'Children see the Roses as superstars, as princesses. I feel almost guilty'


The Rose of Tralee is a celebration of women’s independence and compassion, say finalists

ALMOST AS traditional as the Rose of Tralee Festival are amiable Rose of Tralee curmudgeons. Eighty-five year old Sean O’Mahony, leaning on a walking frame while watching Roses, Rosebuds (timidly grinning mini-Roses) and brass bands march by, was in Tralee for the first festival in 1959.

“I preferred it then because it’s a bit of a money racket these days,” he says, before chuckling, “It does pass the time.” (His daughter Aileen tells me that watching the parade is a family tradition).

O’Mahony’s friend Chuckie O’Connell (84), who once caddied for golf legend Arnold Palmer, is a bit more enthusiastic. “It raises your heart and brings life to the town.”

Then, as a float of smiling, waving, beautifully dressed Roses goes by, he seems to become thoughtful. “I wish I was young again,” he says quietly, before turning and adding with expert timing: “Because then I’d be up there myself!”

Every Rose of Tralee Festival makes people think about other Rose of Tralee festivals. Joan O’Connor is there with her husband Tony and five-year-old granddaughter Katie, who is proudly clasping a newly-ejected baby-tooth in a bloody tissue.

“When I was about 17, I’d come down from Dublin for it with friends,” says Joan. “We used to take little things from the stalls and give them to the women in the BBs where we were staying. Which was a terrible thing to do! They thought we were lovely girls for giving them presents but we were robbing from the stalls.”

Tony maintains that it’s really two festivals now, one centred around family events in the town, and the other around the more television-centric happening in “the Dome” (which doesn’t, he adds, look much like a dome).

Fellow locals Collette Quinn and Mary O’Shea also make this point, but it doesn’t dim their enthusiasm. “For the 50th anniversary, I was at the Rose Ball for the first time,” says Collette. “My son and his wife took my late husband and I to it and it’s just a wonderful memory. All the Roses from over the years came back for it. And lots of them are married to other people connected to the festival. Just think of Dáithí Ó Sé!”

After the parade, the Roses enter the greyhound stadium for some high-profile dog racing, only to be gently mobbed by excited little girls and boys. “Children see the Roses as superstars, as princesses,” Ann-Marie Hayes, the Kerry Rose, told me. “I feel almost guilty. Children I’ve known for years see me as a different person because I’m a Rose.”

Philadelphia Rose Elizabeth Spellman first heard of the Rose of Tralee only a few years ago, but she makes a pretty good stab at explaining what it’s all about while scribbling an autograph: “It’s a celebration of Irish heritage, where people from all over the world come together to celebrate their culture and also to celebrate women who are trying to be independent and compassionate and to make a difference in the world.”

And half an hour later, Dáithí Ó Sé explains how this will manifest itself on the telly this year. “There’ll be bagpipes for the first time, a folky, smoky sean-nós version of Dancing in the Dark by Bruce Springsteen, and at some point I’ll be dancing to Cotton-Eyed Joe, I think.”

He also tells me about appearing on stage with Gift Grub’s Mario Rosenstock the night before. Rosenstock was imitating him at the time. “It was a sort of Dáithí Ó Sé sandwich,” he says with a chuckle. “Anyway, people say the Rose of Tralee is twee or whatever, but it’s one of the nicest places to be, one of those celebrations where we look at each other as a people and say ‘Jeez this is great!’ If people don’t like it, they know where the remote is. But it won’t stop a million people tuning in.”

Incidentally, Dublin’s Arlene O’Neill is the bookies’ favourite to win the contest, which begins tonight at 8pm and concludes tomorrow evening. She is currently earning a PhD in physics at Trinity College, is in the reserve defence force and has met the Queen.