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March Newsletter from Rose of Tralee, Róisín Wiley: ‘If you’ve ever considered applying, or know someone who should, just apply!’

It’s a bittersweet feeling to be halfway through my year as the International Rose. Although it was a shocking realization to be six months in, I also feel as though I’ve been the International Rose for years! When I think back to the places I’ve gotten to travel, people I’ve gotten to meet, and things I’ve gotten to experience, it is not something I dreamt for myself in a lifetime, no mind six months. I really enjoy taking the time to write these newsletters, because not only is it an opportunity to share my experiences with others, but it also requires me to reflect. In what will be the most hectic year of my life so far, taking time to reflect and soak up what’s going on around me isn’t always something I am able to do. I’m sure we’ve all heard about how nice it can be to “journal”, so here’s a bit of my journaling as the International Rose of Tralee.

My last newsletter was published right as we were heading into Christmas. Just a few days after Santa came, I was back on an Aer Lingus flight to Dublin to ring in 2024 with the 2023 Roses and Escorts at Barberstown Castle. Barberstown Castle is a very special place for the Roses, as it is one of our stops on the Rose Tour, and for some, the most memorable stop. Ted Robinson, the General Manager, and a former Rose Escort (arguably his more important title), pulled out all the stops for the Roses in August. Whether it was the custom welcome gifts on our beds when we arrived, the surprise helicopter rides, celebrity appearances, or just the friendly and welcoming nature of the staff, Barberstown Castle is unforgettable. When Tommy Cunningham, our wonderful Escort of the Year, began planning our New Year’s Eve celebration, he knew that Barberstown was at the top of our list of where we’d like to celebrate, and it did not disappoint! All of the Roses and Escorts made the trip to Kildare.

The lobby of the hotel was bustling as we were all reuniting before the evening’s festivities. Everyone got dolled up in our ball gowns and tuxedos (Benetti Menswear, of course!). We danced the night away, and I think one of the highlights was that Tommy organised a few fun awards to be handed out amongst the group. These were gag awards, so we all had a few laughs, and it was a part of the night that everyone wasn’t expecting. Our last song of the night was one I’ve heard a few times now in the last couple months, Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York. It was a special way to end our time on the dance floor, especially knowing the next official time we would all be together is in New York!

I think New Years Eve was particularly special, because it is when I realised how close we have gotten as a group in such a small period of time. After we took off the tuxes and ball gowns, about 30 of us squeezed into a room and sat around laughing and telling stories all night, and it was just pure good fun. I have to say that New Year’s would typically be at the lower end of the spectrum of holidays I like celebrating. I’m more of a cosy-night-by-the-fire gal, but I will never forget the night we had ringing in 2024. Massive shout out and thank you to Tommy Cunningham for organising the night for us – we all know that was not an easy undertaking, and it would not have happened if it wasn’t for him.

After a very hectic December, I was looking to go into a short hibernation for the month of January. Besides a spontaneous work trip to California, it was a great couple weeks to reset and prepare for the coming months. Once the first of February hit, it kicked off a string of some new, exciting, and challenging experiences. The first came from the New York Irish Center, when I was asked to emcee an upcoming event, celebrating New York’s Women of Ireland. The event so appropriately fell on St. Brigid’s Day, February 1st. Irish Consul General, Helena Nolan, led a wonderful conversation with a group of inspiring and accomplished Irish women. There were also a number of honorees, celebrated for their leadership and service in the Irish community in New York.

As the first person to speak on the podium that evening, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I had never emcee’d an event before, so this was unchartered territory. I did call on my friend, Sophie Colgan, who also happens to be the 2015 New York Rose, for some advice. Sophie is an emcee, and she can command a room with what looks like little to no effort. She reminded me to have fun with it, smile, and to make sure I speak into the microphone (which seems obvious, but you’d be surprised about how many people don’t use a microphone correctly!).

This advice really helped, and once I got the first few words out, the night felt like a breeze. It was amazing to see the camaraderie and support not only the Irish people have for one another in New York, but specifically for Irish women. There are so many ambitious and accomplished Irish women in New York, and I want to send a huge thank you to George Heslin and the team at the New York Irish Center for organising a night to honor them, and for including me! It was a privilege, and I might have caught a bit of the emcee bug!

The week following, I began packing my bags for my first humanitarian aid trip. Wow, to even type that out still does not feel real. A humanitarian aid trip…. although I would love to think that this is something I would have done, had I not participated in the Rose of Tralee, I am not sure if that would have been the case – at least in my younger years. I have always wanted to be a part of something like this, and I am so thankful that the Rose of Tralee has created a tradition of giving each class the chance to give back, especially during a year where we all have been given so much.

