Saturday 10 December 2016

TV: The enduring appeal of the Rose of Tralee

As RTE gears up for its annual Rose of Tralee coverage, we look at the enduring appeal of a show that should, by rights, be long gone

Emily Hourican

Published 17/08/2015 | 02:30

Reigning Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh
Reigning Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh

It should be the show we all despise -an embarrassing throwback to less-PC times, a 'lovely girls' competition, plain and simple. In fact, by rights, the Rose of Tralee should have been quietly taken off air about 10 years ago, relegated to bit-parts on Reeling In The Years and the kind of awed nostalgia we now feel looking at Wanderly Wagon or early runs of Glenroe. Instead, this year in particular, the Rose feels invigorated, as if it has its detractors beat and the rest of us amused.

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To a large degree - despite renaming it an 'International Festival', just to eliminate any possibility that it might secretly be a beauty contest, and the introduction last year of that most on-trend of idiocies, the Ice Bucket Challenge - this has to do with the personality of the current Rose, and the year that was in it.

When Maria Walsh, pictured, came out shortly after being crowned, she did it in a natural and gracious way, saying, "I'm confident in who I am as a person. To me, being gay is normal . . . I'm not ashamed of my sexuality by any means. The Rose of Tralee is about celebrating women's intelligence, careers, their volunteer work. The question of sexuality never came up." And indeed it didn't, not now, not then; the organisers were just as gracious and unflappable as Maria. It was, in fact, one of those rare moments of everybody behaving well.

These days, Maria is even more insouciant, recently saying, "I would introduce myself as a Pioneer before introducing myself as gay because I made that choice to be a Pioneer, to not drink alcohol, whereas being gay is just me." She has said she wants to get married in Ireland, and now - as we all know - she can. Who knows how much she has to do with the positive Referendum outcome, but something, that's for sure.

As for how much she has to do with rescuing The Rose of Tralee from ridicule - my guess is, plenty. Throughout her year in the spotlight, Maria has challenged those who would knock the festival for being sexist, dated, embarrassing, with consistent grace and wit, standing up for the women who choose to take part, and those of us who like to watch. On the simple basis that, 'if it's good enough for her, it's good enough for the rest of us,' the festival comes out looking better.

Daithi O Se is doing his bit as well. He is a better host than Tubridy, more at ease with the many weird moments the show produces. Because let's face it, it's not all sleek and streamlined at the festival either. Alongside the 10km run and Women in Business Conference, there are some very peculiar knock-about events, like the 'white collar' boxing and a Zumbathon. And, of course, every year has its share of hilarious incidents, like last year's Dublin Rose, Roisin Lyons, doing a Buck's Fizz and whipping off her long red skirt to reveal a shorter red skirt underneath (shorter, mind, not short), followed by a couple of interpretive dance sessions that managed to be only slightly less alarming than Siobheal Nic Eochaidh - 2011's Dublin Rose - doing her hip hop dance.

But all sneering aside, as Daithi says, "It ticks a lot of boxes. It ties the Irish Diaspora together all over the world . . . People like it because they remember watching it when they were younger. I know lots of people who have Rose of Tralee parties like they have Eurovision parties as well . . . I think the main reason people watch it is that it's an event; something is going to happen and we want to be there [watching] when something happens. Like an All-Ireland Final, somebody is going to win at the end of it and people want to watch that."

He's right. We do.

The Rose of Tralee International Festival will be broadcast live from 8pm on Monday 17 and Tuesday 18 August on RTE One and RTE Player.

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