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Rose of Tralee

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Double Win for the 2010 Rose

The second sash of the night for Mairead Conley.

The second sash of the night for Mairead Conley. (Click on photo to view photo essay.)

Mairead Conley was very pleased to have been crowned as the 2010 Philadelphia Rose of Tralee.

“I feel dumbfounded. You never expect to win,” said the self-described introvert and deputy director of community programming at the Irish Immigration Center of Philadelphia, following her local triumph Saturday night at the Philadelphia Irish Center. “I was completely blown away.”

But the night held one more surprise for Mairead. Saturday night marked the first Mid-Atlantic Rose of Tralee Final. With two other women in the running–Washington, D.C., Rose of Tralee Katherine Walsh and Teresa Marie Parks, Baltimore’s Rose–Mairead was the judges’ choice to become the first Mid-Atlantic Rose. She’ll travel to Tralee, County Kerry, to compete in the Rose of Tralee International Festival August 20 through 24.

It was a special night for yet another reason, Mairead acknowledged. “What a birthday present,” she said as she extricated herself from a throng of friends and relatives. “I was very content with being the Philadelphia Rose. I thought that was a great way to end the evening. Earlier in the night, someone asked me whether I had summer plans. I said, ‘I don’t know… Maybe I’ll go to Sea Isle.’ Now, I’m going to Tralee.”

2009 Philadelphia Rose of Tralee Jocelyn McGillian acknowledged a “huge mix of emotion” as her year came to a close. But she was thrilled for friend Mairead. “Now,” she said, “she gets to feel all the things I felt last year.”

We have many, many photos from Mairead’s big night. (And of course, it was a big night for all of the other bright, talented young women.) Click on the photo at upper right to view the slide show.

News, People

A Rose by Any Other Name Is … Mairead

Mairead Conley

Mairead Conley, moments after being crowned Mid-Atlantic Rose of Tralee.

This August, when women from all over Ireland and the world gather in Tralee for The Rose of Tralee International Festival, Mairead Conley will be there to represent not only Philadelphia, but the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States.

A celebration of “modern young women in terms of their aspirations, ambitions, intellect, social responsibility and Irish heritage,” the festival could have crafted their definition of a Rose around Conley.

Aspirations: “I think it’s great how unexpected life can be. A year ago I never could have pictured myself here. I’m so excited for Ireland and the festival, but I’m even more ecstatic for the upcoming year—to take on such an active role in the Irish community in Philadelphia.”

Ambitions: “I’d always been interested in pursuing a career in non-profit management. Last year, my mom saw the interview that Denise Foley did with Siobhan Lyons [head of the Irish Immigration Center here in Philadelphia] on and sent it to me. I contacted Siobhan, and we talked about what I was interested in, and what the goals of the center were. I began interning there last August. I never even realized how ignorant I was about the immigration process in this country. So many positive things have come out of working there, including being on the IN-Philly Board.”

Intellect: “In 2007, I graduated from Temple University with a degree in sociology. If I could have, I would have majored in anthropology and African-American studies as well. I’ve always planned to go on for a master’s degree in social work.”

Social responsibility: “Growing up, service was always a part of my life. It was just another activity, like ballet or chorus. We volunteered at St. Vincent’s Soup Kitchen in Germantown, and every Saturday I’d go with my aunt, who was a nun, to collect food from restaurants and farmers markets and deliver it to the St. Francis Inn in Kensington. In the summers, we’d go and stay with another aunt in Ohio (my mom is one of 10 kids) and teach vacation Bible School in Appalachia. The year after I graduated from Temple, I spent a year with the Mercy Volunteer Corps volunteering at a Catholic grade school in Cincinnati. There are so many kids living in poverty, and I think it’s so important to give them outlets and hope. I really believe it’s an important part of my spiritual development and growth.”

Irish heritage: “The Conleys are from Ballina in County Mayo. They emigrated to Canada, and were in Newfoundland before coming down into the U.S., into Indiana and Chicago. My mom’s family is from Strabane, County Tyrone, and from Abbeyfeale, County Limerick. We just visited some family there last summer. And it’s really funny because I was actually in Tralee last year, too. I saw the rose gardens and we saw a show at the National Folk Theatre. It never entered my mind that I’d be going back, let alone as a Rose.”

