The Roses, the Rosebuds, the gúnas, the odds and the escorts


HERE’S SOMETHING to meditate on. Alice O’Sullivan (69), the first Rose of Tralee, who has returned to the festival as one of this year’s judges for the 50th anniversary, has never watched any of the television coverage over the intervening years. Nothing at all. Never. Not once. This has to make her perspective tonight and tomorrow – on the annual mini-dramas of frocks, party pieces and lovely girls – unique among all past and present Rose of Tralee judges, writes ROSITA BOLAND

O’Sullivan, supremely elegant in black and grey, with distinctive white hair, stopped to talk to The Irish Timeson her way from a reception at Siamsa Tíre, where 24 of the dresses of former winning Roses, hers included, are on temporary exhibit.

“I don’t have a television, but that’s not why I’ve never watched the competition. I’m just not curious about it,” she explained simply. She was 19 when she won in 1959, and there were only four other contenders.

“I do read the biographies of the girls, though, and they all seem to be light years away from what I’d have been as a 19-year-old. I had never travelled outside the country, and all these girls today are so confident, well-travelled, and expectations have changed so much.”

Why did she agree to take part in the festival? “It’s 50 years this year, so it’s special, and I wanted to help out when I was asked.” Her astute, frank comments are certain to be a highlight tonight and tomorrow.


There is a replica on show of the white tulle dress scattered with daisies that O’Sullivan borrowed from a friend to wear for the night. The dress itself, the accompanying notice explains, is long since lost. But there are 23 other original dresses there, a time capsule of fashion – or what passed for fashion at the time.

“Would you look at the curtains?” marvelled Tralee resident Caitriona Collins, gazing in amused horror at the lurid green dress with panniers, puffed sleeves and a neckline stitched with roses that Dublin Rose Sinead Boyle wore in 1989.

The oddest dress of the lot has to be that worn by the 1974 New York Rose, Maggie Flaherty. The red-halterneck bodice screams at the floor-length hand-crocheted skirt, dyed in panels of brightest red, green and yellow. It’s abominable.

In her explanatory note, Flaherty writes tactfully: “I never saw the dress before it was delivered to me the night of the selection. It was not anything I could have prepared for. The intricate work was amazing, but the colours were very Barnum and Bailey.”


Among the many people crowded into the exhibition space examining the dresses were a number of small, excited girls in sashes. These were some of the 50 Rosebuds, a special one-off addition for the anniversary festival. More than 1,500 Kerry girls between five and 11 applied this year to be mini-escorts to the Roses, and they were selected by a raffle. They get to meet the Roses at different occasions during the week, and will be in the dome tonight.

They didn’t think much of the dress Luzveminda O’Sullivan wore in 1998, a dark-green velvet sheath with mesh sleeves. “Too dark,” was the consensus from them all, including the youngest Rosebud, Maggie O’Neill from Ballybunion, just turned six, and paired with the Sligo Rose. They were collectively keeping a keen watch out for their Roses to arrive for a reception, and dashed out to greet them as this year’s contenders swept past in a clatter of high heels.

Tara Maguire, the Washington DC Rose, stopped temporarily to give her Rosebud, a beaming 10-year-old Niamh Randalls from Killarney, a hug and a gift. The gift turned out to be a bear with a tiara and a pink feather boa, and every other little girl there stared at it with undisguised envy.

“My Rose was supposed to give me my present yesterday, but she left it in her hotel room,” nine-year-old Eireann O’Shea from Duagh said wistfully, to no one in particular.

In a slightly confusing series of events, 50 Roses are in town, but only 32 will go ahead for the television selection. The festival have added several more centres this year, and the finals for the British regionals and the new centres were held last week in Dublin. So 18 extra Roses (and escorts) are here for the fun, but they’re not contenders for the title. It’s all about 50 – the festival wanted 50 Roses because of the year that’s in it, but if they were all to go before the television cameras, the event would last an unmanageable three nights.

