Wednesday 7 December 2016

Slag it off all you want, but the Rose of Tralee is a barometer of change

Published 27/08/2016 | 02:30

Chicago Rose and Rose of Tralee winner Maggie McEldowney waves to the crowd after her victory
Chicago Rose and Rose of Tralee winner Maggie McEldowney waves to the crowd after her victory
Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins in Tralee Photo: Frank McGrath
Chicage Rose Maggie McEldowney. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Dáíthi Ó Sé samba dancing with Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins. Picture Credit : Frank Mc Grath
Maria Walsh is the 2014 Rose of Tralee
Dáíthi Ó Sé with the roses. Picture: Frank McGrath
Chicago Rose and Rose of Tralee winner Maggie McEldowney waves to the crowd after her victory
In 2014, Maria Walsh became the first openly gay Rose. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Patronising the women taking part in the Rose of Tralee is something of a national sport.

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We think we have them pegged. Naive Daddy's girls who talk about milking cows while wearing GAA jerseys.

Their father is in the Garda band, they teach at St Brigids, and they love tea, cardigans and Tayto sandwiches. Their boyfriend Micheál Óg is in the audience, but "would you go away out of that, Dáithí, sure it hasn't even crossed our minds yet!"

Then there is the diaspora; ladies who once shook hands with a man who smelled of turf and as a consequence now consider themselves as Irish as soda bread.

Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins in Tralee Photo: Frank McGrath
Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins in Tralee Photo: Frank McGrath

But this year, our attitudes towards the Roses proved to be more predictable and outdated than the competition itself.

Which is why when Brianna Parkins broached the subject of the Eighth Amendment, we were all shocked.

Sitting in the press room, we couldn't believe our ears; "Is she really talking to Dáithí about abortion in the fecking Dome?"

The next day, chair of the Rose of Tralee judging committee Mary Kennedy said the festival wasn't the place to discuss the issue.

Chicago Rose Maggie McEldowney who was announced as winner of the 2016 International rose of Tralee, pictured celebrating on stage at the Dome in Tralee. Photo:Frank Mc Grath
Chicago Rose Maggie McEldowney who was announced as winner of the 2016 International rose of Tralee, pictured celebrating on stage at the Dome in Tralee. Photo:Frank Mc Grath

On the contrary, I think the Rose of Tralee is the perfect place to broach the issue. When Parkins spoke about repealing the Eighth Amendment, she wasn't bringing the issue into every living room across the country.

It was already there; statistically, just about everyone in Ireland must know someone who has made that journey overseas.

But it did get us talking about a subject that can be difficult to express any sort of opinion on.

One misjudged comment or question and you're in danger of being labelled a backward-thinking misogynist, or an advocate of murder.

Maria Walsh is the 2014 Rose of Tralee
Maria Walsh is the 2014 Rose of Tralee

Within the space of two days this week, for example, I was accused by a pro-lifer of endorsing a liberal agenda, and a pro-choicer for showcasing a conservative bias.

Even raising the subject can land you in hot water.

So instead, many of us take the easy road, keep schtum and watch the two sides thrash it out.

But then, suddenly and unexpectedly, abortion was being discussed by the loveliest ladies at the loveliest festival in all the land.

Dáíthi Ó Sé with the roses. Picture: Frank McGrath
Dáíthi Ó Sé with the roses. Picture: Frank McGrath

A contest that, according to its critics, celebrates an Ireland that no longer exists.

Surely in such a conservative environment her words would be met with animosity.

But rather than chase Brianna out, they listened.

No one screamed in outrage, the sky didn't fall in - in fact, Brianna got a firm round of applause.

And she wasn't the only Rose to have a strong opinion on the issue.

Chairman of the Rose of Tralee Anthony O'Gara said he presumed "a significant number of [Roses] would share that opinion".

The Rose of Tralee can be viewed as a cultural touchstone, and discussing the Eighth Amendment indicates a seismic cultural shift in our society.

In 2008, Fiona Canavan was the first unmarried mother to take to the Dome stage.

In 2014, Maria Walsh became the first openly gay Rose. The following year, we voted for same-sex marriage in the referendum.

I'm not saying the vote was a result of us getting used to seeing a gay Rose of Tralee, but it indicated times and opinions were changing.

Slag it off all you want, but the Rose of Tralee is a barometer of change in middle Ireland.

While many disregard it as twee and naff, the competition is probably more progressive than any condescending view of it might suggest.

Irish Independent

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