It’s been an amazing 12 months for Colleen Gallagher.
It started with a tragedy—the loss of her best friend in a drowning accident. And for this 23-year actor and singer—and the 2007 Rose of Tralee—it’s ironically coming to a close with many new beginnings.
“This year has been life-altering,” says Colleen, the eldest of seven girls, who turned over her crown on July 20 to another Colleen, Colleen Tully of Downingtown. “So many doors have opened for me.”
I sat down with Colleen Gallagher at the Rose event at the Hyatt Regency on Friday night and she talked about the year she’ll never forget.
She entered the Rose of Tralee competition last June still deep in mourning for her friend, Alex, who died on May 6. “We were best friends since we were six,” she says. “His death left me in a really tough place. My Dad always said that Alex and I were soulmates. Not in a boyfriend-girlfriend way, but meant to be best friends. I missed him so much. But I knew he was with me all the way.”
When she arrived in Ireland last August for the International Rose of Tralee Festival, it was storming and one of their hosts assured her that it was “just a gentle breeze.” Colleen’s heart did a flip.
“That was how his mother described Alex—he was a breath of fresh air, a gentle breeze,” she says, smiling. “That’s how I knew he was there with me.”
And then there was that nice young man who started chatting with her as she got off the bus at Bunratty Castle. Derek Reilly, a Remax realtor from County Mayo, was one of the escorts who traditionally accompany the Roses during the weeklong festival. “They were pairing up with each girl as she got off the bus. I was sitting in the wrong seat so I wound up with Derek,” recalls Colleen. “He found out I was an actor from Philadelphia and he started talking about the Vince Papale movie (“Invincible”). And we just kept talking.”
Even though he was eventually assigned to the Rose from Dubai, Derek and Colleen grabbed every chance to talk. “After the Tuesday night crowning, we went back to the hotel and talked for six hours straight,” Colleen recalls. Since then, the two have traveled back and forth several times. She’s met his family; Derek has spent Thanksgiving with hers. He was with her at Friday night’s event. “He’s around talking to people—he says he’s networking,” she laughs, looking around for Derek, who, at 28, is the youngest Chamber of Commerce president in Ireland. Not a prince, per se, though Colleen says her friends all kid her that she “met him at a castle.”
When she returned from Ireland, she took an acting role in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, traveling with a troupe that performed the Scottish play (“Macbeth”) at schools around the state, many of them in the inner city. “Here we were telling these children that the play had some dark elements, murder, betrayal, and so on, and many of them lived with these same things,” she says. That got her thinking. “I love acting, I love being on stage,” she says. “But that’s a very self-serving thing: Look at me up here. I became interested in dramatherapy, which is a way to use what I’ve learned (she has a degree in acting and directing from DeSales University) to help someone else.”
Dramatherapy combines theater techniques with elements of psychotherapy to help people in crisis learn to work through their problems and live happier lives. She’s about to pursue her master’s degree. “I’ve been shortlisted for a spot at the National College of Ireland in Maynooth,” says Colleen. “I have a guaranteed spot in 2010. I’ve looked at NYU and UCLA and a school in England, but they’re all very heavily feared toward psychology, whole school in Maynooth is more focused on drama with psychology courses added.”
Though she had to hand over her crown this week, Colleen didn’t see it as a loss. “Over this past year I’ve gained so much self-confidence. I’ve learned not to take no for an answer. I’ve learned that life will take you where it wants you to go,” she said. “I’m never going to lose when I learned about myself. I’ll always be grateful for that.”