All former Roses were also invited back, and over the course of the festival, 42 of them will have been in Tralee. (Only one is deceased, the 1963 Boston Rose, Geraldine Fitzgerald.)

The 1997 Rose, Sinead Lonergan, had a particularly eventful week. On Friday, she was dancing at the Rose Ball. On Monday, she gave birth to her second daughter in Dublin.


The Roses are staying at the Fels Point Hotel for the third time, and the Topaz Dome is a short stiletto walk away, across the carpark. There has been a fancy mobile winebar parked outside the hotel all week, selling wine and champagne by the glass and bottle. A bottle of Taittinger Champagne costs €75, and they’ve sold “a good lot” of them already.

There’s only been one Kerry Rose of Tralee – Margaret O’Keefe in 1964. The madras in the street are tipping this year’s Kerry Rose, primary school teacher Karen McGillycuddy, to win for the Kingdom. According to Paddy Power, she’s the outright favourite at 2/1.

“The trouble is,” confided one man who didn’t want to give his name, “if she wins, people will think it was all a fix.”

The only other name being mentioned a lot yesterday was Newfoundland, which shows how even the local people are confused about this year’s line-up. Newfoundland Rose Lori O’Keefe didn’t make it through the “new centres” finals, so she won’t be on our screens tonight, but her picture and biography are in the official programme, which may be why some people think she’s still in the running.


Best-matched escort has to be Brendan Walsh, who is a keeper at Dublin Zoo, a job he has wanted since the age of three. He is paired with Toronto Rose Sarah Sullivan. She has worked as a zoo attendant, and loves spending time with her pets: a cat and a 1.2m royal python.

The favourite food of most of the escorts is steak, although quantity surveyor PJ Carton (Edmonton Rose) loves “potatoes, cabbage and bacon”; postman Gordon Ward (London Rose) favours “his granny’s brown bread”; while electrician Donal Og O’Laoire (Washington DC Rose) says “he’d eat anything”. Car mechanic James Keniry (Yorkshire Rose) dreams of having “at least 10 children with the woman of his dreams.” Ronan Keary, a bank official (Arizona Rose), is keen “to learn how to make a profit from farming”. Marketing manager Jake Ourada (Birmingham Rose) wants to write a book.


Winner:Kerry, Karen McGillycuddy – 2/1; London, Charmaine Kenny – 9/2; Kilkenny, Stephanie O’Dwyer – 6/1; Perth, Rose McDonnell – 8/11; Cork, Amy Moran-McGirr – 12/11.

Special bets:Any Rose wearing a suit instead of the traditional ballroom dress onto the stage – 12/1; a streaker to run across the stage – 16/1; Ray D’Arcy to dye his hair black for the opening night – 33/1; a Rose to pole dance for her party piece – 50/1; a tornado to hit the dome – 1,000/1.


Order of line up for tonight’s show: Waterford, Southern California, Sydney, Texas, Dubai, Toronto, Sligo, New Orleans, Cavan, Germany, Philadelphia, Armagh, Derby, France, New Zealand, Luxembourg, San Francisco, and Cork.

Tomorrow night:Queensland, New York, Kilkenny, Darwin, Boston and New England, Perth, Washington DC, Manchester, Kerry, Yorkshire, Tipperary, South Australia, London, and Dublin.

Rose facts

  • The cost of running the first festival was £750. This year, it is €1.4 million.
  • One of the judges for the inaugural festival was Michael Mulchinock, a great, great nephew of William Pembroke Mulchinock, who wrote the ballad The Rose of Tralee.
  • Terry Wogan hosted the selection from 1968-1970.
  • In 1979, more than 30,000 people packed into Denny Street to hear the Wolfe Tones play.
  • The 1996 Adelaide Rose (pictured), Genevieve O’Reilly (who didn’t win), later went on to star as Mon Mothma in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and Officer Wirzt in The Matrix Reloaded.
  • In 1997, the dome was shredded by gales after the first night’s selection, and a lot of creative thinking had to be done for the final night, when the action moved indoors to the much smaller venue of the adjacent Brandon Hotel.