All’s fair in love, war and the Rose of Tralee

The invisible rules: speak when you’re spoken to and refrain from wearing jeans for the duration of the festival

Catharine Joyce, western Canada;  Niamh Bergan, Luxembourg;  Anna Geary, Cork,  and Imelda finnegan, Sydney, during their visit to the wetlands in Tralee, Co Kerry. Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus

Catharine Joyce, western Canada; Niamh Bergan, Luxembourg; Anna Geary, Cork, and Imelda finnegan, Sydney, during their visit to the wetlands in Tralee, Co Kerry. Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus


It is 1996 and I am nine. I am hoisted on the back of a remarkably placid elephant, plonked on the lap of a nice girl with brown hair wearing a red dress and a white sash. A surprise burst of camera flashes makes me tuck my head into my shoulder.

The girl is Colleen Mooney, the Toronto Rose. She went on to win the pageant a few days later. I still have a Polaroid photo of both of us: her radiating health and light as befits the perfect Rose, me a squirming, bicycle-shorted blob.

Everything before that comes back to me piecemeal: coloured light bulbs, candyfloss, fireworks. I watched the town from the top of the Big Wheel and pretty princesses waved at me from parade floats. Even fighting back the nausea after a violent session on the Waltzers was magic.

The Rose of Tralee is a cultural institution loved and loathed in equal measure. If you happen to hail from Tralee, as I do, it’s possible to feel both emotions in tandem. We’re aware that for many, we’re accessories to an assault of paddywhackery, flagrant misogyny and an unacceptable amount of public urination.

To journalists who travel to Tralee to get the full experience, we are desperately out of stride with more enlightened parts of the country. Kerry, however, is the Kingdom. Like pre-government monarchs, Kerry people will do exactly what they want and damn any short-sighted criticism.

It doesn’t help that, like an excessive king, the festival grew bloated amid allegations of mismanagement and inefficiency. By 2004, the Rose of Tralee had bottomed out. The festival was almost €900,000 in debt, with some creditors already owed money from years before.

A few months before the debt was declared and thoroughly dissected in the press, I found myself on a week’s work experience in the Rose of Tralee head office. The staff were trying to arrange a Rose reunion and I was to collate information from previous Roses’ post-selection questionnaires. It was pleasant work, looking at headshots of smiling women as the hairstyles progressed from 1970s Farrah flicks to the tight bubble perms of the Kevin Keegan era.

The criteria and questions were always the same – a Rose is never married, a Rose loses her bloom after the age of 27. Roses were quizzed on their best personal qualities and their hopes for the future. The responses, however, showed some progression. Many Roses wanted their future to involve marrying a nice man and doing good for the local community. The later the timeline went, the more answers became career-oriented. Husbands slipped from first priority to second.

The office was full of women that week and they were just lovely, offering a constant flow of tea, biscuits and smiles. Marty Whelan had just left as a host and they were bandying about names for potential replacements. One name in particular came up, but was quickly rejected. Naively, I asked why that person couldn’t host. It would never go past the festival committee, one woman explained. They just wouldn’t approve of a gay host. Ryan Tubridy was later considered to be the best bet.

The Rose of Tralee pageant has refused to mirror moves in society. While women and men protest against the denial of human rights to women in this country, like access to safe abortions, or more transparent investigations into Magdalene laundries, the crown is unchanging. Year after year, the most accomplished, least threatening young lady is pronounced a fair Rose, that is, a Rose without thorns. Prickly women are obviously undeserving of such an accolade.

And it is an accolade – the winner gets a fund for travel and a new car to play with for a year as well as the chance to be an ambassador for the pasteurised version of Irish womanhood. For some, it is a small price to pay to obey the invisible rules: speak when you’re spoken to and refrain from wearing jeans for the duration of the festival. The escort of the year only gets a fancy cutlery set; a bum prize for a man whose main task is to stop women who generally never get into trouble from getting into trouble.

Hate the Rose of Tralee if you like, but don’t hate the women involved. It’s a sad state of affairs when the most high-profile event to celebrate accomplished women is a two-day beauty pageant held in a tent in a car park on the edge of a mid-size town.

The women are compassionate as well as accomplished. Cyndi Crowell, the Texas Rose, is a social worker who works at a psychiatric hospital. Ailis Hughes, the Dubai Rose, worked in Nepal to support girls who had been forced into underage marriages. Here are women who help other women. It’s just a shame we honour the best of our young female diaspora with patronising relationship questions and forced poetry readings.

While this is happening, the people of Tralee are not glued to their televisions. Many are in the street, catching up with friends, taking advantage of the blanket bar exemption and relatively peaceful street drinking. For us, the pageant is only a small part of the festival; window dressing for a larger social opportunity involving trad bands and freshly cracked cans of cider.

Still, I have hope for pageantry without a pageant. Each year, the parade passes by my house. I and my friends, wine in hand, watch from a window. We still wave at the Roses. The pretty princesses still wave back from their parade floats. The Rose of Tralee retains its troubling magic.

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