Wars of the roses - how festival became more than a lovely girls pageant
After Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins voiced her support for the Repeal the Eighth campaign on stage in the Dome, is it time to admit that the Rose of Tralee, often dismissed as a twee 'Lovely Girls' contest, has become a barometer of social change, asks Tanya Sweeney
Published 24/08/2016 | 14:30
For decades, we'd come to depend on the Rose Of Tralee as a twee throwback to simpler, nicer times. The pageant was an unshakeable institution slap bang in the middle of the summer calendar; an unending parade of ex-pats with pearly whites, daddy's girls, twinkling Irish mammies and row upon row of escorts who knew to keep their hands to themselves (or at least appeared to know). The Rose Of Tralee has long been a guilty, pleasurable glut of wholesome goodness; little wonder the entire event has proved a rich seam to mine for comic writers like Graham Linehan and David McSavage.
But that was then, and this is now. Forget Irish Diaspora's Got Talent. This year, things got a bit… Ireland's Got Issues.
In the run up to the contest, 'controversy' was 'courted' when organisers thought to do away with the age-old tradition of poetry readings (something to do with the fact, probably, that 14 of last year's 32 televised finalised made this their party piece). Next, it was revealed that an 'X-Factor'-style elimination would result in a massive cull. A moment of high drama… yet more, plenty more, was on the horizon.
Anyone who tuned in this year to enjoy an inoffensive parade of nice milk-fed girls pledging allegiance to the auld sod was left sorely disappointed. Poetry was out, but rapping was in (admittedly, Dublin Rose Siobheal Nic Eochaidh broke ground with a hip-hop dance back in 2011).
But in a night packed with drama, it was the forthright Sydney Rose who had most people flocking to Twitter. Brianna Parkins received plenty of applause from the audience when she stated her support for a referendum on repealing the eighth amendment during her interview with Daithí Ó Sé.
Brianna, a journalist for ABC News in Sydney, spoke about her work with domestic violence charities in Australia and the lack of funding for shelters. She then went on to say that there was also more work to do on women's rights in Ireland. "I think it's time to give women a say over their reproductive rights," she said. "I would love to see a referendum on the eighth amendment come up soon. That would be my dream." Soon #SydneyRose was trending on Twitter, and even managed to get the attention of the creator of the Lovely Girl competition himself, 'Father Ted' writer Graham Linehan.
With a sitting audience of millions, it's easy to see just why Parkins would take the opportunity to shine a light on a pressing issue close to her heart. But there was little doubting that last night, the contest - now in its 57th year - had been brought kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Anyone denouncing it as a dewy-eyed beauty parade can't have escaped the niggling truth; that the Rose of Tralee has become something surprisingly reflective of, and relevant to, Ireland in 2016.
Although the Rose Of Tralee describes itself as apolitical and doesn't encourage political statements made on stage, it transpired that the subject of abortion was a topic for discussion in group sessions overseen by the competition's judges.
In 'The Road To The Dome', a behind-the-scenes documentary on RTÉ One, it was revealed that the subjects mooted for discussion included the prospect of a united Ireland 100 years after the Rising, the refugee crisis, and abortion.
A far cry, certainly, from the usual inoffensive fare that viewers are used to. And a sign, perhaps, that the festival's bigwigs are, at the very least, not shying away from the today's more pressing issues.
To be fair, the Rose Of Tralee has been approaching something resembling modernity for some years now. In 2008, Fiona Canavan, the mother of Realtin (then aged seven) was the first unmarried mother to enter the contest after rules were changed to allow women with children to compete.
Maria Walsh, the Philadelphia Rose, was the overwhelming favourite to win the contest in 2014. At the time, Walsh - an openly gay woman - noted that the question of her sexuality never arose during the festival.
"I'm not ashamed of my sexuality by any means," she is quoted as saying in the wake of her 2014 win. "The Rose of Tralee is about celebrating women's intelligence, careers, their volunteer work. The question of sexuality just never came up.
"Being gay and in a gay relationship is just one of the many things I identify and associate with," she added. "I'm confident in who I am as a person."
And that same year, Rose of Tralee executive international chairman Anthony O'Gara said the festival was "delighted" to have chosen Ms Walsh as that year's Rose.
"She is a wonderful person, an attractive, intelligent woman and a very worthy winner who happens to be gay," he said.
"Her sexuality will no doubt create some interest, hopefully all positive."
Speaking this week from Tralee, Walsh admits that, as the contest's first openly LGBT contestant, she didn't particularly feel at the time as though she was doing something momentous.
"At the time, I was more cognisant of the fact that I had to go back to my great job in fashion in the US," she reflects. "But I've spent the last year or so reflecting about it all, and it is lovely when your name comes up in conversations about the festival being relevant and present.
"I do agree that the Rose of Tralee is becoming more modern," she adds.
"I will say this though, the Roses this year are fierce," she adds. "They're not just your typical lovely ladies… they're fierce, independent women. Anyone who says they're lovely wee ladies… you know what buddy? We're creating headlines across the world."
In a contest that had - on the surface at least - been overwhelmingly apolitical and prescriptive for years, Walsh blew through the contest that year like a gust of fresh air.
And Parkins looks very much set to do the same, bringing the Repeal campaign to middle Ireland. It could be argued that the Rose Of Tralee festival works as a rather neat Trojan horse to bring issues as progressive as sexuality and the eighth amendment into the homes of a generation not often exposed to them.
A year after Walsh took home the crown, marriage equality for same-sex couples was voted for by an overwhelming majority of Irish people. Is it overstating the case somewhat to attribute that to the advent of an LGBT Rose? Perhaps. Yet Repeal campaigners are no doubt happy that the issue has edged its way onto one of the most famous platforms in the land.
"It's a reflection of what everyone ha been talking about," says Linda Kavanagh, spokesperson for the Abortion Rights campaign. "I think that people can't ignore this issue now. For me and the campaign I work on, this shows how far we've come in a short space of time. This (issue) is on TV, being said by an international Rose. Having LGBT Roses and women on stage demanding control over their own bodies; this is what modern Ireland looks like now."
What this year's dramatic moments will yield for the future of the Rose Of Tralee contest in general, it's too soon to tell. Will it become a more politically overt event in general? Will the Roses do away with sugary party pieces, or will they let their strong opinions do the talking instead? Will we finally see feminine beauty and success in its many, many iterations?
Whatever the future holds, one thing is for sure. To the land of dewy-eyed Irish dancers and paddywhackery in pretty frocks, we will likely not be returning.