Mass, Muppets and mayhem as Roses prepare for today’s first round in Tralee

‘The smiling hurts a bit, but it’s all natural’

Lay reader David Tough takes a picture of Donegal Rose Catherine McCarron and 2012 Rose of Tralee Nicola McEvoy after morning service at St. John’s Church, Tralee, Co Kerry, yesterday. Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus

Lay reader David Tough takes a picture of Donegal Rose Catherine McCarron and 2012 Rose of Tralee Nicola McEvoy after morning service at St. John’s Church, Tralee, Co Kerry, yesterday. Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus


Mass doesn’t usually get a warm-up act, but I’m at “Mass with the Roses” in St John’s Church, Tralee. There are seven Roses here and it’s being aired live on RTÉ so Fr Francis Nolan is prepping the faithful.

“The Lord be with you,” he says.

“And with your spirit,” mumble the congregation.

“I don’t hear anything!” he teases, encouraging a louder response.

He also organises the collection in advance. “We don’t want to pass the collection in front of the camera,” he says, and people laugh.

It’s a good Mass. The music is beautiful. Prayers of the faithful are read well by “New York” and “Kerry” (Roses are referred to by geography, like rookies in Vietnam movies).

The Roses, with their explanatory sashes and nametags, seem just as confused about when to sit, kneel or stand as everybody else (we improvise). There’s also a reading that involves the grumpy naysayer Jeremiah being thrown into a well by disgruntled townsfolk. I take it to be a warning of sorts.

On Saturday night, the Roses arrive triumphantly into Tralee by parade float. The streets are thronged with people eating ice-creams and watching the entertainment – drummers dressed like Mad Max extras, eerie monster puppets, a raggedly dressed man on a penny farthing. The theme, as with many contemporary carnival acts, seems to be “post-apocalyptic dystopia” (children love this).

There are only two moments of disharmony. A man piloting a camera-mounted drone ploughs it into a tree. Everyone laughs. Then, outside Eurofocus, where miscellaneous gnomes, duck statues and gewgaws are lined up in a sort of honour guard, there’s a squabble between an older woman and a lady taking up space with a massive pram. “I’ve more children coming,” she explains.

“You do not!” says the old lady. “There isn’t even a child in that pram!”

Eventually Dáithí Ó Sé arrives in a horse-drawn carriage, seated beside Nicola McEvoy, last year’s winner, followed by marching bands and gymnasts (I suspect this is how Dáithí always travels).

Later, festival chairman Anthony O’Gara calls him “our bearded friend” in a manner suggesting he might leap over and shave Dáithí himself (programmers take note: this would make good television).

Then come floats of Roses flanked by strolling secret-service-style escorts. There are, among others, a “big-top float” with a giant inflatable clown, a pumpkin float and a Muppet float (“It feels wrong to say ‘Here come the Muppets’,” says announcer John Drummie).

Philadelphia Rose Brittany Killion grooves enthusiastically to the music (“When else are you going to be on a float?” she says later), but most just wave a special wave that involves minimal movement.

Olive Collins is here because her younger cousin Jessica is a Rosebud, the festival-sanctioned mini-Roses. “Every kid here wants to be a Rose or an escort. None want to be a journalist,” she adds apologetically.

Away from the Dome, which is actually a rectangle, attitudes towards the festival are proud but nuanced. Ger Welsh, a retired bus driver, says: “It used to be the greatest free show on Earth, but for a while they forgot about the family aspect. Thankfully that’s back now.”

Local solicitor and Sinn Féin Councillor Pa Daly says: “There’s a certain middle-class snobbery about it, but this festival put a lot of school uniforms on people’s backs in Tralee through the years. I’d be incredibly loyal to it.”

Yesterday, after Mass and before the second parade, I meet New York Rose Katie Mulholland, a professional singer with a tattoo behind her ear. “It’s a dancing light bulb so I always have happy ideas in my head,” she explains, while scribbling autographs for star-struck little girls (to talk to a Rose it’s usually necessary to push and elbow children out of the way).

Shannon Sullivan, aunt of Harvard-bound Boston Rose Deirdre Buckley, is amazed at how well organised it is. “It reminds me of Disney, ” she says. “The Roses are like Disney princesses. They’re so well looked after. I wonder if someone here worked in Orlando?”

Her niece talks about being overwhelmed by it all: “There are moments where I think I don’t deserve this sort of attention. It’s the stuff of fairy tales.”

Is it hard to wave and smile so much? “Smiling hurts a bit, but I don’t have to worry about that now. It’s all natural.”