Entertainment Festivals

Friday 16 November 2018

4 ways to bring The Rose of Tralee out of 1967 and into 2017

Dáithí Ó Sé with the Roses at Malahide Castle in Dublin for the launch of this year’s Rose of Tralee. Photo: Domnick Walsh
Dáithí Ó Sé with the Roses at Malahide Castle in Dublin for the launch of this year’s Rose of Tralee. Photo: Domnick Walsh
This year's Rose of Tralee hopefuls at Ladies day in Galway. Photo: Tony Gavin

Eva Short

The Rose of Tralee is probably one of the weirdest events on Ireland’s calendar. It brings millions in revenue as well as international attention to the otherwise quiet and sometimes forgotten about town of Tralee, but it’s also a bizarre vestige of outdated Irish values. The women who get involved tend to be intelligent, successful, articulate and generally embodying qualities that deserve to be celebrated. Is having them put on a dress and sash really a good way to do that?

The festival was founded in 1959, and from 1967 has allowed entrants from all around the world as long as they are of Irish descent. Fifty years on, here are some things that desperately need to be updated to reflect the changing times.

Can we all stop pretending it’s not a beauty pageant, for one?

I’ve seen many Rose of Tralee defenders quickly begin to insist that the competition “isn’t a beauty pageant”. Sometimes they say it’s not “just” a beauty pageant. If someone is a plumber who is also a bird-watching enthusiast, they’re not “just” a plumber, but they’re a plumber.

Rose of Tralee is not judged on beauty, so it is said. It’s true that there is no record of appearance-based scoring (unlike Miss America and similar pageants), but this doesn’t mean that appearance isn’t an factor for eligibility.

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Rose of Tralee host Dáithí Ó Sé Picture: Frank McGrath

I defy anyone to look me in the eye and tell me with a straight face that the women who are chosen as Roses aren’t within the range of 'conventionally attractive' to 'catalogue model'. The Rose of Tralee ballad describes the rose as 'lovely and fair'. The 2009 opening credits of the show are replete with visual references to Disney princesses, to make it even more blatant. If the competition is judged on personality and is designed to celebrate women’s achievements, why do entrants need to be aged between 18 and 27?

Why do they have to be unmarried? Or any of the other insane entry requirements?

'Unmarried or never married' is still one of the main eligibility criteria. You have to confirm that you are not or have not been married to get past the first page of the entry application. How can they justify this? Do married women not also have personalities?

In 2013, New Orleans Rose MollyMolloy Gambel wangled past this loophole when her boyfriend, Kyle, proposed to her live on the show.

Daithí Ó Sé obligingly cleared the stage to facilitate this, but you wonder what would have happened if Kyle had gone rogue and dragged a priest and a marriage license on with him and tried to marry her right then and there? Would Daithí have to run back up on stage and hold a tea towel up over to obfuscate the view, much like my grandmother, who would hold a tea towel over the television when a kissing scene came on TV? Would she have been immediately hauled away, now having taken herself out of the running? Would a security guard have to side-tackle poor unassuming Fr Matthew to stop him from officiating? The mind boggles.

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Rose of Tralee, 1978

The escorts, for what it’s worth, also have to be unmarried. Their age range is 21 - 30, which strikes me as weird and kind of propagates that idea that women have to be younger than their male suitors (a weird hang up that comes from the same place which insists that men have to be taller than their girlfriends, which they don’t, for the record).

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The Rose of Tralee escorts have made it through a training ‘boot camp’ in Co Kerry. Picture: Domnick Walsh
Inside the Rose of Tralee escort training a.k.a. 'bootcamp for gentlemen'

An entire article in itself could be devoted to questioning why the escorts need to complete a boot camp which involves cooking meat on a shovel, and how this ties into the expectation that all men have to conform to masculine stereotypes to be seen as valuable in our society. However there’s so much other stuff to unpack here that we’ll have to leave it for another day.

Why is that woman trying to shuffle to an LMFAO song in a gown?

To its credit, the entertainment portion isn’t mandatory for Roses. It’s not factored into the judging process, they just give the women the option of doing so for the purpose of 'entertainment', as the 2018 Application form reads.

I’m not so joyless that I don’t see that this is ultimately just a bit of craic, but if this is meant to be about a woman’s personality then why are they singing? 

Or dancing to Party Rock Anthem, a moment that is forever burned in my memory?

Or impersonating a dolphin?

Or the Oedpial nightmare that was a Rose tucking Daithí Ó Sé into a little bed and reading him a story?

I’m not saying that any of these activities are demeaning or discredit women, but they become quite charged when placed in the context of a competition in which women are being coiffed and paraded onto a stage. When all these factors are considered together, one can’t help but feel like the women are the spectacle here. If anything, that was the whole point of the competition to be founded - a spectacle of women concocted both to mirror the traditional 'Carnival Queen' contest and to bring money into the town and drum up business for the local businessmen who conceived the idea in a pub.

What is the 'truth in her eyes'? Why is this the backbone of the judging process?

I’ve spent a lot of time discussing the things that are apparently not part of the judging process, but what about the things that are? Drawing from the 19th ballad which inspired the competition’s name, judges are advised to look for the 'truth' in the eyes of the Roses. What concerns me about this, besides it being vague, is that it could be interpreted as a thinly veiled reference to some kind of purity, which would be unsurprising but definitely insulting and weird. I appreciate that having the judging criteria be more explicitly laid out wouldn’t be much better, but seriously?

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Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins

Telling the truth didn’t exactly work out well for Brianna Parkins. Even though she merely expressed her earnestly held beliefs about Ireland’s abortion laws and how desperately they need to be repealed, she caused scandal both inside the Dome and out, and messages calling her a “baby murdering whore” filled her email box for months and months after the competition ended. Daithí Ó Sé even went so far as to say that the competition was not the place for the women to be “airing their political views”, in their words just expressing opinions. They want truth in the eyes, but not out of their mouths, it seems.

'I had death threats and rape threats - but it was worth it' - last year's Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins reflects on a 'strange' year

Regardless of my objections, many still derive a lot of joy from the Rose of Tralee, be it through their own involvement or crowded around watching it with family on television. I’m not going to rain on anyone’s parade, but I think if this competition really wanted to value and celebrate the great women who get involved, it could stand to update its rules and practices.

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