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My Year: Rose of Tralee Rachel Duffy

It is my pleasure on behalf of myself and the 2023 Roses, to welcome you to this year’s Rose of Tralee International festival. Although I must admit, it is with a heavy heart that I find myself writing this, because it means that my time as the 2022 Rose of Tralee is coming to an end.

If you had told me a few years ago, that I would ever enter the Rose of Tralee, much less be chosen as the 2022 International Rose of Tralee, I would have never believed it. But on a whim, in Spring 2022 I made the decision to apply for the Westmeath Rose Selection. I saw it as an opportunity to gain some confidence, make friends and try something new. What I never expected was that I would embark on the journey of a lifetime, a journey that has brought out the best in me and helped me transform into an empowered young woman full of courage, hope and gratitude. 

In August 2022, with 32 new friends from around the world I embarked on the unforgettable Rose Tour around Ireland. I felt like the luckiest girl on the planet. I found a sense of belonging amongst my rose sisters that I had never felt before. My whole life I had yearned for the sense of belonging that the Rose of Tralee Festival gave me. I felt honoured to be in the company of so many beautiful, inspiring, and empowering women. To this day, I am filled with pride with the knowledge that I call them my friends. 

It was on the 23rd of August 2022, that the words “Westmeath” rang out in the MTU in Tralee and my life as I knew it completely changed. It was like a surge of electricity passed through my body, and I remember feeling like the ground might just open and swallow me. The disbelief was evident on my face that night and of course, I am constantly reminded of my terrified expression when my name was called out! The first highlight of my year was my homecoming to my village Rosemount. Returning to the village where I grew up, to be greeted with flags, bunting and posters outside everyone’s homes was one of the most humbling experiences I have ever had. I remember feeling guilty that our championship match that was due to be played that evening had to be cancelled in order to give me a proper Homecoming. My guilt quickly melted away when I arrived at my local GAA pitch where I was met with hundreds upon hundreds of people, all ready to celebrate and dance the night away in P. Egans. I can safely say, there was no football played in Rosemount that weekend!

In November 2022, with butterflies in my belly, I boarded a flight that would take me halfway around the world to Kolkata, India. What followed was truly the most overwhelming and eye-opening experience of my life. “A world where it should never hurt to be a child” the vision of The HOPE Foundation, echoed in my mind throughout my time there. Upon meeting Maureen Forrest, the founder of the HOPE Foundation, I was blown away by her dedication to create a brighter future for the homeless and slum-dwelling communities of the city. I laughed and cried, I danced and played like a child. I was inspired by the children I met, by their kindness and talent, mostly by how loving they were to welcome me, a stranger, into their classrooms, centres, and homes with open arms. 

The support of my fellow Roses and Escorts has been an invaluable aspect of my experience, and we remain unified throughout the year, going on international adventures together. One such was a visit to Frankfurt. Hosted by the Germany Rose Centre, we ate and drank our body weight in mulled wine and bratwurst and took part in the opening of a Christmas Market in Frankfurt-Hochst. We got suited and booted once more at Christmastime for our Rose of Tralee Winter Ball organised by Rose Escort of the Year Shane McHugh in aid of the Irish Hospice Foundation at Barberstown Castle Hotel. There were many memorable experiences around the Christmas period for me, but there was one to beat out all the rest. And that was the opportunity to turn on the Christmas Lights in Mullingar. It was like a fairytale, seeing hundreds of people on the street below ready to light up the town and see the spirit of Christmas come alive.  

In January, I began to feel more confident in my role and this I can attribute a lot to a weekend long reunion with all of the past International Roses of Tralee. We biked around Tralee, and they shared stories and tales of their time as Roses, each imparting small nuggets of knowledge and instilling their faith in me. I felt a sense of family and safety in their company and knew I would be a part of this family long after my time as the reigning rose had ended. 

