Monday 22 October 2018

‘When the Roses were all in bed sure we hit the town then!’ - the familiar faces who were escorts at the Rose of Tralee

Damien O'Reilly (centre) with the Dublin Rose and her escort 1996
Damien O'Reilly (centre) with the Dublin Rose and her escort 1996
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Among this year's batch of Rose of Tralee escorts is Jackie Healy Rae Junior, the grandson of the late great Jackie Healy Rae senior and son and nephew or of TDs Michael and Danny.

The 22-year-old Kerryman, who works for his father, might have quite a high profile himself but he has happily taken a back seat this week as the Washington Rose's escort.

To earn a coveted spot as an escort he had to endure rounds of interviews followed by a bootcamp on the Wild Atlantic Way.

Things were different 20 years ago when RTE Radio 1 Countrywide presenter Damien O'Reilly made his way to Tralee having become an escort "almost by accident".

It was 1995 and he was working on Shannonside Northern Sound radio when he as asked to MC for the Cavan Rose selection.

"I was asked to do the Daithi O Se or Gay Byrne as it was at the time and I remember being on stage in the Slieve Russell interviewing all the contestants and Michelle Murphy won.

"The following day I was interviewing her on my radio programme and she asked me afterwards would I go with her for the Ulster selection which was the following week. 

Read more: 'Absolutely not and I'd be upset if I was' - Jackie Healy Rae Jr won't be getting any special treatment as a Rose of Tralee escort

"I said 'yeah, brilliant' and I went along as her escort although I barely knew her!   She won the Ulster Rose and then lo and behold I was down in Tralee in the middle of this mad place.

"Back then the Roses could bring anyone they wanted as escorts, so a lot of them brought their boyfriends.  Other guys did apply to be escorts too. 

"But I'm sure our credentials were checked out.  I did go down to do an interview so they could kind of go through the formality of seeing who I was and was I alright. 

"No Rose was obviously going to bring a headbanger"  They trusted the Roses; 'If you’re happy we’re happy'.  Now it’s more professional in terms of the bootcamp and sponsorship for escorts."

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Damien O'Reilly presents Countrywide on RTE Radio 1

No sponsorship meant the lads had to fork out to rent tuxedos and pay for an apartment which they shared with other escorts for the week of the festival.

"I went down not knowing anybody and I got to know the lads," says Damien.  "We all became buddies.  I can’t say I stayed in touch with anyone but we had great craic.  We were young and eager and fit and healthy!"

The following year was a case of deja vu for Damien when the next Cavan Rose, Rose Marie Howden, asked him to be her escort.  He didn't hesitate in saying yes.

"I never went back after those two years and I don't think I've even watched it since but those two years down there were brilliant," he says.

"We were treated really well and it was like film star sort of stuff the two nights of the TV.  The Roses were staying in the Bandon Hotel and we had to walk them over across the road to the Dome. 

"People were screaming and it was like going to the Oscars sort of thing, not that I’ve been to the Oscars!  We had to walk a red carpet so it was a bit of a thrill alright.  You’re 22 or 23 or whatever and it’s  a bit of craic. 

"When the Roses were all in bed sure we hit the town then. But there was no hi jinx.  I think maybe the year before something had happened so we were warned to behave ourselves; 'There's media out there so don't do anything wrong or you'll end up in the paper.'

"We were just told to be careful.  Every media organisation in the country was down there so you knew not to do anything you shouldn't be doing."

Damien says he never "grew up wanting or dreaming to be an escort" but he would have no qualms about his son Patrick (11) going for it when he's older.

"It's a good bit of fun - like being at a four or five day wedding.  Everyone's happy and dressed up and going out and attending different functions and dinners.  It's great fun."

Damien is not the only escort who has gone on to forge a career in the public eye.

Former Lord Mayor of Dublin Royston Brady was an escort for the Washington Rose and then graduated to become a Rose of Tralee judge.

in 2006 he explained what he was looking for in a Rose, "Someone who is direct and not afraid to express an opinion... the old days are gone."

Comedy act: Alan Shortt and Abie Philbin Bowman in RTE's 'Irish Pictorial Weekly'

The Rose of Tralee actually helped to launch the comedy career of Alan Shortt, best known for Bull Island and Irish Pictorial Weekly. 

He got his first break as a comedian when Gay Byrne brought him on stage during the Rose Selection to tell a few jokes.

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Carl Mullan

Last year 2FM reporter and DJ Carl Mullan was an escort.  After his stint, the 27 year old told the Irish Examiner, "I’m absolutely exhausted, physically and emotionally, but in a good way."

He added, "I've never laughed as much in life.  I've made 130 new friends - I'd highly recommend it.

US President Barack Obama visits the Dubliner, an Irish pub in Washington DC, with Irish cousin Henry Healy (centre) and Ollie Hayes, a pub owner in Moneygall Picture: Pete Souza

Back in 2013, President Obama's 8th cousin, Henry Healy from Moneygall in Co Offaly, was chosen to be an escort.

He was paired with New Zealand Rose Judeena Carpenter but went on to find love with the Clare Rose Marie Donnellan.

Read more: 'I can brew tea, I can tweet, I make my own bed/But this isn't a talent everyone said' - we'll be missing the Rose of Tralee poems tonight

Fun and games for Roses as competition steps up a gear 4 ways to bring The Rose of Tralee out of 1967 and into 2017


'Since when is being lovely a bad quality to have?' - Rachael O'Brien writes in defence of the Rose of Tralee



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