Orla Burke from Ferrybank won Waterford’s first Rose of Tralee title back in 1977 when she was a 20-year-old student nurse.
Orla remains a Rose of Tralee enthusiast and is a passionate proponent of the festival and all that it represents. In fact, the trip to the County Kerry town is an annual highlight for Orla every year and was something she greatly missed during the past two years when the festival was cancelled due to Covid-19.
This year represented an extra special trip for Orla as she was invited to be a member of the prestigious four-person judging panel. While she has participated in regional judging in the past, this was her first year judging the overall competition.
Speaking animatedly last week while en route home from Tralee and recovering from a hectic schedule of interviewing and socialising, Orla said she was thrilled to be back in Tralee as a judge.
“I was so honoured as the Rose of Tralee is such a big part of my life,” she says.
Orla described her stay in Tralee this year as “the best week since the week I won.” She spoke of the “energy and great pride on display” which she said was particularly evident after an absence of two years.
“I love going there and return home imbued with happiness every year. It’s like somebody injects something into me,” she says.
Although exhausted as a result, Orla said she thoroughly enjoyed the judging experience in addition to all of the other activities. In fact, she admits she didn’t get to bed until around 4am each night – despite having to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed by 8am the next morning!
So, what nuggets of information can Orla reveal from the judging process?
“We get a really good sense of everyone. It’s quite difficult to put into words what we were looking for – it’s such a strange mixture but I know it when I see it,” she explains, adding that “honesty, integrity and humility” are key components.
Along with Orla, this year’s judging panel consisted of Chairperson Mary Kennedy (RTÉ), Charlie O’Sullivan (Deputy CEO, Kerry County Council) and Carmel McGillicuddy (Ballygarry House Hotel).
As part of the process, the judges met contestants on numerous occasions in the days leading up to the televised spectacle which began on Monday evening August 22nd.
Orla says it was an intensive experience and, when they weren’t conducting interviews, she says the judges were constantly observing contestants. Rachel Duffy from Westmeath, who was a rank outsider, defied the bookies to scoop the overall title.
“There were so many beautiful, competent girls, but Rachel shone,” says Orla. “We were very taken with her early on. She wasn’t the loudest, but she had a lovely confidence. She has a rich Irishness, she loves her family, her community and spoke so movingly about her mother’s death.”
Despite having favourable impressions of Rachel, Orla says the judges were “open to everything” and keen to give every contestant an equal opportunity.
She says anything can happen to sway the judges’ decision. In fact, Orla revealed that the final decision isn’t made until 15 minutes before the live announcement is made on Tuesday night.
“Mary Kennedy, as Chairperson, asked for our decision and she had the casting vote in the event of any issue arising,” explained Orla.
When Rachel came back to meet with the judges after being declared winner by presenter Dáithí Ó Sé, Orla says the 23-year-old was “trembling”.
“It brought me back to my time,” she says. “It’s life-changing. You feel you can’t do it, but I spoke to Rachel and said ‘you can do this, you will be a brilliant Rose of Tralee’.”
Orla says Rachel will have huge support from festival organisers and former Roses. She is confident that she will be a “fantastic ambassador”. Orla also praised this year’s Waterford Rose Helen Geary and her family who, she said, “did Waterford proud”.
Every year, Orla’s trip to Tralee allows her to relive her own 1977 experience. Looking back, she says: “I was so innocent. 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.”
Orla says she went to enjoy herself and didn’t think about winning.
“Nobody thought I would have a chance. It wasn’t even envisaged that Waterford would win,” she says. “My father said: ‘Don’t get a big head, one of the Americans will win!’”.
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.
Orla admits she was “naïve and raw” and confessed to having insecurities after being declared winner. “I felt inadequate and I thought there is no way I can do this,” she said.
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. She is hugely proud of having had the chance to be an ambassador for Waterford during her tenure as Rose of Tralee.
“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. She visited America for St Patrick’s Day and 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.
Orla now has a busy family life with her three adult children and four grandchildren (and another due shortly). Her granddaughters Amélie and Isabel were with her in Tralee this year and had “stars in their eyes coming home”.
Orla possess an infectious enthusiasm for the Rose of Tralee and is hugely proud of being an advocate for the festival. She says she always strives to promote the festival and is annoyed by the annual criticism which it attracts.
While many people dismiss the festival and regard it as being outdated and a cliché, Orla believes it’s the intense criticism of the festival which has actually become a cliché.
“The same things are said every year. All the naysayers are standing by while the Rose of Tralee survives,” she says. “It’s often critiqued by feminists, but feminism is about choice. Everyone who enters the Rose of Tralee has a choice and choses to do so. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.”
Orla points out that the Rose of Tralee is a “massive commercial success” and the envy of many similar sized Irish towns. She believes its popularity and enduring appeal revolves around its “emotional core”.
“It’s about celebrating our shared heritage, our Irishness and how we punch above our weight as a country,” she says.
Orla is regularly in contact with other former winners. She loves the camaraderie which exists amongst past winners and participants and says around 15 former winners attended this year’s event. She says the former winners are part of a “very tight club”.
“There is such a network of friendship,” she says. “We are extremely good friends and very close.”
She adds: “I am so grateful to the Rose of Tralee for the wonderful experiences I’ve had. It’s been a wonderful thread in my life.”
Waterford has a strong track record in the Rose of Tralee, having scooped the overall title on three occasions. Orla’s win was followed by Brenda Hyland in 1983 and Kirsten Mate Maher in 2018.
After an enforced absence of two years, Orla is delighted that the Rose of Tralee returned “bigger and better” this year and she is looking forward to many more trips to Kerry.
Having surmounted so much criticism, along with the challenges of a global pandemic, the Rose of Tralee has certainly proved it’s a force to be reckoned with. And with such passionate and inspiring advocates as Orla, the Rose of Tralee is certainly in safe hands for the future.
Author Kieran Foley News Editor The Munster Express firstname.lastname@example.org Your locally dedicated Waterford journalist