When I was a little girl my Nana used to have a Rose of Tralee party so we could all watch it together on the TV. She would buy my favourite biscuits (Toffy Pops) and I was allowed to stay up way past my bedtime. I can remember sitting on the sofa listening to all the debate about who should win, the comprehensive (and often harsh) critique of the dresses and of course the fulsome praise for host extraordinaire Uncle Gaybo. I certainly enjoyed the sense of occasion and the excitement of staying up late and trying to predict the winner. But I do remember being a bit bemused by the show itself. My Nana would often say to me ‘Maybe when you’re older you could be on the Rose of Tralee. Would you like that?’ Being a shy introverted eight year old, I always just smiled and nodded. But I would internally cringe at the thought of being interviewed on national TV by Gay Byrne. In my own childish way I knew it would have made her heart burst with pride should it ever have come to pass.
Many years later, although I didn’t make it to Tralee as a Rose, it was one of my very first TV jobs. My Nana was as proud as if I were wearing the winning tiara. However it was my first live TV experience and it was far more stressful than enjoyable for me. Although I was mostly distracted by my work duties there was something about watching young women, just like me, preparing to compete for a sash and tiara that left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Although it wasn’t a beauty pageant, it felt suspiciously like one.
Now I find myself living on the very doorstep of The Festival, as it’s locally known. From a distance it’s easy to be cynical about the Lovely Girls competition. It seems oddly old fashioned, appearing to reward an idealised version of femininity that finds it’s origins in a 19th century ballad. Many a disparaging article has been written about it and there will be many more to come I’m sure. But living here it’s not so easy to be disparaging. Witnessing first hand the economic boost that the festival brings to Tralee, and the surrounding areas, I see the positive impact that it has on local business. Although a relatively small town The Rose has literally put Tralee on the world map.
But how does a festival that began in 1959 keep itself relevant in a changing world? Well in 2008 the festival lifted the ‘ban’ on unmarried mothers, allowing them to enter for the first time. Better late than never I suppose. Once again in 2014 it was propelled into the 21st century when winner Maria Walsh revealed that she was gay. She was particularly engaged and engaging, outspoken on a number of issues and proved to be one of the best ambassadors the festival has ever appointed. Similarly in 2016 another opportunity presented itself to the festival in the shape of Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins. Ireland was in the throes of debate about the controversial eighth amendment. Parkins bravely used her opportunity in the spotlight to call for a referendum giving Irish women control over their reproductive rights . Unfortunately (and some would say not unexpectedly) Parkins was not crowned that year. A much missed opportunity, in my view, to prove that the Festival truly is about female empowerment. This year’s glimmer of hope for me is Carlow Rose Shauna Ray Lacey. The first mother to appear on the competition stage since the festival began. She is a beautician, young Mum, breastfeeding advocate and keen DIY enthusiast. Essentially, a modern young woman.
To be effective ambassadors for the festival the winning Rose needs to be reflective of modern society. We want our daughters to grow up believing they can be anything. Gay, straight or gender fluid, political activist or musician, mum or teacher, accountant or astronaut. So if The Rose of Tralee is to move on into the next century, and I really hope it does, it needs to be representative of today’s young women. Because the festival does have an underlying positive message. That message is about celebrating the achievements of young women. It’s also about female solidarity and support. But that message often remains hidden beneath the shiny wrapping of a beauty pageant.
So what would my Nana think about the modern Rose of Tralee? She was a modern woman in her own time. A career woman who travelled and married comparatively late in life. So I imagine she’s up there in TV heaven loving every minute of it. And this year she would probably tell me to pin my hopes on the Carlow Rose. Someone pass the Toffee Pops please!