Staunchly defending second-hand blarney

Let's forget, for a minute, the shrill proclamations from the Rose of Tralee committee who say the annual shamrockery masquerading…

Let's forget, for a minute, the shrill proclamations from the Rose of Tralee committee who say the annual shamrockery masquerading as entertainment that takes place on the streets of Tralee each August is "Not a beauty competition, OK?" Instead, let's check out the girls - Rose of Tralee-speak for women - who the bookies believe are in with a chance.

"It's a very difficult one to price up," conceded Alan Glynn, compiler with Paddy Power bookmakers in Dublin yesterday. "It's not like the best-looking girl wins. A football match is easier. There are a lot more statistics to take into account."

This year three women have been placed at 10-1, making them early favourites in the festival. They are, in no particular order, Melbourne, Southern California and Toronto. Check them out on the Rose of Tralee website and you will soon discover that if this was a beauty competition, the likelihood is these three very comely maidens would remain the favourites.

There is Melbourne's Mairead Dundas, she of the brilliant smile and steady, comehither gaze. Deirdre Athaide from Toronto, with her tumbling brown curls and sexy black dress. And Southern California's Celtic beach babe Cameo McMullan, as blonde and fresh-faced as anything you would find on Baywatch.


Meanwhile, languishing at 25-1 are New York, Belgium and the newly-created Ros Fodhla, the Irish-speaking Rose. The experts at Paddy Power didn't say if Belgium's severe haircut (she has the shortest of the 28 contestants) lessened her chances of victory, or whether Ros Fodhla's makeup-free photo lengthened her odds, but if New York's chances were curtailed by her decidedly square hobbies, the bookies might be making a big mistake.

Kate Towne is clearly the Dana of this year's pageant, and recent history has shown us that as such she shouldn't be written off. The other girls may list scuba diving, Irish dancing and travelling in their spare time but Kate relaxes by giving "public speeches on premarital sexual abstinence and pro-life issues".

Kate should not be too downhearted that the bookies think she has no chance. The unofficial theme tune to this so-called celebration of real Ireland, for this read "real 1950s Ireland", is Let's Do the Time Warp Again, and her conservative principals can only stand to her when it comes to Judgment Day. As, of course, will the fact that she also co-founded a group called Daughters of St Patrick with her mother to foster the faith and ancestry of the ould sod.

New York's Rose is the antithesis of the woman who caused one of the only bits of scandal ever attached to the competition. Remember the unmarried Waterford woman who had the audacity to think she could enter the competition despite the fact that she had a child?

Not possible, the committee declared, because the pageant is based on the local legend of beautiful virgin Mary O'Connor about whom the Rose of Tralee dirge was penned. The only concession to modernity is that now the women are allowed to have high-flying careers and not just vague aspirations to be air hostesses.

Those who champion this unique festival are in three camps. There is RTE, which devotes an average of five hours to the selection nights when Marty Whelan "interviews" the "girls", giving the nation a chance to make their own mind up about the winner. It pulls in an audience of around a million, and the broadcaster is not about to give that up because of an annual lambasting by those they dismiss as party-pooping D4 types.

Others genuinely think it is A Good Thing. The President herself has formally endorsed what has been described as a lament for rapidly vanishing values. Mrs McAleese gave it the thumbs up, saying it was unlike other annual festivals around the world which, "despite growing international distaste, exploit rather than celebrate femininity".

Bet that had those involved with the Miss World contest shaking in their kitten heels. Actress Jeananne Crowley once wrote a letter to this newspaper admitting that while she had once sneered at the contest "in this era of cynical, manipulation and total vindication it shines like a proverbial good deed in a naughty world".

The third group is the silent majority. These are the people who say they can't stand it, but just happen to turn over and catch sight of a Rose murdering an Irish ballad or babbling on about how it was her grandmother's dream that she would go to Tralee etc etc and somehow two hours later find themselves still glued to the screen.

People like to laugh at others, the key to the success of most so-called reality TV shows. This is arguably the only reason the festival still exists and even the most sanctimonious Rose of Tralee committee member should acknowledge and treasure this fact.

Of the one million who watch, one wonders how many actually think it is anyway relevant, interesting or - big ankle-length ballgowns ahoy - stylish. What makes it compulsively cringeworthy viewing is seeing how far these mostly Plastic Peigs will go to get their hands on some expensive jewellery and a free holiday.

It's worth looking at the booty on offer in the recently-formed Irish Rose competition, created after the UK selection centres took offence at being asked to cough up £1,500 to go towards the Rose of Tralee costs and were kicked out of the competition. (The result was that now there is just one UK Rose instead of a bouquet of regional roses.) Prizes on offer there have included shadowing an MP for a week and an iMac computer.

It might be a while before we see such forward thinking and seriously un-girly prizes on offer in Tralee, but former host Derek Davis's verdict on the Roses was they were thoroughly modern misses. "You don't patronise people like that," he said. "They're tough as old boots and I mean that in the most complimentary way . . . These women are not in Tralee because of some form of white slavery."

Similarly, nobody should assume the hordes are watching because they are desperate for a fix of second-hand blarney.