In 1973, 19-year-old Belfast born Veronica McCambridge became the Rose of Tralee – the second Belfast Rose to have done so. It changed her life completely! Like a fairy tale of old, Veronica fell madly in love with her Rose Escort, Rowland Blennerhassett, and moved to Tralee where they married and had three children.
What did you know about the Rose of Tralee Festival when you entered and what did the application process involve?
The first time I heard about the Rose of Tralee was in 1965 when I was at my school morning assembly and the Head of the school announced that a former pupil Therese Gillespie had won the Rose of Tralee. There was thunderous applause and really enthusiastic cheering and the whole school got off homework. Thanks a million Therese!
A few years later a really good friend of mine who absolutely loved the Festival entered my name in the Belfast heat of the competition as a complete surprise and that actually changed my life for ever!
What was your life like at the time?
I was living in West Belfast and was helping my mother run our family business. At the time the Troubles were very severe, there was constant rioting and a very large number of the British Army had moved to the large GAA Club area directly opposite my family home. Overnight they built huge ramps on the main road that separated us and installed really high lookout towers with massive lights. Because of all the civil unrest there were no buses running and security searches of many of the surrounding homes were ongoing alongside constant army patrols. I was one of eight children, and it was a constant challenge for all of us, especially my parents. So, the amazing timing of the Rose of Tralee had a deeply joyous effect on my family and the whole community.
Paint us a picture of the whole experience leading up to the Selection night.
It was held in Belfast city and I did an interview with the judges and it was really very straightforward. It was very low-key – It was a dance, and they did the interviews before that, and then they announced the winner and there was a disco afterwards.
I could not believe how absolutely incredible the atmosphere was when the Roses arrived in Tralee, the crowds were huge, and they were all cheering us so enthusiastically. Everywhere we went there was such warmth and happiness. There was a whirlwind of constant entertainment, meeting amazing people and all of us together sharing in the fun. The Festival team and all the dedicated volunteers seemed to work their hearts out to make this all happen and it’s something I still remember and appreciate.
Brendan O’ Reilly was the MC and he along with the judges were so supportive making all the Roses feel at ease. I have very fond memories of Brendan and the judges, in particular Bobby Howick of Guinness.
How was the Rose Parade in 1973?
The whole town came to a standstill as people gathered well beforehand to get in the best position and cheer all of us on our floats. Most were made by local people and on the first night of the parade the design of my float was of the most endearing thatched Irish Cottage. I will always remember how everything looked so magical and it seemed like so many had come to welcome us.
Can you remember the questions that you were asked onstage?
My interview on stage that night seemed to fly by in seconds, Brendan somehow made me feel l was talking only with him, about my life, ambitions, living in Belfast and what the future might hold for Northern Ireland. I remember saying that peace had to come finally and succeed with reconciliation over all the sadness. My father was the Bursar of Corrymeela Reconciliation Centre in Ballycastle at the time and my family were the first Catholics to participate in meeting Protestant families from North Belfast.
Do you remember the moment your name was called out as the Rose of Tralee?
I will never ever forget the absolute shock on hearing my name and suddenly I was surrounded by all the Rose participants hugging and kissing me and within what seemed like a flash, the incredible Liam Heaslip was singing the Rose of Tralee. Crowds were packed in Denny St where the outside stage was at the Ashe Memorial Hall, and it was surreal to see below me this sea of people with fireworks lighting up their smiling faces.
Were there many other entrants in 1973?
There were 28 Roses from all over the world including Australia, America, and all over Europe. One Rose was as amazing as the next and I feel very privileged to have shared that special time with them and hearing from some of them over the many years, together sharing the lovely snippets as our lives progressed.
What was the town like during the festivities?
Tralee town was so very different to anything that I had ever seen before, it was my first time in Kerry and for me seemed a huge contrast to any town in Northern Ireland. It had for example still some farmers bringing the milk to the creamery on, believe it or not, a donkey and cart. They would queue up in Ashe St as they waited with their churns for the creamery to open. Having more than well over 50 pubs in the town, the locals were certain there was no chance of any of them ever getting too thirsty! During the Festival all the streets were lit up and the whole town was buzzing, hotels absolutely booked out and every bed in the vicinity promised to those that were lucky enough to find one. Some of my family travelled from Belfast including my darling mother and two of my six sisters. I honestly don’t believe any of us thought that the Rose of Tralee would be such a huge event and I know as a little family group we were overwhelmed. I recall having to borrow and actually smuggle across the border some of my older sisters clothes to wear during the week!
What about the Escorts at the time – Tell us about meeting your Escort Rowland, who later became your husband?
A few weeks before going to Tralee I was staying with my sister in Dublin for the weekend as she was training with Aer Lingus. We went to what we called in those days a “Dance” at a nearby hotel. I met a lovely guy whose name was Rowland Blennerhassett. On my first evening in Tralee, I noticed an Escort who looked exactly like the guy in Dublin, in fact I felt certain it was him. I greeted him enthusiastically and was embarrassed when he said he had never met me! We actually then discovered it was a distant cousin with the same name who I had been with that evening, what a truly incredible coincidence! After that we were inseparable, falling madly in love and marrying the following April, quite a whirlwind.
How has the Festival affected your life?
My life changed completely after the experience of winning the Rose of Tralee, I was so happy to be actually living in Tralee and having such a wonderful place to raise my family. I will be forever grateful to have had the opportunity of living in the beautiful County of Kerry which I love with all my heart.
How would you compare the Festival now, relative to 1973?
The Festival is so very different now compared to 1973, in those days it was run by so many generous volunteers and the people of the town were really involved. Now it has become so large and therefore naturally needs to be run as a business. This has now become very challenging as running costs are so much greater and overall responsibility has become even more significant. Its impressive that all who are involved rise to the challenge with such dedication from year to year achieving so much success.
Was it a worthwhile experience?
How incredibly lucky I was to have had such an amazing change in my life from this experience. It brought so much joy to me and all of those I love. One of the greatest parts of this is that I have incredible friendships with the Roses of Tralee throughout all the years. We join each other to share time together on a regular basis, it is a deeply treasured privilege and I often feel overwhelmed by how amazing each and every one of them are.
Would you recommend Irish women to enter the Rose of Tralee International Festival today?
Absolutely, it’s so unique – it’s not like anything else, anywhere! It is the chance of a lifetime! It is remarkable when I think of it. The whole ethos of it is really, really lovely, because there is so much behind the layering of what makes all the Roses different! They’re all unique and they are incredible women. It’s a great adventure.
What is the most lasting memory that you have of the Festival?
The impact of all the terrific people that I have known and grown to admire over the years through the Festival is so special, I will never forget the warmth and genuine charm and goodness of so many at the time and ever since.
What is your life like now in 2023?
It is a gift to live here in Kerry and now being retired, living in the very beautiful town of Kenmare. I will always remember with great affection where I came from, Belfast will always be with me, but Kerry is forever in my heart.