By Cathriona Murphy
In 2019, Sally-Ann Leahy of Causeway, Co Kerry was selected as the Kerry Rose. In shock and in turn delighted to have been given the prestigious title she started to prepare for the next 12 months. Not anticipating in her wildest dreams that we would enter a global pandemic which would in turn extend her reign to 3 years, Sally-Ann embraced the role in what would be a rollercoaster journey. From the festival to motherhood, Sally-Ann chats to us about it all.
In 2019 Sally-Ann, you became the Kerry Rose, little did you know it would be a three-year reign! How has the experience been for you?
It has been wonderful, I never imagined when I got the Kerry Rose title that I would be holding it for nearly 3 years! 2019 was the best year, it was a busy year and a busy summer. I attended events, festivals, schools, launches of new businesses and then, of course, the festival itself. In the November after the festival, the Roses and Escorts travelled to Germany. We visited the Christmas markets in Frankfurt which was so much fun, just catching up with each other was fantastic. We then had the most beautiful masquerade ball on New Year’s Eve 2019 up in Kildare which seems like a lifetime ago now! The following March we were travelling to Chicago, we had just touched down when I checked the news on my phone to see Donal Trump had announced the St Patricks Day Parade in Chicago was cancelled. We stayed in Chicago for a few days with the hopes that maybe we might be able to walk in the New York parade, but things took a turn for the worse with Covid and everything was cancelled so we travelled home to Ireland. Heading straight into lockdowns, things have been quiet in terms of Rose duties for the last 2 years. Fortunately, in March of this year, I was afforded the opportunity to go to New York with my Fiancé Thomas and my family where I had the honour of walking in the St Patricks Day Parade 2022. It was surreal to say the least, walking down 5th Avenue with my Rose sisters! I am delighted to have gotten the opportunity to do that, it’s just been a wonderful experience.
In addition to holding a three-year reign, you welcomed a beautiful baby girl with your Fiancé Thomas, Molly-Mai. How have you adapted to your new role as a Mother?
It has been the most life changing experience becoming a mother. It really opened my eyes to motherhood and parenthood! The love you have for your child is just like no other love it really is fabulous to experience it. We truly feel so blessed to have little miss Molly-Mai as we call her! She is just over a year old now and just full of life and energy. She has brought so much happiness and joy into our hearts and into our home, to our family. Sometimes I think back and think how am I a Mother! The last year has just gone by in the blink of an eye.
Many previous Rose’s talk about the close bonds they made with their fellow Rose’s, have you kept in contact with any of the women you met in 2019?
I am still friends with so many of the 2019 Rose’s, the WhatsApp groups are going daily with notifications and updates. A lot of the Roses are handing over their sashes in the next few weeks so we’ve been doing up little videos for each of the Rose’s just to show on the night of the selections. It’s a lovely little memory for them to have and of course for the next rose coming along its lovely for them to see all the opportunities coming to them. There are so many doors’ open to all of us all over the world now, which is incredible for me to know that I would be extremely welcome in any of their homes and likewise, they are welcome in mine. I would say, even the girls that were involved in the selection the year I went for it, I have remained great friends with some of them too so it’s just a wonderful opportunity. It’s an amazing community of very accomplished women with overflowing CV’s that build a sisterhood through the Rose of Tralee.
Taking on such a demanding, time consuming role cannot be easy, how supportive and understanding was Thomas and your family during the process?
We are together since 2009 and he has
always been so incredibly supportive as have my family. They always encouraged me to go for the Kerry Rose but I never thought I would actually get selected? From the moment I applied, the support was phenomenal. Thomas was with me every step of the way supporting me in every way that he could. It can’t have been easy to see another man hanging off my arm for a number of weeks but he genuinely supported me and encouraged me at every moment. To see him grow over the last year into the role as a Father has been an absolute pleasure, he is amazing at it.
Can you tell our readers about some of the highlights and stand out moments for you personally?
