For one young woman every year, a free trip to Ireland is something of a homecoming too.
Each year, the Rose of Tralee Festival shows how far flung the seeds of Ireland island have spread throughout the last couple of centuries. One of those seeds, or roses as they’re called, has made it to Clayton by way of New Jersey and will be grand marshal for the Raleigh St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 12.
Kelly O’Doherty, a WakeMed nurse who lives in Clayton, was picked to lead the parade because of her work as director of the N.C. Rose Centre. Since 2013, the center has sent a young woman anually to the Rose of Tralee Festival in County Kerry in western Ireland. O’Doherty herself went as the “New York Rose” in 1993 and said she found more than she could have imagined.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into; I thought I was just winning a trip to Ireland,” O’Doherty said. “I ended up having the time of my life. It was just one of the best experiences of my life.”
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O’Doherty said the Rose of Tralee Festival began in 1959 as a way to draw girls descended from the southwestern city of Tralee back for a homecoming. In later years, it expanded internationally and now draws women of Irish descent from Asia and North America. “Roses” are selected through an interview-based pageant. The name, O’Doherty said, is based on a song about a wealthy son who falls in love with his servant, who dies while he’s away at war.
“You know, one of those old Irish ballads,” O’Doherty said.
Before she entered the New York pageant, O’Doherty said, she was only vaguely in touch with her Irish roots. Her mom’s parents came from Ireland, but it wasn’t something the family celebrated, she said.
“My mother’s mother died in childbirth, and she and her siblings were placed in foster care in 1930s New York,” O’Doherty said. “Then in 1991, one of her first cousins got in touch with her in New Jersey and that sparked something. We all went to Ireland for the first time that fall. Then my love of Ireland just grew from there. I felt more myself there than I had anywhere else.”
O’Doherty married David, a Philadelphia chef and bartender originally from Dublin, and the two moved to North Carolina in 1998. They met in an Irish pub, naturally.
In 2013, O’Doherty served as a judge in North Carolina’s first Rose pageant. After that, she said, she was asked to take it over or it would fold.
“The experience, especially for yong women in their 20s, trying to find their way, it is a boost to your confidence,” O’Doherty said. “I met a lot of people in 1993 I’m still friends with.”
The role of the North Carolina Rose Centre, she said, is to promote Irish culture locally. That mostly means supporting the Irish dance schools and promoting Irish music. The group also raises money for Three Irish Jewells, a Cary group seeking to build a working farm for adults with autism.
The O’Doherty family regularly attends Raleigh’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, and O’Doherty said she was honored and surprised to be tapped to lead it.
“I was absolutely tickled,” she said. “I never thought entering the rose in 1993 would lead to still being involved with all things Irish. It’s a great honor.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdjackson