The road to Tralee
Getting to the Rose of Tralee final isn't exactly, er, a bed of roses. It takes tenacity and talent more than looks to bag a coveted place in the Dome, as Roscommon Rose Deirdre Cribbin tells our reporter
There's just one more day until 'Rose of Tralee' invariably trends on Twitter. Marking the official end of the Irish summer, the live spectacular taking place on RTÉ One at 8pm this Monday and Tuesday night has become as immutable a fixture in the national television calendar as The Late Late Toy Show. For Roscommon Rose Deirdre Cribbin, however, the journey to the Dome began more than two decades ago, when she first sat glued to the TV event as a child.
"It's such a part of growing up in Ireland," Deirdre says. "There was no question about it - we just watched it. I've always wanted to do it. I was actually going to apply last year, but the time just wasn't right for me. I was finishing college at the time and I had plans to go travelling."
But later in the year, when she was curled up on the couch watching the 2016 competition with boyfriend, Evan, Deirdre realised it was now or never. "I'm 27 so it's my last chance," she says, referring to the fact that the rules of the competition stipulate that Roses must be under 28. "So, I contacted the chairperson of the Roscommon Rose Committee and I filled out an application. There was a whole interview process, then there was the selection night itself in the Abbey Hotel. I really don't know what made them pick me - all of the other girls were fantastic - but I'm glad they did anyway!"
Of course, it's not hard to see why the committee did choose the Castleplunkett woman to attempt to bring the crown to Roscommon for the first time since the festival began in 1959. A primary school teacher - she did her BA in Irish, geography and children's studies at NUI Galway before studying primary education at Hibernia College - she has volunteered in a South African township and worked with Childline. Now, as well as running a weekly Irish club for children, she is a member of the Civil Defence. In short, she's a perfect applicant for what even those who dislike the competition can't deny is one of the most high-profile jobs in the country.
A few days after she was selected as Roscommon Rose, the Festival Committee got in touch to send the schedule and what she'd need for Tralee. "They've been in contact with us a lot and they've been a great support," Deirdre says, adding that the WhatsApp group the 64 Roses share is another great resource. "It's busy, so I'm very lucky that I've been off for the summer. I don't know how some of the other girls are doing it, who are working Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm. It's full-time, but at the same time, I only have it for the year, so I am making an effort to go to as many things and to wear the sash as much as I can - I won't get this chance again."
Up to three-quarters-of-a-million viewers are expected to tune in this Tuesday to find out who will follow in the footsteps of Chicago Rose Maggie McEldowney. For the 64 women from around the world vying for the title, however, representing their region is an honour that started months ago, and goes on long after the Garda Band has packed up and gone home.
Since being crowned at the Roscommon Rose Ball in April, Deirdre jokes that she's already had a taste of the kind of celebrity that lifting the Tipperary Crystal tiara would bring - and she's loving every minute of it. "The day after I was selected, I was in the Easter Parade in Roscommon town," she recalls. "I've been in the local newspapers nearly every week since. There's signs gone up all around my village saying 'Best of Luck to Deirdre, our Rossie Rose' with my photo on them. I'm driving past and there I am on the side of the road!
"I've people coming up to me on the street and wishing me luck, and that's lovely. It's strange for me to be recognised by people that don't know me, but I could get used to it! I think because the Rose of Tralee is an international festival, and it's such a huge part of Irish culture and history: for people to have someone local in it really is a big deal. Everyone is just so proud."
Like all of the other hopefuls, Deirdre had to secure an entry fee of €250, which was covered by her sponsor, The Lilac Rooms at Rosmed Pharmacy. "I've been very lucky: local businesses have sponsored me. I'm a customer, so I approached The Lilac Rooms and they were quite happy. They looked after me for treatments leading up the festival, too."
Although everything from accommodation to food is looked after by the festival once the Roses get to Tralee - as well as hair and make-up for the Rose Ball and televised interviews - in the months leading up to it, some secure individual sponsors for hair, make-up, clothes and shoes for their regional events.
Deirdre benefited from the sponsorship of local boutiques, who provided some of her dresses. "My stage dress was sponsored too, which was a great help. I'm really into clothes and fashion, so I did have a good stock in the wardrobe and I have borrowed as much as I could. I'm sharing with the Ohio Rose and she has said she'll do my hair if I do her make-up - we've made that little pact."
Perhaps the greatest party piece any of the Roses pull off behind the scenes each year is packing for the 10-day festival. "I do love my fashion, so I might have gone a little bit overboard," laughs Deirdre. "I'd say I have between 15 and 20 outfits."
The Roses must run their chosen gown by the Festival Committee to ensure no two contestants end up wearing the same dress on stage, but Deirdre says that's as far as the fashion policing - or thought policing, for that matter - goes. "We all send on photos [of the dress] to Tralee. I presume if there's any issues, they'll contact us. It's quite open: we're not told what to do or what to wear. It's what we feel comfortable in and whatever reflects the girl's personality and choice."
Not that the Rose is all about dresses and make-up - far from it, says Deirdre. Annual comparisons to the Father Ted 'Lovely Girls' pageant, with its 'lovely laugh' and 'sandwich-making' segments, are wholly unfair to the women who give 12 months of their life to the organisation, she insists. "Everyone is entitled to their opinion and that's fine. But for me, it's not a beauty pageant at all. I suppose everyone does associate the Rose of Tralee with well-presented women, but it's not the biggest part of it.
"As a child, I would have been looking at the dresses. Then when I became a teenager, and I started growing up a little bit more, I realised there was so much more to it and just how accomplished and talented these women were. What I really liked about it was that it was so much about personality - these were really, really intelligent women. I hope that people do see that the festival is moving forward. It's moving with the times. I don't think it's outdated. I hope it runs forever."
Deirdre cites Maria Walsh, the 2014 Rose of Tralee who came out as gay during her tenure, and Sydney Rose Brianna Parks - who last year called for a repeal of the Eighth Amendment - as examples of just how far the festival has come over the past six decades. "Maria was fantastic. She really was a great ambassador for the festival and she was definitely representative of modern Irish women. She had some tattoos, she came out as gay, and it was all normal - it wasn't any big shocker for me.
"I hope that young Irish women that are watching the Rose of Tralee are looking up to us, because I remember I did."
Let's face it, though: most people only tune in for the frocks - and the frock-ups, such as last year's controversial televised 'Rose Cull'. Should she make it to the live final, Deirdre has an on-trend off-the-shoulder gown from Padanee Bridal Boutique in Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim, ready to go, as well as a back-up dress, and plans to perform the haka - the Maori war cry - as Gaeilge.
Among the usual army of proud parents in the audience, Deirdre is set to be cheered on by her mam, Mary; dad, Louis, and siblings, Kevin, Mark and Gráinne, as well as her aforementioned fella of five years. But she's not expecting a repeat of the 2013 Rose of Tralee final, when Molly Molloy Gamble's boyfriend Kyle got down on bended knee on stage. Blindsided, the New Orleans Rose infamously said "no" 11 times before finally accepting the proposal and saying "I do" a year later.
"Some sort of romance does usually come out of the Rose of Tralee, but I don't think it'll be me this year," laughs Deirdre. "Evan has been a great support - he's delighted. "I was sitting beside him last year watching the Rose of Tralee when I actually looked up the age limit. I said, 'Do you know what - I'm going to go for this next year,' and he said, 'Do'.
"When I won in Roscommon, I didn't get to see him immediately, as there were so many people coming up to me. I got to see him maybe half an hour after being selected. I just said, 'I can't believe I won.' I'll never forget he said: 'Well, I can - of course you did.' From then on, he has just been behind me 100pc. He's been brilliant."
With odds of 33/1, ultimately Deirdre may have a tough time beating this year's favourites, including Dublin Rose Maria Coughlan and San Francisco Rose Amanda Donohoe. As Roscommon's only hope of lifting any silverware in 2017, however, she's not going to the Dome to lose, either.
"Seeing as we're not going to get the Sam Maguire this year, it would be nice," concedes Deirdre. "I'm sure I would be upset if I didn't get on stage. But it's really not the be-all-and-end-all. My main goal is to enjoy it and get the most out of it, and I'll be there to support whoever gets through and whoever doesn't get through.
"The title of the Rose of Tralee would be a huge bonus."