It’s a very difficult question because there has been so many highlights over the last few years. One highlight was definitely walking down 5th avenue in the parade last March, it was surreal, a real pinch me moment! The Rose Ball was another that really stood out to me with it being just an incredible night. We were treated like princesses the entire night. The energy and the excitement in the dome that night was just incredible, if I could only just bottle up that feeling! Another standout moment for me was when we visited a primary school, all the little girls were standing there with their notebooks asking for my autograph, it was a little surreal, I couldn’t believe it. I remember also, when we were driving into Kerry the week of the festival having been touring Ireland, we were just coming into Tralee by the John Mitchells GAA. The bus driver asked me to come up to the front to welcome all the Rose’s into Kerry, little did I know he did it for a reason. My family and friends had gathered at the side of the road with banners and posters welcoming me home to Kerry, I got so emotional, I even get teary eyed now just thinking about it! Throughout the entire festival, I can’t explain the feeling of just meeting and greeting everyone, seeing the support that I received from the people of Kerry was just unbelievable. My house was like a florist for a few weeks! From flowers, to cards, being gifted some beautiful products and kindly being given beautiful dresses to wear, I am so thankful for that support. I honestly can’t say it enough just how supportive the people in Kerry were, I could not have done it without them all behind me, cheering me on. Knowing what the next Kerry rose is going to experience makes me want to do it all over again, but you move on with all that you learned through the process and be as supportive to the next Rose as I can be.
The festival has drawn criticism over the years, what would you say to anyone who is critical of it?
I would say you really need to go and experience the festival for yourself, get involved in it. Whether it’s going as a spectator or attending the Rose Ball even applying to be a Rose, just get involved. Whatever it may be, just experience it for yourself because it’s certainly far from being a “lovely girls” competition. I mean, we are all lovely girls, but highly accomplished, educated, motivated young women. Why not support young women? We are so lucky as Kerry people and should be so proud to have a highly recognised, respected, international festival in the heart of our County and local town. It’s a festival that supports women all over the world, brings their families together and what other festival does that? I know from speaking to people who would have been involved in the festival down through the years, there is a sparkle in their eye when they reminisce on it. So, I really think if you are going to be negative about the festival, then you really don’t understand it or know anything about it so just get involved. Be positive about it, support women and that is the spirit of the festival, women supporting women.
With that said, the festival organisers have announced changes to the application process, do you feel those changes are welcomed and perhaps overdue?
Absolutely I feel the changes are very welcome. We have some girls who would have wanted to apply but perhaps were a year or two too old to apply but now they can. Why not have a married woman as a Rose? Why not have a Mother apply? Why not let a transgender woman apply? Of course they should be entitled to apply and I think it’s just wonderful that the entry requirements have changed to allow them to. I think it has definitely broadened the amount of women that can apply and each and every one of them will be welcomed with open arms. At the end of the day, we are an ever changing society that needs to accept women in all shapes and forms.
What are you hoping for your own life in the next few years?
My motto in life is to stay positive, keep smiling and just keep my health. There are only two things I ever wish for in life and that is my health and happiness for my family and my friends. If I can ever do any good or support anyone or any charities, I am always willing to do so.
And finally, to any young lady reading this and perhaps always dreamed of applying, what would you tell them to encourage them?
I would say absolutely apply, fill out the application form and fulfil that dream of yours. There is only one person that can go through, so why not let it be you? When I met all the wonderful women that I was up against, I never thought I had a chance of winning. Even if you don’t get selected as the Kerry Rose, you will have an experience that will retain with you for the rest of your life. I always tell people; you have nothing to lose only always something to gain. In terms of opportunity, I just wanted to experience as much as I could. When I became the Kerry Rose back in 2019, I really encompassed the ethos of saying yes to every opportunity and I genuinely don’t think there was one event that I was asked to that I didn’t go too? I just wanted to say yes to every opportunity and experience as much as I could.
I would also just like to finish by saying a huge thank you to each and every person I met along the way who supported me in any way that they could. It has been a fabulous reign and experience that I am so proud of, so thankful for having the opportunity and I am so excited for the next Kerry Rose to experience it all for herself.