While I am already a Godmother to my nephew Daithí, in February in an unexpected turn of events I became a Ferry Godmother! As a student of Spanish and having lived in the North of Spain, being bestowed the honour of baptising the new Brittany Ferries Ship ‘The Salamanca’ was a total surprise and a full circle moment, as I visited the beautiful city of Salamanca during my studies a few years ago. Thanks to the Irish Embassy in Paris, I travelled to France and became the first Irish woman to baptise a Brittany Ferries ship. It is tradition for the Godmother to smash a bottle of champagne on the bow of the ship in order to ensure the safety of its sailors and a long life at sea. 

When March rolled around, it was time for the Roses and Escorts annual trip to the Big Apple to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. It was an early start on March 17th, as Shane, Cathrena and I made our way to Gracie Mansion, the residence of the Mayor of New York for breakfast. We were so fortunate to attend mass that morning in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and I was blown away by the beauty and spirit of the celebration that day. We then reunited with our 2022 Class of Roses and Escorts to march down Fifth Avenue in the New York St Patrick’s Day Parade. We all felt an immense sense of pride as we were not only representing the festival, but we were each representing our respective homeplaces. 

As the year was so hectic with various engagements and trips, we decided to make time for a tour around Westmeath. I have been so very lucky to have had the support of multiple businesses in my locality this year, P. Egan’s Traditional Irish Bar, which is my workplace and my first ever sponsor, Radiant Beauty by Hannah Kelly who pampered me on multiple occasions, and Sleator’s KIA in Mullingar who provided my new car the KIA Niro EV. It was so important to acknowledge the role all of these supporters have had over the last 18 months and pay them all a visit. 

As a lover of GAA and a proud member of Cill Oige LGFA I was so honoured to receive an invitation from Westmeath New York GAA to return back to New York in May for their Dinner Dance and Tailteann Cup Celebration Weekend. I once again packed my bags to jet off to New York, excited but apprehensive to be taking this trip alone. However, once I arrived it became clear that I felt more at home than ever on this trip because there were so many Westmeath natives there, welcoming me with open arms. Many of them expressed how much they missed home when watching the Rose of Tralee and seeing Westmeath bring it home. It re-enforced the principals of the festival for me, that it is a celebration of amazing woman, and it honours Irish identities around the globe.  

I have been very lucky throughout the year to have been involved with multiple charities and campaigns. One such campaign that is close to my heart is 100Kin30Days for Breast Cancer. Being an ambassador for the campaign this year was particularly special. It gave me the opportunity to meet breast cancer survivors and BRCA warriors, to hear their stories and be inspired by their strength. Having lost my mam to breast cancer, it became a healing experience for me and also an amazing initiative to raise money for The Marie Keating Foundation’s breast cancer services. The campaign this year raised an outstanding €1 million.

With my year coming to a close, it is impossible to choose just one highlight. It was certainly one of the most challenging but rewarding years of my life, and I am a better person because of it. I would like to thank in particular the Rose of Tralee festival committee for their support. Suzan, who has been in the background as both a committee member and friend supporting me at every stage. Steve Cronly who is an unwavering source of guidance and honesty and a constant reminder to put on my sash! To Anthony and Oonagh O’Gara, for welcoming me so warmly into the Rose of Tralee family. For all the laughs and chats and G&Ts, I have more special memories made than I can count. To Sarah and Katie, for all your behind-the-scenes support in Westmeath, thank you for travelling around the world with me. It is a pleasure to be a representative for Westmeath Rose Centre. To the Meadowlands Hotel, for becoming my home away from home, thank you for offering me a sense of relaxation and peace amid the madness this year. To Tralee, the town I have come to know so well, thank you for your hospitality and accepting me as your rose this year. I will be back every year and I look forward to seeing my name on the Rose Wall, along with all the names of every Rose there has ever been. 

To my family, friends, and my partner Stephen, I would be lost without you. You have been there at every step of the way, as my biggest supporters and motivators. Especially my two nephews Daithí and baby Tadhg, I am so proud to be your auntie and I hope you can look up to me. This has been a journey for all of us and you were always there to remind me how lucky I am. I hope I have made you all proud. To the 2023 International Rose of Tralee, I look forward to meeting you. Be assured that I will be there to support you in any way I can on this amazing journey you are about to undertake. 

I wish I could do it all over again. 

Love, Rachel 

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