Waterford’s Winning Roses

Kirsten Mate Maher’s victory gave Waterford a third Rose of Tralee title last week. Waterford’s two former winners, Orla Burke (1977) and Brenda Hyland (1983), reflect on their wins and share memories from their reigns.

WHEN Kirsten Mate Maher was crowned the 2018 Rose of Tralee last week, many fond memories flooded back for two ladies in attendance in Tralee who had first-hand experience of what Kirsten was experiencing. Orla Burke from Ferrybank won Waterford’s first Rose of Tralee title back in 1977 when she was a 20 year old student nurse. She said it was a surreal experience to hear Waterford declared as winner last week and admits she shed a few tears. “Personally, it was very emotional,” she said.“Waterford has been waiting a long time. I was beginning to lose hope that we’d ever do it again. There were a couple of times over the years when I thought that we’d definitely do it but you never know until the envelope is opened.”Orla said she was thrilled for Kirsten who had “winner written all over her”.
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She praised her dignity and the manner in which she dealt with questions live on stage with presenter Dáithí Ó Sé.Orla said there was huge excitement and very little sleep was had on Tuesday night as the celebrations continued into the early hours. She said it was a night full of emotion and rich memories which allowed her the opportunity to relive her own 1977 experience.
“I was so innocent,” she said.“The Americans were saying that it was their first time in Kerry and it was my first time as well. I had never been to Kerry and had barely been outside of Waterford.”
In the days leading up the festival, Orla had been hotly tipped in the papers as a possible winner. In an era before social media and instant communication, it was while in The Metropole Hotel in Cork during the Rose tour that she discovered she was the favourite to win the contest. However, very often the overall favourite does not win the competition and Orla says she was very much aware of this.She says she therefore tried to remain as grounded as possible in the days leading up to the main event.

Rose of Tralee 1977 Winner Orla Burke.

Rose of Tralee 1977 Winner Orla Burke.


Orla has the distinction of having won the Rose of Tralee in the first (and to date the only) year that a female presenter took charge of proceedings.Kathleen Watkins acted as compère, having stepped in for her husband Gay Byrne. On the night of her win she recalls walking out after being crowned winner and seeing a huge sea of people gathered outside. It was a night that Waterford really did take over the Kerry town as, in addition to Orla being brought through the streets as winner, Brendan Bowyer was also playing on stage. “When he heard Waterford had won he sung ‘The Town I Love So Well’ especially for me,” Orla fondly recalls.She is immensely proud of her spectacular Waterford Crystal trophy which has pride of place in her home. She is also hugely proud of having had the chance to be an ambassador for Waterford during her tenure as Rose of Tralee.She admits she was “wet behind the ears” and “naïve” and confessed to having had a “terrible fear”. “I felt inadequate and I thought there was no way I can do this,” she said.
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However, Orla says the pride and joy which her win generated in Waterford provided her with huge pride and confidence in herself to take on the role with gusto. “It gave people such a lift,” she said.
“To this day people still come up to me and say ‘you did that for Waterford’ and say that they remember where they were the night I won. It gave such a lift to Waterford and Waterford people took such great pride in it.” She vividly recalls the joy of her homecoming to Waterford which included being brought through streets bedecked in colour on the back of a Snowcream lorry.“There was such energy and celebration,” she recalls.A Civic Reception was hosted by then Mayor Tim Gavin.

Orla went on to enjoy a “whirlwind” year which included being invited to sit in at the House of Commons.A lavish dinner was also held in her honour while in London. Orla visited America for St Patrick’s Day and was a guest presenter on the hugely popular TV show ‘Opportunity Knocks’ on two occasions.Additionally, she attended many local and national events. She fondly recalls her father telling her before he died about how much he enjoyed the night she won and what her win meant to him. Now, Orla’s two granddaughters Amélie and Isabel regularly ask their grandmother about the time when she was a “princess”.

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