But when deciding on the Rose, judges look beyond even those characteristics to discern “the truth in her eyes” as William Mulchinock’s song “The Rose of Tralee” characterizes it.

And just so, there is more yet to Conley:“I find it all so overwhelmingly exciting that it’s taking me a while to soak it all in. I really wasn’t going to do it, enter the Rose Festival—I’m someone who’s an observer of people and I generally don’t like the limelight—it’s so strange that the tables have turned,” Conley explained.

“Kathleen Murtagh encouraged me to enter the Miss Mayo Pageant last November, and Sarah [Conaghan, managing director of the Mid-Atlantic Rose of Tralee Center] was a judge there.

After Miss Mayo, Sarah encouraged me to go out for the Rose. I said I would think about it, but it seemed so out of my realm that I put it to the side,” Conley laughed.It wasn’t until more encouragement from City Councilman Bill Green, and the ladies at the Immigration Center’s Senior Lunch, that Conley threw her tiara into the ring.

“In March, at the Philadelphia Rose Selection, I got myself worked up and stressed out over it… so by the end of the night, I was shocked that I was a finalist. I find it difficult still. All of these women are so intelligent, savvy and dynamic. But camaraderie is really emphasized; there truly is a lack of competition.

“And so much is based on service. That’s an area I’m comfortable talking about. I still have a strong desire to do a service year abroad; I’d even started the application process for the upcoming year—I really didn’t think I’d win. I believe in thinking globally and acting locally, in doing something that will make a big difference in a small area.”

In fact, Conley chose two charities to sponsor as the Mid-Atlantic Rose: Holy Family Home and The Little Sisters of the Poor in Southwest Philly, where her grandmother lives, and the Southwest Community Arts Center where she did service work growing up.

“I feel like I’ve been blessed that I’ve had a lot of freedom to be able to choose what I want to do in life, and then do it. This past year has shown me that life is full of surprises and unexpected opportunities.

“Jocelyn McGillian did such an awesome job as Philadelphia’s Rose last year. I have some big shoes to fill. I’m really looking forward to working with Sarah, and the whole Conaghan family. I just have to say how genuinely kind everyone has been, even before the Rose. The Philadelphia Irish community is closeknit but so welcoming… I really think it’s going to be a great year.”

And on August 24, all Irish eyes in Philadelphia will be looking toward Tralee, and rooting for the home town favorite.


Today Tralee, Tomorrow the World

Karen Conaghan Race is at far left and her sister, Sarah Conaghan at far right, with Roses in between.

Karen Conaghan Race is at far left and her sister, Sarah Conaghan at far right, with Roses in between.

As you watch Saturday night’s Mid-Atlantic Rose of Tralee Final at the Philadelphia Irish Center—you are going, aren’t you?—know this: you’re catching a glimpse of the future of this long-running County Kerry Festival.

Since 1959, the festival has been selecting a young woman on a yearly basis to serve as its Rose of Tralee, with the candidates coming from around the world.

Anthony O’Gara, managing director of the festival, says the United States is about to gain many, many new Rose of Tralee Centres–groups of people responsible for running their own local and regional festivals.

“Our ambition is to build 250 centres in America in nine regions,” says O’Gara. “Sarah Conaghan and her sister Karen Conaghan Race have spearheaded the movement here in the United States. This [instead of running just one local festival], they’ll be running a regional festival pulling in six centres.”

This expansion is all part of the international festival’s mission to bring a bit of the Irish culture to the rest of the world. In 2004, the international festival had just 28 centres; today there are 80, only half of them in Ireland.

O’Gara acknowledges that there are many Rose of Tralee Centers in the States already–but they’re scattered. “There are pockets of Irish in cities and regions all over the united States,” he notes. “If you just have one centre for every state, you’re only reaching a tiny portion of the Irish and irish-Americans living in that state,” he says.

If the international committee has anything to say about it, the vast increase in local centres ought to capture a far bigger audience.

If you want to see how that ambitious plan is progressing, check out the Mid-Atlantic final at the Irish Center Saturday night.

[googleMap name=”Philadelphia Irish Center” width=”600″ height=”600″ directions_from=”true”]6815 Emlen Street, Philadelphia, PA 19118[/googleMap]


Hot Afternoon, Icy Lemonade, and a Good Cause

Alex's Lemonade Stand

Hey ... you get the idea, right? Click on the photo to see more.

