The Rose of Tralee: a nationwide 21st we can never leave
TV review: It’s the Emerald sweet stuck in your molar all Christmas Day that just won’t disappear
Daithí O’Sé with the Rose of Tralee contestants. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Resistance may not be futile but hatred is. The Rose of Tralee lives within us like a dormant parasite. It’s part of the random kitchen drawer of our national psyche, the Late Late Toy Show, Italia 90, Gerry Ryan bellowing after Riverdance, inexplicable Mary Robinson tapestry side.
It’s the Emerald sweet stuck in your molar all Christmas Day and well into the New Year that just won’t disappear. There’s no point in rallying against it, just let it wash over you like the wave machine in the swimming pool in Trabolgan.
Anyway, the first night of the contest there was nothing to get too excited about. It could be a tape recording of any other Rose of Tralee from the beginning of time. With an intro reminiscent of a forgotten Avon advert from 1962 and Dáithí Ó Sé appearing in his cream dinner jacket like a waiter on a cruise-ship it’s all very nice business as usual. The only nod to the present day is talk of Snapchatting and twittering which manage to sound like some dreadfully depraved acts in a JG Ballard novel coming from inside this dome where time forgot.
It’s a safe womb protecting its audience from any hint of modernity. It’s a misty-eyed look back to an idealised Ireland that takes in tea-dances, road frontage and Ó Sé asking the Hong Kong Rose in an incredulous tone whether there “is an aul blade of grass over there?” and intoning “NOOO YARRRK CITTY!!” several times during the night like he’s in a John B Keane play.
The Rose of Tralee is no crown and gown, Vaseline-grinning bitch fest like its flashy Miss World cousin. It’s not about eyes, teeth and giant hair. In fact, it’s as if they attempt to make it completely anodyne and bloodless to differentiate it from its tacky rivals. Ó Sé scrolls through the girls CVs and achievements like a live job interview at some weird formal-wear business conference. Which is why we’re treated to a riveting lesson in handshakes from the Toronto Rose, the science of taste from the Chicago Rose and endless chats about how rewarding teaching is. This is a competition for making parents proud – a televised Leaving Cert results day, where it’s not just the neighbours that are forced to marvel at their great young one but the whole country.
After Brianna Parkin’s Eighth Amendment bombshell last year there seemed to be a growing anxiousness about how to deal with women and their pesky opinions with Ó Sé sticking to the party line about politics having no place in the festival. This doesn’t stop him from asking the London and Kentucky Roses about their feelings on terrorism or prevent the women themselves from openly addressing issues like struggling with hair loss, educating people about domestic violence and a moving moment discussing mental health concerns with the Donegal Rose, Amy Callaghan.
We've had a summer of Olivia and Montana and the rest of the girls swearing and smoking their way through Love Island, which was funny and frank. There is Rupaul’s Drag Race, the only pageant worth anyone’s time, in which outsider drag queens conjure real magic from thin air and a hot glue gun.
It’s difficult to recognise who these Roses really are or even find them relatable. These genteel, quaint unknowable Irish women who are like a conveyor-belt of never-ending Carole Smileys. Intelligent, beautiful, polite women who have inherited their grandmother’s taste, a love of country music, discreet jewellery and animals, they might have a glass of Guinness, g’wan.
There’s the sweet, South Carolina Rose who addresses a beaming Daithí as “Sir”. Exhaling nervously, chatting about horse shows and transforming into a shy young family member forced to speak to an unfamiliar uncle at a wedding. The Darwin Rose gets bland chat about how “close” the weather is and an encouragement to eat black pudding. Then there’s the traditional ribbing of “the boyfriend” or “the daddy”: it’s a nationwide 21st we’ve somehow managed to be invited to and can never leave.
The talents or “party pieces” on display are perfectly in line with these good children. We see the Fermanagh Rose twirling a stiff jive with the country singer Derek Ryan (who could be the cousin Keith Barry keeps under the stairs); a photo of the Donegal Rose with Daniel O’Donnell flashes up on screen and She Moves Through the Fair and Danny Boy (in Mandarin no less) get an airing. There are oddities: Daithí gets to crack a whip while wearing a mini umbrella on his head for protection (in the most meme-worthy moment of the night); and the Westmeath Rose drags out a demonic papier-mache puppet replete with Brillo-pad hair that’s supposed to be Ó Sé but is more like Klaus Nomi in a GAA jersey.
These girls are the irrepressible girls you meet in the first year of college who are on all the sports teams, who always turn up to the 9am tutorial, go home on the weekend and never miss Home and Away, who you eventually end up distancing yourself from because you spend half the year looking like something that fell off Courtney Love.
With 14 left to go today, is it too late to hope for some vital injection of sass, someone without a type-A personality, a Rose who might have skipped Mass, one with a back-combed barnet and a precision eye-roll, a death drop entrance or an interest in serial killers? Is it too much to ask that the daughters of Ireland stop playing so nice?