Dáithí plays perfect host but he's no cowboy


“COW ACT not happening – she’s too lively!” the text came to my phone just as Dáithí Ó Sé was due to milk a live cow on live television under the guidance of Ottawa Rose Avaleigh Eastman.

Eastman’s family have 400 acres, 40 cows and she calls herself an “agvocate”. If Dáithí had milked that cow, Eastman would have had the farming vote – unless another Rose wrestled a sheep-stealing wolf or renegotiated the Common Agricultural Policy. They should have known. As I sneaked into the Dome before Eastman took to the stage, I could tell that Daisy – pooing to the left of the main door as I entered – didn’t have the X-Factor.

Still, it was a great old do. California’s Erin Kelley told a childhood story about chasing a monkey who stole her bottle (America is brilliant!). Chicago Rose Margaret Rose Keating sang a song about emigration and famine. And, as is tradition,

Dáithí helped take a dress off a lady, Melbourne Rose Claire Lynch, so she could demonstrate Aussie Rules football.

In nods to cosmopolitan modernity, the Luxembourg and New Zealand Roses sang in foreign tongues (French and Maori) and New Orleans’s Lisa Brady encouraged Dáithí to zumba dance – a sight that probably put zumba back decades.

“I’ve always found it very hard to differentiate my hips from my backside,” Dáithí confided, demonstrating this strange fact through dance. He also teased the escorts (“a strange looking bunch of lads”), donned fake eyebrows to scare an eyebrow-phobic Texas Rose (“Touch them!”) and flirted with Avaleigh Eastman’s mother (“I have a wife. I’m not blind!”).

For some, the big media- friendly, black tie event in the big tent by the Carlton Hotel is just an excuse for the town to have a big hooley. Earlier that Monday morning, in the lobby of the hotel where I was staying, perplexed early-rising German sightseers watched smudgey-eyed revellers who were clasping high heels and slurring their words. One girl dozed on a couch as a security guard gently tried to rouse her. “She likes to sit where she likes to sit,” said her boyfriend stoically.

A tall chap rubbing his temples in the breakfast room was an escort in 2007. “Being an escort was the best week I ever had. The closest I’ll ever come to being David Beckham.”

His friend, the only one in their group not in a dishevelled mess, was a Rose in 2008 and glowed with surprising good health and sobriety. “Once a Rose always a Rose!” she said with a broad smile. Out in the lobby, the slumped young lady had been joined by two more slumped young ladies and the Germans looked nervous. It was a bit like a modern version of Hitchcock’s The Birds.

My taxi-driver Jim, like some other Tralee residents I met, complained that the festival is now “a bit corporate, a bit black tie”, but the Dome was filled with enthusiasts. Roger Harty, chaperone to the judges, is a local optician, and said the idea for the first festival in 1959 came together in his father’s pub.

“He was one of the people who started it. They wanted to bring business to the town. They came up with the idea of the Rose of Tralee and travelled to America in an old biplane to organise it . . . Every year I still ring Alice O’Sullivan for a chat.”

The festival has changed a bit since then, as have the Roses.

The girl in the ballad, according to local lore, was a lowly maid. Darwin Rose Sheila McAndrew runs a cleaning business (Maid in Darwin) and this year’s group include PhD students, doctors and various corporate highflyers.

Of course they haven’t changed in other ways. They’re all polite, demure and generally delightful. There has yet to be a Rose who’s mounted the stage drunk with a fag hanging from her lip, screaming: “I’ll fight every one of you!”

Michael Kearney, chief executive of the Carlton Hotel Group, and a judge in the competition, spent the day conducting group interviews with these accomplished young women who have, admittedly, made an unusual lifestyle choice. This morning, according to Kearney, the discussion subjects were: ‘wrinkles or Botox?’ and ‘online dating’. Does he feel competitions like this are in any way dated?

“Actually that was one of the other topics we had today! ‘Is the Rose of Tralee dated and something we should be doing in the 21st Century?’ They had lots to say on that.”

You see, you can’t really win when criticising this festival. Just like you can’t win when criticising Dáithí Ó Sé, who that morning at rehearsals eejited it up every way possible to help nervous Roses feel comfortable. (“He’s like the Energizer bunny,” said an appreciative Sheila McAndrews).

He danced goofily to pianist Ollie Hennessy’s sporadic and impromptu renditions of Teddy Bears Picnic, and explained why a bald man in a headset was occasionally touching them on the back (I assumed he’d won a ‘Touch the Roses’ competition).

“He’s just making sure you’re in shot,” says Dáithí. “But don’t worry, he has the softest hands. We did the Fairy Liquid test!”

Soon Dáithí was hosting part one of a six-hour production with 32 beautiful women, line-dancing, zumba and, offstage cows with stage fright. His secret? “I ask for Curly Wurlys in my dressing room” (Full disclosure: he gave me some Curly Wurlys).