Last Saturday afternoon, temperatures soared into the high 80s throughout the Delaware Valley, but it felt even hotter out on West Chester Pike in Upper Darby.

But the heat evidently didn’t bother many of the volunteers who turned out to help the Philadelphia Rose of Tralee Centre support pediatric cancer research with a spectacular (and very yellow) Alex’s Lemonade Stand at the Irish Immigration and Pastoral Center at West Chester Pike and Cedar Lane. Even Sarah Conaghan, managing director of the Mid-Atlantic Rose of Tralee Centre, was a study in bright lemony yellow, right down to her necklace—which looked like a string of miniature lemons.

The volunteers included many of the Delaware Valley’s best and brightest young Irish-American women—including 2009 Rose Jocelyn McGillian, the Donegal Association’s 2010 Mary from Dungloe Kiera McDonagh, 2009 Mary from Dungloe Emily Weideman, 2008 Miss Mayo and 2010 Mid-Atlantic Rose finalist Colleen Mullarkey , and Jessica Greene, also a Mid-Atlantic Rose finalist.

(And if I’ve left anyone out, one or more of these women will let us know.)

Also among the volunteers: a wildly enthusiastic collection of Rosebuds, the younger girls who serve as a kind of honor guard. While the rest of us, wilting, sought refuge in the immigration center’s air conditioning, they hung around outside and drew posters, poured cups of lemonade, blew bubbles, made multicolor pipe-cleaner crowns (my favorite: the one that spelled out “H E L P.”), applied little lemon tattoos to their faces, and ran up and down the block below the immigration center yelling at the very top of their lungs for passing drivers to pull over right that very moment (“I KNOW YOU SEEEEEEEEEEE MEEEEEEE!!!!!!”) and buy a big cup of lemonade for cancer research.

Not so surprisingly, this high-pressure salesmanship often worked. They are Rosebuds—hear them roar.

Between the lemonade stand and online donations, the Rose of Tralee raked in close to $700—not a bad little haul.

Click on the photo above to see the whole photo essay.

News, People

Two Local Women Named to Irish Echo’s “40 Under 40” List

Sarah Conaghan and Siobhan Lyons.

Sarah Conaghan and Siobhan Lyons.

Sarah Conaghan, managing director of the Mid-Atlantic Rose of Tralee Centre, and Siobhan Lyons, executive director of the Irish Immigration Center of Greater Phildelphia, were named to the Irish Echo newspaper’s “40 under 40” list, which recognizes 40 people of Irish descent who, as publish Mairtin O’ Muilleoir describes them, are “high flyers who can taste, see, and shape the future.”

Conaghan, 33, of Villanova, founded the Rose of Tralee Center in Philadelphia in 2002, which was the first year a Philadelphia contestant was represented in the international competition in Tralee, County Kerry, now in its 41st year. An outgrowth of Tralee’s traditional Carnival Queen, a town event, the Rose Festival is now broadcast on Irish TV every year. When Conaghan and her sisters would visit their Donegal grandmother every summer, she says, they would be glued to the TV, scoring the contestants on their hair and gowns. While other girls her age dreamt of being Miss America, Conaghan says she always wanted to be a Rose.

She never became one, but today, she helps other young women achieve their dream. When she is not busy (very busy) working the Philadelphia and Mid-Atlantic Rose events (March 27 and June 26 this year), she is active in immigration reform activities (her father, Tom, is the founder of the Irish Immigration Center in Philadelphia), volunteers at the Commodore Barry Memorial Library at the Irish Center, serves on the Inspirational Irish Women Awards committee and is a member of the Donegal Association.

Siobhan Lyons, 36, was born in Dublin, but led the peripatetic life of the daughter of an Irish diplomat, growing up Nairobi, London, Washington, DC, and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She majored in Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She spent some time in the Irish diplomatic corps in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and, when her then-husband’s work took him to the US, she volunteered at variety of nonprofits. Prior to taking over the helm of the Irish Immigration Center last year, Lyons was director of communications and foundation for the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia.

Since she became executive director of the Immigration Center, located in Upper Darby, Lyons has launched a community-wide survey of the needs of both immigrations and Irish-Americans alike with an eye to providing a greater range of services. Irish Consul General Niall Burgess spoke at a reception at the center marking the survey launch. She has also forged a new partnership between the center and the Drexel Law School to help provide regular confidential legal counseling services to Irish community members dealing with immigration issues and more. Every Saturday in March this year, the center is hosting workshops to help Irish immigrants to apply for citizenship and Irish-Americans get their Irish citizenship, available to anyone whose parents or grandparents were born in Ireland.

