Former Rose of Tralee winners gather to launch 60th festival
Inaugural winner recalls competition in 1959 as ‘fantastic’ event with ‘real atmosphere’
Rose of Tralee Kirsten Mate Maher with previous winners Charmaine Kenny (2009, London Rose), Gerrie O’ Grady (1999, Cork Rose), Sinead Boyle (1989, Dublin Rose), Marita Marron (1979, Belfast Rose),Cathy Quinn (1969, Dublin Rose), Alice O’Sullivan (1959, Dublin Rose) and presenter Dáithí Ó Sé in Dublin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
The 60th Rose of Tralee festival was launched in Dublin on Friday with winners from every decade of the festival’s history taking part, including the inaugural winner of the competition in 1959, Alice O’Sullivan.
Talking about her memories of the event 60 years ago, Ms O’Sullivan, the then Dublin Rose, said: “My immediate overriding memory would be the heat because the movie cameras were on. There was no television in those days, or no Irish television anyway – no RTÉ. But there were things like Movietone News who had cameras with lights that were tremendously hot.”
She added: “It was a very crowded hall but there was a great buzz about the place.”
The contest that year was subsequently shown to members of the public in cinemas in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland “when we still had loads of cinemas”, she recalled.
The 1959 contest only had five participants: Ms O’Sullivan from Dublin, Maura Brown from Birmingham, Sheila Horgan from New York, Kathleen Sheehy from Tralee and Angela Flynn from London.
“In 1959 Ireland was a very grey place to my memory and we didn’t usually have things like this [the Rose of Tralee],” said Ms O’Sullivan. “It was brilliant because it was full of light, fireworks, street festivities, street entertainment and the races were going on in Tralee. It was really fantastic, there was a real festival atmosphere.”
Ms O’Sullivan was one of the competition’s judges for its 50th anniversary in 2009. In 1959, however, the five participants were judged by an all-male panel.
A report in The Irish Times in September 1959 on the festival highlighted a different Ireland compared to that which exists today. It said the chairman of the festival, Dan Nolan, “presented the girls to the US ambassador, Scott McLeod, and members of the racing committee”. Another report said the festival’s bands, ballrooms and street performances were “a rare sight in a slightly self-conscious Ireland”.
The competition has come under some criticism in recent years. In 2016, Down Rose Fainche McCormack criticised the manner in which candidates were chosen for the final, saying she and other contestants were “treated like animals in a circus”. And there is an annual debate about whether the contest has become outdated.
But Ms O’Sullivan accentuated the positives on Friday, describing the Rose of Tralee as “the centrepiece for a really good festival week” in the Kerry town.
“It has really put the town of Tralee on the map. It does well on television and that’s getting the message about the town of Tralee and about Kerry that it’s a really good place to be. Anyone who’s thinking of entering the Rose of Tralee should just go for it,” she said.