This year, the Rose of Tralee International Festival partnered with Happy Kids Foundation and Adi Roche’s Chernobyl Children International on a trip dedicated to aid orphaned children of war-torn Ukraine. On this trip, we were scheduled to volunteer at three safe houses for orphans in the Polish city of Łódź. These safe houses are three of a total of eighteen around Poland, that provide shelter and support for children up to the age of 16 years, with some children having special needs, and many of whom were traumatised from the effects of the war in Ukraine. There was a group of 4 Roses, including myself, and 5 Rose Escorts on the trip, as well as Suzan O’Gara, Festival Director, George and Mary Sugrue, and Jim Kavanaugh who are volunteers with Chernobyl Children International .

In the weeks leading up to the trip, I was feeling a bit apprehensive. Having never participated in a humanitarian trip before, and knowing the situations we were heading into, I felt nervous that my emotions would take over me, and I would not be able to be there to support the children we were there to visit. I was nervous that instead of bringing energy, love, and laughter to the children, that I would feel guilt seeing the misfortunes they have faced at such a young age. It was very comforting to hear that I was not the only one feeling like this once I spoke to the other Roses and Rose Escorts. I think we all wanted to make sure we could give as much as we could to these children in the few days we were there.

We landed in Poland Wednesday morning, and were picked up at the airport by Suzan, Mary, George, and Jim on the massive bus, full to the brim with aid. We landed down on Valentine’s Day, and George greeted us each with a rose as we stepped out of the baggage claim, how perfect! We made the 2-hour bus journey to Łódź and met with the Happy Kids Foundation team to learn a bit about our plans for the next few days. It was an early night Wednesday – I traveled overnight on Tuesday from New York to Dublin, and then connected with the group for our flight to Frankfurt. I was running off of airplane and bus naps, so I was happy to hit the hay. When we woke up on Thursday, our first order of business was emptying the bus of the aid that Suzan, Mary, George, and Jim had driven from Ireland the week prior. Many hands make light work, as about 15 of us carried in hundreds of boxes of toiletries, non-perishables, clothing, water, and my favorite, probably over 500 bottles of Lucozade! It was remarkable to see the amount of aid that had been donated – the amount of effort that went in across the board to collect each item is not easily done.

This was not Jim, George, or Mary’s first rodeo either – they have filled up that bus, and traveled to Poland and other areas of need more than a dozen times. While we were unloading the bus, it was one of the moments I truly realised how important this kind of work is. There are people in our world that do not have access to toilet paper, bottled water, socks…things that we have in abundance. It is almost impossible not to take items like this for granted, but when you are given the opportunity to contribute time, money, or effort, to causes such as this, it is a reminder that even the little bits count. I know that it was an important reminder for myself, and it was just the start of these types of realisations over the next few days…

It was then time to make our way to the safe houses. We distinguished the houses as house 1, house 2, and house 3. We were split into two groups – I was grouped with Caoimhe, Carlow Rose, and Tommy Quirke, my Rose Escort, and Tim Buckley, the New Zealand Rose Escort. The other group included Tommy Cunningham, Escort of the Year, Malachy Lynch, Wexford Rose Escort, Noel Quinn, Melbourne Rose Escort, Ashley Jackson, Arizona Rose, and Brónagh Hogan, Wexford Rose. I think we were all feeling a bit apprehensive on our way to the first house. As we pulled up, we each gathered a few trinkets (coloring books, small games, footballs, fidget spinners) to break the ice with the kids. We made our way inside, and as soon as we got to meet the children in person, I think we all felt a sigh of relief and excitement to get to know them.

When we first arrived, there were definitely a few moments of the kids getting used to having us there. But then, something as simple as passing a blown-up balloon around the room, immediately connected us and we were laughing and playing together in no time! The balloon game became our ice breaker at each of the houses, no matter what age you are, or what language you speak, you never want to let the balloon hit the ground! Once we started doing small activities with the kids, it was amazing to see how quickly they would gravitate towards each of us. Whether they just wanted someone to sit with, or someone to show their schoolwork to, the children were so innocent and kind and just appreciated having someone there giving them one-on-one attention. It became so easy to forget the hardships that the children have faced, as soon as we spent some time with them. They are just normal young kids who like to joke around, play sports, draw, and do all of the silly things a child would like to do.

