Part sisterhood, and part family wedding - but the Rose is no simple beauty pageant
Published 20/08/2016 | 02:30
A gale is singing with gusto through the open windows of the Rose Hotel and the clouds hang low over the hills. If you'd come for the outdoor pursuits, having paid over €200 a night for your room towards the tail-end of summer, you'd be fairly despondent.
But every hotel and guest house in Tralee, Co Kerry is heaving to capacity with people of all ages, backgrounds and financial capacities - dressed up as if for a wedding and far too preoccupied to look to the skies.
The lights of Fossetts circus and Birds amusements dazzle through the morning gloom, while stalls downtown offer every beguiling possibility - from pulled pork and chicken paella to lollipops as big as your head.
There is a petting zoo, a marching band and a soap box derby; a cycle against suicide, a tag rugby tournament, a fairy show, a rock gig - and even Zumba.
And at the heart of it all are the 65 young girls from all corners of the globe vying - though with admirable charm and restraint, on the surface at least, to be crowned the next Rose of Tralee.
Cynics look on in exasperation at the hoopla, the predictable patter, the giggles and the sheer niceness of it all - but the voices which once called shrilly for the festival to be wound up have silenced. It seems that having bounced back with strength after having to be rescued from bankruptcy by businessman Anthony O'Gara in 2004 and now worth €12m to the local economy and commanding six hours of live television and additional programming, the Rose of Tralee is only on the up.
Last night saw the attendance of over 1,400 people in black tie for the International Rose Ball - the most prestigious event of this year's festival - which has now been stretched out to 10 days.
In its 57th year, the contest boasts 65 contestants with a new format that saw the Roses go head-to-head this week before tomorrow's reveal of who will feature in the televised final rounds on Monday and Tuesday.
And Joan McCarthy, Head of Tourism Development at Kerry County Council said they are "always" looking at the festival with a view to tweaking it to improving t even further - and spreading the benefits further throughout the county.
Meanwhile Malta, Argentina and Barcelona are eagerly hammering on the doors in the hope of getting their own Rose of Tralee centres.
But John Drummey, spokesperson of the festival believes that with 65 Roses now taking party, they'll have to cap it at a maximum of 70.
If it was insular, it would have gone down the tubes long ago - but the geographic stretch of the Rose appears to be one of the mysterious x-factors keeping it alive - and firmly rooted in the reality of the 21st century, despite its determinedly folksy veneer.
As a selection of the Roses visited the John B Keane centre in Listowel and listened to actress Angeline O'Donnell sing "Many Young Men of 20 said Goodbye," emotion registered on every face. It meant something to all of them - for the diaspora Roses because it was the story of their ancestors, for the Irish Roses because it is the story of their peers.
A slim part beauty contest but with an overarching focus on personality and Irish girlishness, the festival is part Ploughing Championship in heels, part sisterhood and part family wedding - with Daithí cast as the embarrassing uncle.
"Mike, she's never going to work, boy," he ruefully observed to the father of New York Rose Kristin Stack, a PhD student during the untelevised semi-finals. Mike Stack, her father from Athea, Co Limerick had apparently tasked him with finding out when his daughter intended to quit studying and get a proper job, Daithí revealed at the start.
He emerged like a spent boxer after approximately 10 hours on stage between the first two nights of the semi-finals.
And that wasn't even the big one. There are still six hours of live TV to go.
But it's up there with the X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing in terms of good, clean fun' - and despite this jaded age, there always seems to be an eager audience for that.