The Rose of Tralee
June 13, 2010
Photographs by Jeff Harvey
Beneath the overcast sky the streets of Portlaoise are filled with farmers’ tans. Babies cry in buggies while teenagers with camera phones leer from the crowd.
Old men hang about outside the pub, feigning indifference as we cruise past at a leisurely 10mph, while mammies jog along side us, camera in hand, breaking through the docile hoi polloi observing the passing commotion.
I’m in the front seat of a Triumph Herald 1964 with the Manchester and Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Roses Dee O’Reilly, 25, and Roisin Norton, 22, sitting behind. We’re doing a loop of the town as part of a Vintage Car Parade, the highlight of the Gordon Bennett Classic Road Festival, which this year has teamed up with the Rose of Tralee regional finals to showcase Co Laois.
Until 2004 only eight counties represented the whole island, competing with the international girls for the chance to be crowned Rose of Tralee. Now, all 32 have a crack at the title, 29 of whom competed this June bank holiday weekend for one of the six places at the main event.
There are also 12 international Roses from North America and the UK competing for the four remaining spots, so the competition should be fierce.
Unfortunately for this budding young hack with dreams of making his name exposing bitchy beauty queens, it is not. Polite, pleasant and remarkably laid back, The Rose of Tralee doesn’t seem to be the type of contest you enter to win.
Fifty years a-going, it is probably Ireland’s biggest festival, a family-based event that was set up to bring tourism back to Tralee. The winning girl is the one deemed to best match the attributes of Mary, the original rose immortalised in the 19th-century ballad from which the festival takes its name.
Lovely, fair and smiling, Mary wouldn’t get far in any post-Celtic Tiger beauty contest which seems to prefer cailins bleached blond and Botoxed, with every freckle concealed, every hair plucked, and a Lazarus-like ability to rise from whatever shame she has pulled down upon herself — and her family — to rise and make the headlines again.
“With competitions like Miss Ireland, the priorities lie elsewhere,” O’Reilly explains. “We say: ‘This is who I am. And it is exactly because of who I am that I will go on and be successful in this life.’ It’s not just what’s on the outside. That’s just the icing on the cake.”
The Roses exude a nostalgic sense of Irishness. They are giving me the kind of feeling you get when you read Ireland’s Own or the bumper Christmas edition of the RTE Guide.
Though I have barely spent any time with these ladies, I am already starting to question the great Yeatsian trope about romantic Ireland. It’s not dead and gone. I’m in it. I wonder if there will be dancing at the crossroads later.
If there is, the girls will have to change first. While critiquing dresses may not be my strongest suit, I found myself wondering if there was any reason why the Roses seemed to favour a cut and a colour not usually seen on girls their age.
Floral patterns, stripes and polka dots abound. I see knitwear, complicated headwear and painful-looking footwear. Some girls look very striking; some are very original — the Cavan Rose is sporting a lovely orange woollen gown — while others look as if they have stumbled across a treasure trove for middle-aged drag queens.
Tyrone Rose Carla O’Brien, 27, sheds some light on the modest nature of the attire as she relates “getting a wee bit of criticism” at county level for wearing a cut above the knee. It wasn’t just for show, she explains; she needed a shorter skirt as her talent was a dance from Riverdance.
The Laois and host Rose, Bernadette Ryan, 25, who has nicknamed herself the recessionary Rose, talks me through her ensemble. “Everything in my suitcase will have come from someone who has given it to me.”
She believes no one is in a position to pay for frivolous things out of their own pocket with the way the economy is at the moment and sees it as a nice way to involve others. “The community gets together and it’s a way for local businesses to promote themselves and the county.”
Most of the girls come from farming stock, many are teachers, some nurses, some social workers, and there are a smidgen of students. Strangely, there are quite a few Roses who have set up their own stage schools. They all seem to be sport mad, competing in marathons, playing GAA and rugby and constantly chatting about their county teams who were in action over the weekend. Their answers and comments are littered with references to their parish, their community and their locality.
So why the Rose of Tralee? Some compete for the craic, others for the chance to meet new people. Yet more compete as a matter of honour, to represent their counties on a national and international level. The unifying strand is that they all grew up with the festival and in their youth expressed a desire to a family or friend to be a part of it.
The Sligo Rose, Stephanie Tempany, 25, recalls being allowed stay up late especially for The Rose as a child.
“The only nights you got to stay up in our house were The Late Late Toy Show and the Rose of Tralee, maybe the Eurovision if you were really, really good. So it reminds me of that back-to-school time of year when it was Glenroe, The Rose and then straight to bed.”
