Luxembourg Rose scoops Tralee's crown with three kisses


LAST NIGHT 26-year-old Luxembourg Rose Nicola McEvoy was crowned the 2012 Rose of Tralee. The previous night she’d greeted Dáithí Ó Sé with three continental kisses (“I’m not sure the wife liked that one!”) and sang a spirited version of La Vie en Rose.

Born and raised in Cork, McEvoy teaches history, human science and geography at the European School of Luxembourg and has wanted to teach, she told Dáithí, since setting some difficult exams for her teddy bears as a child.

Her prizes include a shiny Philip Treacy-designed tiara, a sash, jewellery, personalised cutlery, a car, a €25,000 tour of the world and an adventure break in Kerry (the latter gets as much space in the festival brochure as the tour of the world). She will represent Tralee and Ireland worldwide, and will, as I understand it, have the power to dissolve the Dáil, veto legislation and execute law breakers.

Okay, I may be getting a little caught up in the local enthusiasm. It’s hard to remain objective after three days watching charming, poised Roses constantly smiling, signing autographs and waving a special kind of wave that seems to require an extra joint in the wrist. The announcement of the winner concludes another night of televised knee-slapping helmed by Dáithí Ó Sé, a man who could, if he wanted to, annex Tralee and rename it Dáithí Ó Sé (his contract for the show is due for renewal, so he may well do this as a bargaining tactic).

After the previous evening’s bovine disappointment (the Ottawa Rose was meant to help Dáithí milk a cow, but the cow was “too lively”) no animal-related stunts were planned, but at one point Dáithí donned a pair of stilettos and flounced about like a bullock in spats (“We got the high heels in Ms Fantasia in Dublin!” he told me earlier. “They were the only shop that had my size!”). He did this to surprise Denver Rose Tiffany Antikainen who learned to wear high heels for this very competition.

Antikainen responded to this disturbing spectacle in the only way she knew how: by playing the bagpipes (At the rehearsal Dáithí wore the high heels for so long a suspicious Rose concluded: “He’s done this before”). There was also set dancing from Tyrone’s Catherine Sherry, wacky sorcery (a card trick) from South Australian Rose Sarah Doherty, an uncomfortable moment where Dáithí tried to engineer a proposal from the Waterford Rose’s boyfriend (he’s like a big rampaging cupid), and four bearded Roses playing indie music (apparently this was actually Dublin band The Coronas). Before the night was out, plucky Roses had recited poetry, explained nano-science and performed back-bending gymnastics, while overheated people in suits and evening dresses waved home-made banners and cheered.

This all seems completely normal to me now. I’ve been at the Dome in Tralee for several days and can’t really recall my life before. That said, I can dimly recall that some outside the Dome view the festival as a reactionary anachronism at worst and a silly lovely girls competition at best.

This feels like something that needs to be addressed. Yes, “Lovely” is one of the most commonly used words at the festival (“isn’t that a lovely dress” “the other Roses are so lovely”). The word is, after all, featured in the 19th century ballad that gives this 1950s competition its name (“she was lovely and fair as the Rose of the summer”). So the focus on the Roses’ physical appearance is hard to escape.

“I’ll have the Ottawa Rose please!” says one wag pointing at her picture in the brochure.

“You can’t order take-out!” scolds an organiser. “It’s not a menu.” Indeed, the original ballad also sees the writer declare that beauty isn’t enough. It wasn’t her loveliness but “the truth in her eyes ever dawning, that made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee,” he wrote, a bit defensively (it sounds like a 19th century version of “I love you for your mind, baby”).

The selection panels and judges have always tried to focus on this “truth ever dawning” bit of the song, which they nowadays seem to associate with cosmopolitan life-experience, an uncontroversial social conscience and incredible levels of educational achievement. Dublin Rose and PhD researcher Arlene O’Neill, for example, is at the forefront of new developments in nanoscience. As a gift for Dáithí she used a special ion-firing microscope to engrave the names of 500 GAA medal winners on a Rose of Tralee pin.

“I’m a proud scientist and I proudly wear my lab coat, goggles and gloves,” she told me earlier. “I’d love to excite children about science… and to encourage more women out there to consider going into science.” O’Neill is, in fact, working on the technology that will soon be used to make futuristic televisions on which futuristic generations will watch futuristic Roses of Tralee. But the Dome was also filled with older notions of community, tradition and parental pride. Bernadette Ryan, the mother of Cork Rose Brid Ryan, is delighted with her daughter win or lose. “I’m so proud of her,” she said. “As a parent you look at your daughter up there and think ‘have I done something right?’”

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