The Rose of Tralee empowers women

The Rose of Tralee is back this August, after a two year break. Jenny Byrne will be representing Cork at the event. MARTHA BRENNAN catches up with the young woman
The Rose of Tralee empowers women

Cork Rose Jennifer Byrne at Fitzgerald's Park, Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

IT’S that time of year again: the sun is out, the nights are long, and we have a new Cork Rose.

Jenny Byrne, who lives near Cork Airport, was selected out of 32 participants to represent the Rebel County in this year’s Rose of Tralee pageant.

Excitement is already building for the festival, it has been postponed due to Covid-19 since reaching its 60-year milestone, back in 2019.

Even though the preparations are well underway, Jenny is still coming to terms with her new title.

“I was not expecting my name to be called in the slightest,” she says with a laugh.

“I was sitting in front of the stage and the MC called my name and my brain shut off. My body went into auto pilot.

“I picked up my dress and walked up the stairs but I don’t remember any of it. I only came around a couple of minutes later when the girls hugged me and I was completely overwhelmed.

“It’s only now that things have calmed down that it’s starting to sink in. I still can’t believe it’s actually happening.”

This year’s festival will run from August 19 to 23. While Dáithí Ó Sé will again return to host the famed event, the Roses will this year be heading to an even bigger stage at MTU Tralee for the first time.

The road to Tralee

The road there seems like a long one, with Jenny having almost four months between her county selection (back in May) and the final, but she says that she prefers having the extra time to prepare.

Cork Rose Jennifer Byrne at Fitzgerald's Park, Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan
Cork Rose Jennifer Byrne at Fitzgerald's Park, Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

“The process is longer in Cork than it is in most other counties, which I think is actually a really good thing,” she says.

“We had our information evening at the end of April, about a month before the final selection, so it was lovely to actually get to know each other.”

It also allowed the participants to learn more about what they were getting themselves into.

“I had no idea what it really entailed. You really don’t know what it’s like until you get involved. You see the selection process and the road to Tralee as an outsider but so much goes on in between. We got to do loads of different events in the lead-up; dinners, cocktail-making classes, and the Rose Tour,” Jenny says.

“It gave us such a great chance to get to know each other and form friendships before we even got to the selection process. It makes it feel like it’s not a competition, it feels like you’re just getting together with friends and getting dressed up.

“There was never any bad atmosphere, which was amazing. We’re hoping to get together again in July and loads of them are planning to come to Tralee.”

Empowerment

It’s those friendships and good attitudes, Jenny says, that really set the Rose of Tralee apart from other pageant-style competitions.

I feel bad when I use the P-word during our call, conscious that many participants mightn’t be fans of such a title.

By definition, a pageant is a beauty contest, but Jenny doesn’t believe it’s an accurate way to describe the Rose of Tralee.

“I think a lot of people consider it to be a bit of a pageant because there really isn’t anything else like this that exists,” she says.

“It’s much more about celebrating Irish women and what makes us interesting and unique. It’s about forming friendships and being proud of yourself and each other.

“It’s not at all about how beautiful you are or how well-spoken, it’s about your attributes and achievements, which I think is really different from anything else you’d see in the pageant world.”

Having worked in inclusion and diversity, Jennys says that she’s also come to see the concept of the Rose of Tralee as a tool for women’s empowerment.

“When you stand up on a stage, you gain so much self-confidence,” she says.

“You have to think about your positive attributes and that makes you reflect, which is a really powerful thing.

“As Irish women, we’re so bad for taking compliments and believing that we should be recognised for our achievements. Even when people were congratulating me on becoming the Cork Rose, I didn’t know how to respond. We have to get better at it.”

A whirlwind few weeks ahead

Jenny completed her undergraduate studies at University College Cork in international development and food policy and is currently completing her PhD in NUI Galway, where she studies employment opportunities for women with disabilities.

“I knew from when I left school that this was the area I wanted to be involved in. I did an internship with Self Help Africa and absolutely loved it. I love the idea of helping people and also travelling,” Jenny says.

Cork Rose Jennifer Byrne
Cork Rose Jennifer Byrne

She plans to go to Rwanda and Cambodia in the coming years for her research. First, however, she’ll have to make her way to the Rose of Tralee stage.

“The next few weeks will be hectic. I have to get outfits together, which is really exciting, and I’ll also be going to other selection nights to support the other girls taking part.

“Then we’ll have the Rose tour in August and it will be a total whirlwind after that. It’s just mad. One minute, you’re thinking to yourself ‘maybe I’ll enter the Rose of Tralee’ and the next thing you’re off buying dresses to be on national television.”

She is feeling the pressure slightly but says that the support from around Cork has been amazing.

“I go out walking the dog and people will shout congratulations across the road. I’ve been floored by the support. Cork’s businesses have been amazing as well. I just can’t believe how many people know about it and want to support me,” she says.

“It really helps with the pressure, especially having the other girls from the Cork Rose process being there for me, and I’ll have the girls from around the country once we get to know each other as well. It makes you forget that it’s a competition, which takes the pressure off.”

Jenny’s family has also been a huge help. “I really did not think I was going to win the Cork Rose. My mum was on holidays and my dad and sister and boyfriend only came on the first night of the selection. I told them not to bother to come on the second night because I wouldn’t be on stage and then I had to go and text them all after my name got called,” she says.

“My mum went absolutely mad, she couldn’t believe she wasn’t there, but they’ve already all booked to come down to Tralee and are on about all of the banners they’re going to make already.”

As for the possibility of becoming the next Rose of Tralee, Jenny hasn’t allowed herself to think that far ahead.

“I’m definitely a bit nervous. I’d say this year’s festival will be bigger than ever because of the pause. But I’m also very excited. I can’t wait for it all to get started,” she says.

“I’ve never done anything like this before, but the Cork selection process does prepare you really well. I’ve done the interviews and the walking on stage. Now I just have to go do it on a bigger scale I suppose.”

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