Saturday 20 December 2014

The Rose of Tralee has never looked more out of kilter with women of Ireland

Published 25/08/2014 | 02:30

Winning Rose of Tralee 2014 Philadelphia Maria Walsh wearing the necklace
Winning Rose of Tralee 2014 Philadelphia Maria Walsh wearing the necklace

Let's be clear. It is not a great leap forward for equality that a lesbian girl with a blinding smile is the newly-crowned Rose of Tralee. It remains a cringe-making, money-making pastiche of mock Irishness.

Maria Walsh has not lent the archaic festival a modern patina. In truth - a virtue celebrated in the words of the song - the Rose of Tralee festival has never looked more out of kilter with Ireland. Or with the women it claims to celebrate.

The jamboree was staged a matter of days after we learned how the State treated a young woman whose life is several planets removed from a super-duper girl contest, or however the organisers seek to categorise its bevy of Roses.

Ireland's leaders forced a suicidal teenager to have a caesarean section in case she harmed her baby. An asylum seeker, who conceived a child as a result of rape in her war-torn homeland, came to our shores and was violated again. So much for the Land of a Hundred Thousand Welcomes beamed out from the Dome in Tralee .

Officialdom responded to a young woman who wouldn't toe the line, according to their lights, by authorising doctors to slice her open. It happened even as the Roses had fittings for gowns, road-tested new hairstyles, perhaps met their escorts.

So, no, I'm not prepared to laugh off that paddywhackery masquerading as Irish culture which perpetuates the myth that ours is a land populated by winsome, agreeable colleens. Not this year.

In Tralee, captivating young women flirted chastely with Daithi O Se, before doing a turn. And no great distance away, an 18-year-old asylum seeker was recovering from her ordeal. And I don't mean the one she underwent in the country she fled from.

On our television screens, we were treated to a parade of shiny-haired girls in swishy frocks. Girls up for a bit of craic. Girls you'd want to have in your family. It was as wholesome as The Waltons. But the representation of Ireland is obsolete.

It seeks to contain women in neat, fragrant categories. As though abortion, war, rape, and voiceless victims whose fates are decided by others are the fiction.

And a lovely girls extravaganza is reality.

It's a distraction to claim that the Rose of Tralee is somehow more acceptable because the winner decided to reveal her sexuality. The ladybird tattoos on Maria's neck may be hip, but the festival remains old hat.

This is not city versus country, or the rest of Ireland versus Kerry. The festival has been an anachronism for several decades, but we have learned to tolerate or ignore it. Perhaps we humour it, a little, because the need to generate revenue is understandable. But there are other ways to promote Kerry.

This year, however, the juxtaposition between the festival and the young asylum seeker's story is too grating to ignore. She acts as a reminder that womanhood in Ireland remains a strictly policed construct. That women may choose dresses and hairstyles, but not what happens to their bodies. Not when the chips are down.

Maria's openness about her sexuality has not repositioned the festival as a platform to showcase today's young women. It remains decades past its sell-by date. I don't seek to take away from her candour, which required courage: I salute the latest Rose as a bright and articulate young woman. But I'm mystified why she entered.

The Rose of Tralee is a celebration of many things. A celebration of modern womanhood it is not. Year on year, it is the worse for wear. The organising committee can put up more illuminations, and ratchet up the razzle-dazzle, but the festival conveys a fossilised view of colleens.

Just because the contestants aren't asked to parade in bikinis doesn't mean they are treated with genuine respect. They are tricked out as national stereotypes. As such, they become cash cows: a shamrock-green-tinted opportunity for Tralee to make money. Preferably from the diaspora.

The Rose of Tralee espouses a 1950s ethos, but neither that decade - nor several of the succeeding ones - were a good time to be a woman in Ireland. They weren't much better for men, either. That's why so many Irish people emigrated.

It was a criminal offence to be homosexual - the notion of an Irishwoman being a lesbian probably hadn't crossed any legislator's mind. Divorce was illegal, so was contraception. Good riddance to the 1950s, I say.

Surely it's time for the national broadcaster to reconsider its peak time Roses coverage. No doubt, RTE makes the decision on the basis of ratings. But all sorts of subjects undeserving of airtime are capable of generating ratings. Broadcast a Miss Wet T-Shirt competition and just watch the audience figures rocket if you want proof.

I hope, as I presume Maria does, that her frankness helps others. But her win doesn't count as mould-breaking because the mould is already in 1,000 pieces. The mould of Irish womanhood, I mean.

Up to a million people may have tuned in. Not me, I find it all a sham - as Irish as the pyramids. It's an exercise in national delusion.

Maria says other "young, modern, educated and great women" should become involved. Three little words from me. Just say no.

Irish Independent

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