We spent a lot of time playing sports. At one of the houses, there was a group of siblings, one older brother and his two younger sisters. All they wanted to do was play basketball. Their “basketball court” was about a 20ft space between the garage door and a gate, and to “score” you had to touch the ball off either the wall or the gate itself, no hoop. These 3 kids could have played basketball all day and night, and they were very good as well! I was sweating after paying with them, and they definitely had a few points on me. We also took a group of kids on the bus to a nearby soccer field and played 8 v. 8. I don’t remember the last time I was sprinting that hard on a soccer field, but they certainly brought out my competitive side! We bonded so quickly once we started playing together, and I think this was key especially for some of the houses that had older boys that needed a bit more time to open up and have fun with us.

An interesting element to navigate was the language barrier. We had a few translators with us who were very helpful, but most times our best ways of communicating were through hand signals or just following the kids’ lead. Whether it was teaching us how to play a card game or their own custom rules to basketball, I think both us and the children found our different ways of trying to communicate funny. We eventually resorted to taking our phones out and using the translator app, but most times hand signals did the trick.

On the final evening in Łódź, we invited all 3 safe houses to our hotel for a party! This was my favorite night, and really the perfect culmination to the trip. The bond that we made with the children at these safehouses became truly evident at the party when some of the kids ran in and gave the Roses and Rose Escorts hugs, as if we had known them for years. I believe those were some of the most fulfilling moments, to see that not only were we impacted by the love of these children, but that they felt that love and wanted to give it back. The party was full of candy, McDonalds, balloon games, dancing, and fun. When time came to say goodbye, it was hard not to get emotional. The reason we made this trip was to give the children a reason to smile, have fun, and feel loved. I hope that we did that, and I hope they feel that love beyond our time there in person.

I’ve reread the above few paragraphs, and I feel as though I’m not even touching on half of the special moments of our time in Łódź. I am not sure if I have the words to put to the meaning of this trip, but I am so thankful to Suzan O’Gara, to my fellow Roses and Rose Escorts, and to Jim, George, and Mary for making this happen. We bonded through this experience, and it is something I don’t think any of us will ever forget. Our fundraising efforts inclusive of our online fundraising, and all the gathered aid (over €44,000 worth) and sponsored items, the value of and benefit to the two charities combined is over €80,000.

On the day we returned from Poland, we headed straight into the 2024 Rose of Tralee International Festival Launch! We hopped off the plane, picked up our suitcases, and before I knew it, I was getting dolled up at the EPIC Museum in Dublin. The Roses and Roses Escorts suited up in our white dresses (and sashes of course), and the boys in their tuxes, and we headed aboard the Jeanie Johnston ship for a photoshoot with the famous Domnick Walsh. I don’t think the group of us stopped laughing the whole time, we had so much fun. You would think after four heavy days in Poland, leading into a day of travel on less than three hours sleep that we would all be worse for wear, but we had a ball.

I know it sounds a bit cliché, but this whole experience does still feel like a dream at times, and I think I can speak on behalf of all of the Roses and Rose Escorts in saying that. Our lives have changed since we met in Tralee, in ways that I don’t think any of us imagined. I don’t think modeling in a Rose of Tralee photoshoot was on any of our bingo cards!

I’ll end my journal entry on this note – if you have ever half considered applying, or you know someone who you think would make a great Rose, just apply. Why not?! I know when asked that question you can probably come up with five different reasons why you wouldn’t, but are they actually good reasons? At the end of the day, this festival/ experience is an opportunity to meet new people, have fun, and I think most importantly, empower yourself. We’re at an age where it can be very hard to figure out what it is you want to do, who you want to be, where you want to live…there are almost too many options. The Rose of Tralee gave me a venue to self-reflect, and truly think about what is important to me, and how I chase after that. I’m not going to lie, doing that is not easy. It is not easy being vulnerable and trying something new, but I promise you, there is nothing to lose. If you are on the fence or have any questions about the application process or Rose of Tralee experience, feel free to send me a message on Instagram, and I would be happy to chat.

Next up, the Class of 2023 takes NEW YORK! My head might blow up with excitement and nerves, and everything in between! I cannot wait to welcome the Roses and Rose Escorts to New York. As a major bonus, we have over 40 of the previous International Rose of Tralee Winners coming to New York as well! Again, this feels like a dream! I think the moment that we turn onto 5th Avenue to march up Manhattan, will be up there with hearing my name announced on stage.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and enjoy St. Patrick’s Day!

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