Boyfriend Kyle takes a gamble on Molly as Roses stay on message

Impervious to irony, and terrifying in their positivity, the Roses still impress

 Boyfirend Kyle Catlett proposes to his girlfriend the New Orleans rose Molly Molloy Gambel live on stage during last nights Rose of Tralee

Boyfirend Kyle Catlett proposes to his girlfriend the New Orleans rose Molly Molloy Gambel live on stage during last nights Rose of Tralee


So there’s Dáithí Ó Sé in a mardi-gras outfit, looking like a member of George Clinton’s funk band, grooving alongside mask-wearing New Orleans lady Molly Molloy Gambel.

Then out comes Molly Molloy’s boyfriend Kyle Catlett and asks her to marry him on front of around half a million people. “No, no, no!” she said, before saying “yes” (“I was saying no because I couldn’t believe it was happening,” she said afterwards).

But that’s just the most newsworthy part of the evening. Now Daithi’s watching Leitrim woman Edwina Guckian whip part of her dress off (not quite Bucks Fizz-style) in order to dance energetic sean-nós with a barrel and a brush. And now he’s being given a certificate of Newfoundland citizenship by Erica Halfyard after kissing a fish and quaffing a shot of rum.

Tragic tubercular maid
Dáithí probably calls this “a typical Monday” but the rest of us call it the Rose of Tralee, an annual explosion of bizarro-loveliness in which 32 young ladies from across the diaspora (“a sort of positive disease” as Alan Partridge recently explained the word) vie to be named after a tragic tubercular 19th-century maid.

It’s kind of amazing – 2,000 family members, escorts, judges, ex-Roses and ex-escorts wave banners and cheer as 18 Roses chat amiably, recite poetry, sing emigrant ballads and Disney songs and play light classical piano.

Performances have titles like Destination Donegal and I am Kerry (guess which Roses did which). None have titles like Laois is a Hole or Get me out of Drogheda!

Last year Daisy the cow got stage fright (Dáithí was going to milk her live). This year Clare Rose Marie Donnellan, who confidently emerged to the theme of Father Ted (the festival is impervious to mockery), shows us a safer “picture” of a cow given as a present by her wellie-wearing escort.

“But what he doesn’t realise is that we’ll be down with a trailer to collect the calf.”

Monaghan’s Eleanor McQuaid emerges with a hurl and a shinty stick to teach Dáithí the difference (“Is it wise to give him a weapon?” a crew member whispers at rehearsal). Later a bed is brought to the stage, Darwin Rose Bridget Haines dons spectacles, and Dáithí is regaled with a bedtime story, The Cranky Bear. She promises to take him back to childhood.

“Don’t open that can of worms!” a nation shouts at the telly.

Teenage memories
Everyone I meet in Tralee fondly recall past festivals. Dáithí himself has teenage memories of “sleeping eight or nine of us in someone’s sitting room” or “getting a bus back to Dingle at three in the morning with everyone drunk.”

The mother of a Rosebud tells me about “a huge tent filled with jockeys who used to stay out the back of my uncle’s house” .

My taxi-driver, Seán, also remembers gardens filled with tents. “But then at some point the pubs started charging in,” he says. “And that killed it for a while, the greed.”

There is some sense that since Anthony O’Gara came in and successfully reorganised the financially struggling festival 10 years ago there are two separate events.

There’s the family-focused street entertainment in the town and there’s a glitzy showbizzy affair on the edge of it. Over breakfast the woman at the B&B said: “You’ll notice that the crowd at the Dome is a little more . . .” She pauses meaningfully. “. . . select, than in the town.”

Going to the Dome after being at the parade is like going to the Green Zone in Iraq. It means becoming an embedded journalist. Everyone there is a true believer in a pressed frock/suit or a tight-lipped professional carrying a piece of studio equipment.

At the rehearsals, Dáithí encouraged individual Roses (“that story will get a good reaction”) as a stage manager gently manoeuvres them into position.

Sometimes the Roses seem a little tired, their strange wrist-only waves degenerate into flapping, they accidentally utter unRose-like curse words and a coterie of escorts and chaperones step into the breach (“I don’t know what to do. I’m a Rose, I need to be led!” jokes one frazzled Rose).

Almost militaristic
But in general they’re self-possessed, relentlessly positive and terrifyingly on message. Even more so en masse. As a crop of Roses march officiously by, heels clacking, fascinators (a type of head sculpture) jauntily perched on their heads, the effect is almost militaristic.

“We say ‘one team, one dream,’” says Donegal Rose Catherine McCarron. “We support each other. You spend so much time together you do become close, because they’re the only people who know how you’re feeling. You’re sharing this incredible experience with them.”

“It’s a sisterhood,” Philadelphia Rose Brittany Killion agrees.

And yes, I joke about the waving and smiling, but sometimes a smile means a lot.

Cork Rose Edel Buckley is raising awareness for Myasthenia Gravis, a neuromuscular auto-immune condition which once affected her so much she couldn’t physically smile.

After painful treatments she’s now a smiling, waving, tug-of-war playing contender in the Rose of Tralee.

“I loved Rose of Tralee as a little girl,” she says.

“I loved the girls, the community, the glamour, but then the condition hit me and I couldn’t smile. I avoided photos and thought that was never going to happen.”

She smiles. It’s happening now.

Up on stage Dáithí Ó Sé is doing a funny dance.

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