In the past few years, Philadelphia has been represented on this prestigious annual list by Karen Boyce McCollum, associate director of corporate communications at Cephalon and well known Irish singer formerly with the band, Causeway, and Theresa Flanagan Murtagh, an attorney and former president of the Donegal Association who has her own band (The Theresa Flanagan Band).

News, People

The Roses Beat the Winter Blues

Jocelyn McGillian, the 2009 Rose, with her sisters, all future Roses?

Jocelyn McGillian, the 2009 Rose, with her sisters, all future Roses?

With a winter full of snow, snow and more snow, the Philadelphia Rose of Tralee Winter Blues BBQ held last Saturday at The Willows in Radnor went a long way towards banishing those blah feelings!

Managing Director of the Mid-Atlantic Rose of Tralee Sarah Conaghan, who was recently named one of Irish Echo’s Top 40 Under 40, organized the barbecue as a fundraiser for the Susan G. Komen Mothers Day Breast Cancer Walk.

“We raised close to $1,000 for our team, The Philadelphia Rose of Tralee. And we had a great turn-out, over 150 people,” Conaghan announced.

News, People

Rosabelle Gifford: Woman of Spirit

When she was looking for the right candidate for the first annual Mary O’Connor Spirit Award to honor a woman from the local Irish-American community,   Karen Conaghan says Rosabelle Gifford came to mind immediately.

“She’s very brassy, but not abrasive. Opinionated, spirited, courageous,” says Conaghan, who, with her sister, Sarah, coordinates the Philadelphia Rose of Tralee pageant, of which the award is now a part. “She’s better dressed than anyone we know. She enjoys life. She’s a total inspiration.”

I met Rosabelle Gifford this week. It’s all true.

Named for the original “Rose of Tralee,” who refused to marry her true love because she knew it would tear him from his disapproving family, the first Mary O’Connor Spirit Award is going to a woman who knows intimately how love can go wrong—and the meaning of courage and self-sacrifice.

She was Rosabelle Blaney of Gortward, Mountcharles, County Donegal, when she married Edward Harvey of Castleogary. The couple moved to post-war London where they went on to have five children, including a set of twins. But the marriage was not to last.

“It was a very bad marriage,” says Giffor. “He was drinking, running around with other women, and a wife-beater. I had to go.”

At a time when there was little help for abused women and families—and there was almost no housing in bombed-out London—Gifford had to plan her own escape. She sent two of her five children back to Ireland to live with her parents and one to Scotland to stay with her sister. “I knew they would be well cared for and I had to do it—I had no place to live,” she recalls.

In the early 1950s, when her oldest son, Ted Harvey, was considering enlisting in the British military, Gifford suggested that he go to America instead. “My two older sisters were living here and I told him that if he went, we would follow.” He did, and in 1958, his mother and his siblings moved into the apartment in Bryn Mawr he had rented and furnished for them.

“I got a job taking care of children. I was good at it,” chuckles Gifford. In fact, some of the children she cared for will be attending the award ceremony on Saturday night, June 27, during the 2009 Philadelphia Rose of Tralee Selection Gala.

While at a New Year’s Eve party at a friend’s house, Rosabelle met Charles Gifford, who worked in the accounting department of a steel company. They fell in love and married. She has been widowed for more than 20 years. “He was a good man. I needed that,” she says wistfully. “He was so good to my children too—so good to them.”

Her son, Ted, died many years ago of brain cancer. Three of her four remaining children, Rosemary McCullough, Kathleen Harshberger, Frank Harvey, and assorted grandchildren and great grandchildren will be attending the event. The fourth, son James Harvey, an educator, will be in China at the invitation of the Chinese government.

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t mentioned Rosabelle Gifford’s age. That’s because she doesn’t. “I don’t think it’s anyone’s business,” she says. “I think you’re just as old as you feel.”



A Remarkable Year for the 2007 Rose of Tralee

Colleen Gallagher and her Irish souvenir, Derek Reilly.

Colleen Gallagher and her Irish souvenir, Derek Reilly.

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.”