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When Irish eyes are smiling

Two weeks after living like a celebrity in Ireland, Alison Cunnane leans back in a chair in Alderman Cafe, speaks modestly and describes what she calls the "calm-me-down process."

She's back in Virginia now, settling into her classes and juggling her many extra-curricular activities, but her thoughts are still in Ireland, where she spent 12 days this summer getting back to her Irish roots.

This summer, Cunnane was a Rose.

A third-year history major from Baltimore, Cunnane represented the Washington, D.C. area in Ireland's Rose of Tralee contest, a celebration of Irish women both within the Emerald Isle and beyond its borders.

Cunnane, an American with both Irish and Italian roots, wore a "Washington Rose"-emblazoned sash from morning till night for 12 days straight. She landed spots on TV and radio and got her name and face splashed on the pages of Ireland's newspapers. She pulled pints of Guinness at a local pub, smiled for photos and signed countless autographs.

"It's hard for me to explain to people, 'oh yeah, I was a celebrity for a week.' It's so much deeper than that," she said.

Cunnane, along with 24 other women from all parts of the globe, participated in Ireland's most popular festival, which crowns the winner Rose of Tralee, a title that's supposed to embody the values of the ideal Irish woman.

Although she didn't come home with the crown, Cunnane looks back at the experience as "absolutely incredible" and says it was a great way to explore her Irish heritage.

It was also a chance for the Irish media to check out her hair.

Cunnane has two distinct traits that only occur in one out of 900 people. From her father's Irish genes, she's inherited a head of flame-colored hair. From her Italian mother, she has brown eyes.

"They called me one-in-900 the whole time," she said of the media.

The media was, actually, so fascinated by her hair that they didn't let her wear hats when she made public appearances.

"I was known as the red-head one," she said.

For her trip to Ireland, Cunnane had to have six ball gowns and six cocktail dresses. Every day she wore a suit. Luckily, she worked at Ann Taylor this summer, so the company sponsored some of her outfits.

Wearing an emerald-colored satin gown, Cunnane went on stage the first night of the contest, talked about her Irish heritage to 25,000 people in the arena's audience and sang the Dixie Chicks' "Wide Open Spaces" for the talent section of the show.

"I was terrified," she said, explaining that she'd never sung in public ever before. "I'm a shower singer."

To add to the nerves, the Rose of Tralee broadcast reached a record audience this year. About 1.5 million Irish people - about half the Irish population - watched the show on TV.

But even with her stage jitters, she didn't neglect her inner Wahoo.

The University Registrar sent her a good-luck card beforehand, and while being interviewed, she managed to engage the entire audience - all 25,000 members - in a hearty "Wahoowah" chant.

The Rose of Tralee contest, a 42-year-old tradition that features both native Irish and descendents of the Irish Diaspora, celebrates Ireland's most well-known love story of the forbidden love between two people from different socio-economic classes. The rich man wrote a poem to immortalize the peasant woman he had fallen for, which is now used as the theme song for the festival.

A stanza from the poem demonstrates their goal to choose a woman for her Irish ideals rather than for her mere beauty.

"She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer, / Yet 'twas not her beauty alone that won me. / Oh, no, 'twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning, / That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee."

The Irish pride their choice of non-traditional beauty contestants who have extraordinary personality qualities.

"There's something very old fashioned about it," said Jerry Kelly, the cultural attache for the Irish Embassy. "It's enormously successful and very appealing. It's a sort of 'Emigrant-made-good' story coming around in full circle."

In a country as rapidly changing as Ireland, Kelly said, the Rose of Tralee festival is one reminder of the Ireland of yesteryear.

"With the exception of color television, you could watch the first one and very little changes," he said. "It sort of defies all modern expectations."

As for Cunnane, she has an album of photos and newspaper clippings and an assortment of videos from the TV showing. But she's not watching those any time soon - she wants to remember the experience from her memory.

Cunnane didn't win - the contestant from New York did - but she treasures the experience.

And she's back at the University now, where she hasn't had much time to settle in.

"I just always love being here," she said. "It's like going from one unbelievable place to another"


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