Why even Father Ted couldn’t kill the Rose of Tralee

If the Lovely Girls couldn’t see off the Rose of Tralee, is it on our TVs for good?

Flower power: When Dáithi Ó Sé – pictured with the 2011 Roses – became the host of the competition, the contestants got the closest thing they have had to a peer

Flower power: When Dáithi Ó Sé – pictured with the 2011 Roses – became the host of the competition, the contestants got the closest thing they have had to a peer

 

Believe it or not, it is more than 17 years since the Father Ted episode “Rock A Hula Ted” was originally aired – not that many know it by that name. It’s the Lovely Girls episode. (“Of course, they all have lovely bottoms”, etc). It went out in April 1996 but would cast its long shadow across the summer until crossing the path of that August’s Rose of Tralee festival. And from that year on the two would be intertwined, Ted forever stalking the Roses.

The sitcom provided a useful mirror, but it can’t entirely be blamed for what happened next. There followed about a decade during which the Rose of Tralee was regularly, and rightly, criticised as an anachronism, an embarrassment, a national shame.

It held the place that The Late Late Show holds now, viewed as a lengthy sponsor-drenched television behemoth, in which guest after guest was wheeled out for a little scripted joshing, a wave at the parents and a ridiculous turn. Gay Byrne had hosted it until 1994, and was followed by Marty Whelan and Derek Davis.

The result was an annual two-night, five-hour televised patriarchal spectacular. And yet it survives. Arguably, it thrives. It is back next week, holding steady as a television fixture – last year 850,000 tuned in to see the winner fulfil her princess fantasies, and even the sniping is generally left to the sitting rooms where people are decrying this kind of thing even as they take a sneaky peek.

In the press its contestants are now greeted as models of feminism rather than traitors to the cause.

The biggest fuss about this year is that Dáithí Ó Sé has brought a little fun to the party by growing a beard. A beard! It’s a will-he-or-won’t- he-wear-it-on-the-night subplot to the otherwise straightforward story, illustrated this week by Roses chasing Ó Sé for no apparent reason other than it wasn’t the sort of photoshoot you’d have ever seen Gay Byrne involved in.

But you know that when the beard is the big talking point about the Rose of Tralee, then it is safe for at least another decade.

The hosts have had much to do with its turnaround. Yes, it has been written many times why the contestants confound the norms of the beauty pageant, of how the average contestant is now a multilingual particle physicist whose turn involves some class of twerking.

But the evolution of the host has been starker, and represents the swift path of an event and television show that have expertly wormed their way out of self-doubt.

It began with Ryan Tubridy’s arched eyebrow, which was an attempt to match the Lovely Girls image with an acknowledgment of how ridiculous everyone knew the whole thing was.

When the role went to Ó Sé, the Roses got the closest thing they have had to a peer. So dedicated was he to the persona of someone who would get up to some mischief with the Roses if given half the chance that he went and married one.

But in between came Ray D’Arcy’s tenure. It was the best. Unencumbered by any need to keep up a shtick of his own – Tubridy’s then young fogeyism, Ó Sé’s giddy-goatedness – he ditched the irony. Instead he established a comfort and confidence between host, contestant and, most importantly, viewer that allowed them all to ignore for a while the weirdness, glad-handing and sponsorship avalanche of the festival and to simply present an entertaining TV show that understood its unique value in Irish life.

Meanwhile, off camera, the festival went on, and goes on still, with an unwavering dedication to anachronism. Because anyone who thinks that the Rose of Tralee is like an episode of Father Ted is wrong. It is like two episodes of Father Ted. Specifically, the Lovely Girls episode and its very first episode, “Good Luck, Father Ted”, which featured the Craggy Island funfair.

Every year, before the big telly event, there is the parade through the streets of Tralee. There are the waving Roses, atop a variety of van-dragged, LSD-themed floats. They are flanked by tuxedoed escorts, the last men alive who can use the term “escort” in any connotation that doesn’t give your computer’s pop-up filter a big job to do. As you watch the parade you are constantly on alert for a passing Tunnel of Goats.

That unapologetically old-fashioned parade is where the Rose of Tralee’s unadorned spirit resides. Television is where its national image thrives. Despite everything, it has managed to hold on to both.


shegarty@irishtimes.com
@shanehegarty

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