Today, 50 men will vie to be chaperons at the Rose of Tralee. John Meagher discovers what it's like to be a Man in Black, squiring beautiful women around town
On the face of it, being an escort at the Rose of Tralee would be a great lark. You get to have an all-expenses-paid holiday in one of Ireland's most beautiful counties. There are five days of constant partying. People will be buying you drinks all the time. And if that wasn't enough, you get to chaperon a highly attractive young woman who loves children and animals and will probably be able to tap-dance, while playing the harp at the same time.
Plus, if you have a particularly puerile sense of humour, you can regale friends with tales of your time as a 'high-class escort' for years to come.
The reality is rather different. Being an escort at Ireland's most famous festival is not to be taken lightly.
You are expected to cater for the Rose's every whim, to extricate her from uncomfortable situations, to make sure she is on time for everything on each of the days on a very busy schedule. There's a certain etiquette to learn, right down to how to act around the Rose's boyfriend (if she has one) and the correct way to dance with her.
Oh, and you're not encouraged to drink excessively, and romantic advances towards the Rose are severly frowned upon.
In short, it sounds as if the ideal escort would be a former school prefect who is just about to enter studies for the priesthood.
Colm Croffy begs to differ. An escort in 1998 and 1999, he is the man charged with selecting the young gentlemen to wear the tuxedos at the festival, which takes place during the third weekend in August this year.
"It can be the weekend of their lives," he enthuses. "Yes, there's a lot of responsibility, but there's great fun to be had and people can form lifelong friendships at it. It's mad. There's nothing else quite like it.
"Much of the smooth running of the festival is down to the escorts, who work really hard for the five days. It's not uncommon for an escort to receive a call from his Rose in the early hours of the morning looking for him to go out and get her fast food."
Much effort goes into finding suitable males to give up a week in August. Up to 3,000 companies received letters urging them to put forward a suitable candidate.
This year Croffy got 370 applications for 28 positions. Candidates have to be between 20 and 30 -"to reflect the ages of the Roses" - and single.
The application form generally weeds out those unsuited to the job. The organisers do careful background checks. "We don't want headlines concerning such or such an escort," Croffy says. Anxious not to discriminate on any grounds except age, Croffy suggests that gay men would be welcome to apply. "I'm sure gay men have applied in the past, considering the law of averages," he says.
About 50 men have been chosen from the applicants, and will be interviewed at the Gresham Hotel in Dublin today. After the interviews, which are expected to last all day, Croffy hopes to have the line-up for this year's Rose.
There are certain things the judges look for, including a high standard of grooming (beards and long hair seem to be frowned on) and a pleasant disposition.
Each man selected will have to arrange sponsorship, normally from the firm he works for - the Rose of Tralee festival can't afford to absorb the escorts' costs.
"We get all types of guys applying. And they're from everywhere. People have this idea that it's just GAA types from rural Ireland, but we get plenty of Dubliners too. And people from Australia and New Zealand," says Croffy.
Past Rose of Tralee escorts include former Dublin Lord Mayor Royston Brady and comedian Alan Shortt.
Colm Croffy says one of the primary appeals of being an escort is the chance to meet beautiful, usually single (not a requirement under the rules) women. "Of course there's a chance that the two of them are going to hit it off together, but most people do it because of the craic to be had."
Croffy, 34, from Ballinasloe, Co Galway, says selecting the escorts is the easy bit. Much harder is pairing up the escort and Rose. "It's not pulled out of a hat. We spend a lot of time trying to work out who will be most compatible. After all, the two people are going to be spending a lot of time together."
He says his two years as an escort were hugely enjoyable. "I suppose I did it because I knew I'd never get a chance to be a Rose," he deadpans. "I'm still in contact with people I met that year." Ask him if romance blossomed for him and all you'll get is a chuckle.
But romance has blossomed in the past, and there's been at least one marriage of a former Rose and her man in black.
Is there a lot of romance between Roses and escorts? "Well, the schedule is so hectic that there isn't really time for anything to happen," he laughs. "And anyway, everybody gets so tired . . . "
The festival has always had its critics, but the level of dissatisfaction seems to be at an all-time high. Some believe that the contest is an over-the-top tourist trap, an outdated beauty pageant with undertones of de Valera's 'comely maidens' image that is demeaning to women and should be discontinued pronto.
The appointment of a new host, rising broadcasting star Ryan Tubridy, hasn't stemmed the criticisms - or the smart comments. Last year bookie Paddy Power upset seasoned Rose fans by taking bets that the winning Rose would be a transsexual, or that a Rose would come on stage with her dress tucked into her knickers.
Partly to bring the festival into the 21st century, the organisers decided to make more of the escorts, and since 2000 they have held open searches. Previously, one became an escort through recommendation and word of mouth.
"There's certainly a lot of interest out there among guys," Croffy says. "People are always saying that the event isn't popular, but we're still getting lots of applications, and it's one of the highest-rated TV shows of the year."
There's also an Escort of the Year competition, voted for by the Roses themselves, with the winner bagging a holiday and designer suit.
Unfortunately for the escorts, they don't get to hear the words "the pale moon was rising" warbled in their honour.