going,” she said convincingly.
Having said that, Erinn acknowledged that their recent strike days were ‘difficult’.
“No one wanted to get to that stage — we’re always about putting patients first. But the public and patients’ support was very heart-warming at that time,” she said.
Erinn moved back home during the year, but only because her housemates in the city centre, fellow nurses, had emigrated.
She doesn’t have any such plans, and as the youngest of the family she’s delighted to be back home with her parents, who she’s very close to.
And it also helps being so close to training as the championship season approaches, and their first match on June 25.
Aghabullogue were beaten by neighbouring Eire Og last year in the county intermediate final so they’re hoping to go one better this year.
Outside of the visit to Chernobyl, another highlight of her year was a visit to New York.
“We were kindly invited by the New York Rose to march down 5th Avenue on March 17 as part of the St Patrick’s Day parade. An indescribable ‘pinch-me’ moment that will forever stay with me. Looking back in on the Manhattan skyline from our boat cruise, I realised just how lucky I was to have this once in a lifetime experience,” she said.
But basically her highlight was just getting a better sense of herself through what she feels is a very ”inclusive competition”.
“It was about realising that this is you and you’re great!”
Erinn, in fact, only entered the competition at the very last minute, never thinking she had a chance.
“I would never have thought of myself as Rose material, but when I thought about it I didn’t really know what ‘Rose material’ was. This is where the beauty of the festival and selection process lies, there is no one perfect candidate, there is no defined criteria to be a Rose, other than to be completely and utterly yourself! Thus, the application was completed which set about a serious of events beyond my wildest imagination.”
She didn’t encounter any negativity about the festival, despite some people who dismiss it as being old hat: “If you haven’t experienced the festival it’s easy to knock it. The public only see the two shows on RTÉ and make their assumptions on that but it’s so much more,” she said.
As the approach to this year’s selection nears and the time comes for her to hand her sash over, the grounded young woman isn’t feeling at all emotional: “I’m not about the dramatics. I always knew it was going to be for a year and I’m just glad to give someone else such a great opportunity,” she said.
“The search for the 2019 Cork Rose is still under way and my advice to anyone even considering applying is to do it! It’s always a positive thing and with so much negativity around we surely need more of that.
“I am so looking forward to seeing others where I was last year and guiding them through the amazing process. The festival is celebrating its 60th year and promises to be the best yet. I never met anyone who regretted giving it a go.”
The Cork Rose selection takes place this Friday and Saturday, June 7 and 8.