Limerick’s Brid Richardson, 24, can’t remember a year she’s missed it. “I’m a driven person and I loved watching the girls and seeing what they had done in life. It’s not about world peace and wanting to save the world. You are in awe of them and what they have accomplished in their 24 or 25 years.”
These girls really buy into this whole thing. “The message it puts out is that Irish women everywhere are capable, intelligent, fantastic individuals,” says O’Reilly, “and like the Rose of Tralee herself in the song, each has something a wee bit more special about them.”
On Saturday, things get even more Father Ted with a sheep-shearing competition, where more than 2,500 sheep are shorn by shearers from all over the world.
Armed with Champagne flutes, the Roses watch as world champion Ivan Scott does his stuff and look suitably impressed as the sweating, panting red-faced shearer grabs, strips and tosses the sheep down a hole before moving on to the next one.
The aim is to shear five sheep as fast as you could, making sure that “none went down the chute looking like a French woman, with hair under the arms”, and the winner is Tom Kennedy, who did it in five minutes, 51 seconds. A selection of Roses are marched on stage to take part, teamed with a professional, before being frog marched off again by the predominantly female judging panel which had no time for such frivolity. This is serious business: there are sheep to be sheared!
A quick consultation with the organisers and the judges reverse their call as RTE are in the building and the Roses’ stature presents too big an opportunity to bring some much-needed publicity to the event and the area.
Seven girls put themselves forward and, while The Wexford and Clare Roses impress, the Galway Rose makes her poor little lamb bleed by nipping it with her blade. Tempany, the Sligo Rose, used to earn her keep helping her father out with the sheep on the farm but demurred from reliving her youth. “That wool is very greasy and I haven’t got a change of dress for this evening.”
Elsewhere, the Limerick Rose demonstrates how to get up on a tractor while maintaining one’s dignity, the Edmonton Rose flies around on a Massey Ferguson 35, and three other Roses try to guess the weight of two enormous heifers.
The good folk behind one stand give a demonstration of how you could turn poo into paper, while the Birmingham Rose is astride the bucking bronco, riding sidesaddle in an attempt not to flash her knickers.
I take a spin on an amusement ride with the Arizona, Rose Danielle McBurnett, who stands out from the other girls in her ambition. Eighteen years old and already a qualified nurse, she, like many of her North American counterparts, has her eyes firmly on the prize.
She is a bit savvier than some of the others and has a talent for positioning herself in the spotlight — not a bad trait to have in an international ambassador. As I was spin around on the twist, my life flashing before my eyes like a mediocre mid-week movie, she smiles, raises her hands and aims her pearly whites directly at our cameraman.
A slash and a dash and we are back on the bus headed to hair and make-up for the final. Spread over two nights, the girls are interviewed for approximately 10 minutes by host Will Leahy before optionally performing a talent or party piece.
The crowd in the four-star Heritage hotel is made predominantly, if not wholly, of friends and family. The music starts. Carmina Burana seems a bit inappropriate for the opening credits of a personality contest, and, I would wager, does little to quell the butterflies.
The Tipperary Rose, who has been first up for nearly all the interviews so far, is taking it as a good omen that she’s on first again tonight, while Wexford Rose Anne Sinnot is bouncing about claiming to have gone hyper (though having ridden with this life-lover earlier in the day, as she whooped and roared her way through the county in one of only three Austin 7 Arrows in the world, the change is hardly noticeable.)
The show itself is involving if a little unengaging when your own favourite roses aren’t on-stage, and the tone of Leahy’s questions has the feminist in my mind reaching for her Zippo and unhooking her polyester brassiere. No matter what the girls seem to have accomplished, we keep coming back to their role as doting daughter, simpering sister and wife-in-waiting.
There are the usual songs and stories with plenty of dancing across, around and, in the case of the poor old Sligo Rose, off the stage — she goes arse over tit at the end of the first evening.
Poems recalling local and national treasures are recited (with piano muzak for added emotion) and some of the girls really push the boat out. The Wexford Rose bakes a banoffee pie in 60 seconds, the Limerick Rose teaches us how to do the hakka in Irish and the Wicklow Rose shows us how to burn money without ruining it. As each Rose departs the stage, so too do half her supporters tripping over themselves to get to the bar. Thunderous roars rock the Heritage hotel as each party jumps to their feet to support their local girl.
The 10 going to the next stage of the 51st Rose of Tralee are announced: Laois, Arizona, Liverpool, Sunderland, Leicester, Belfast, Down, Carlow, Tipperary and Leitrim.
My time with the Roses draws to a close, but for some, the party is only beginning. As I make my way to bed, a sister of one of the Roses is bellowing into her mobile phone: “We’re going on the beer in Tralee!”