Did this for the Examiner:
Is there anyone who doesn’t love the Rose of Tralee? The answer, obviously, is a resounding yes – there are many, many people who do not like the Rose of Tralee. There are many reasons why this is so – it is seen as an anachronism, a throwback to the 1950s era that spawned it, when Church and State worked hand in hand to create an atmosphere akin to The Handmaid’s Tale. Fr Ted may have thoroughly skewered the festival via the Lovely Girls contest, but perhaps we have come out the other side of it and can now appreciate the Rose festival for what it is – slightly awkward, relatively harmless fun.
The Rose of Tralee is a many splendored thing – here are just some of its wonders
It’s not a beauty pageant: From the outset it has never been a beauty pageant, because that might suggest humans feel desire, and that wouldn’t have gone over well back in the 1950s when we reproduced via pollination. The Rose of Tralee is meant to be more about the kind of beauty that doesn’t actually matter in the real world – inner beauty. The qualities they seek are those reflected in the song of the same name – that she be lovely and fair, like the first rose of summer. Or beautiful, as it is also known.
Escorts: Like a fringe festival of Lovely Boys, the escorts play a pivotal role by looking like they are going to a dress dance in Templemore training college, whilst making sure their Rose is assisted when alighting from buses or getting back onto buses, or that overseas Roses are taught about important aspects of Irish culture like why we hate the British, what a spicebag is, or how to sledge someone effectively at a puck-out.
The Build-Up: Even though the event is best known as a brief TV spectacle, the Roses actually have to endure a long tour of duty around the country for some awkward photo shoots. Nowhere is safe – shopping centres, wildlife parks, self service filling station forecourts, public amenity sites, no space is too insignificant or bleak for the Roses to be herded off a bus, only to get assaulted by a llama while someone else takes 300 photos.
The host: From Gaybo, to Raybo, to Tubbs, to Dáithí, the key element to being the host is to be as awkward as humanly possible. This helps the Rose feel more normal, despite being trapped in an actual episode of Fr Ted. The secret is to be asexually bland, and not steal the limelight from the poor Rose – Ray D’Arcy caused consternation the year that he did a cartwheel across the stage as it was deemed much better than most of the Roses’ performances and almost saw him win the title.
The party piece: Some Roses are clearly destined for greatness – look at a pre-stardom Gabby Logan’s professional performance back in 1991. Then there are the Roses who look like they just found out they were expected to do a little party piece, and rattle out a bawdy Limerick or show how they can turn their eyelids inside out. Of course few can compare with the 2011 Dublin Rose, Siobheal Nic Eochaidh, whose wildly thrashing hip-hop dance routine looked like one of the scenes cut from The Exorcist.
The controversies: Somehow you would expect that this gentlest of events would avoid becoming a scene of controversies, but sadly it seems even the Rose Dome has become a sort of analog Twitter in recent years. There was the fathers rights activist who dressed as a priest and stormed the stage with an illegible sign that made everyone think it said Farmers For Justice (which no doubt got a few cheers from the Macra escorts), to last year’s Down Rose, who said the Roses were treated like animals in a circus, which was very upsetting as she had clearly never been to a circus. Those places are awful.
The Rose festival even had its very own Inception moment, when in 2013 a shot on Monday night’s show included cutlery with the crest of the eventual winner printed on them, suggesting that – shock, horror – the winner might be decided before Dáithí opens the envelope on the Tuesday night. Although it seems fitting, given that the winner is meant to have the rose-like qualities espoused in the song, and thus would need to be a plant.
The Rose Of Tralee may have its detractors – and many awkward photo ops on actual tractors – but it is still a very Irish affair. Until the organisers try to modernise it and turn it into some sort of reality TV Battle Royale, perhaps we should just appreciate it for what it is – slightly quaint, gentle fun, that is definitely not a beauty pageant.