Inside the Rose of Tralee escort training a.k.a. 'bootcamp for gentlemen'
Before the annual Rose of Tralee sweeps us off our feet, the escorts not only have to be suited and booted, but are put through their paces to ensure they can handle the pressures of the festival. Wayne O'Connor went along to 'escort bootcamp' to find out more
What does it take to be a Rose of Tralee escort? That's what I wanted to find out when I joined the so-called 'escort bootcamp' in Co Kerry last weekend.
The festival itself might still be more than two months away but already, the 65 young men who will chaperone the contestants are honing the skills they'll need to ensure their Roses are kept happy.
In order to qualify for the prestigious role, the men must be between the ages of 21 and 30, born in Ireland or have Irish heritage, be unmarried and raise €1,500 in sponsorship. Once they've landed the gig, their role is to ensure that each Rose wants for nothing and is kept happy throughout the festival.
"They are a combination of bodyguard, friend, emotional support and a personal assistant," says former Kerry Rose Laura Costelloe. "They keep everything running on time and really help us keep to schedule. There are a lot of places to be and things to see, so the escorts really help to make life easier and ensure everything goes to plan. The roses really should not want for anything."
Colm Croffy was an escort in 1998 and 1999. Now he's head of Rose escorts at the festival and has been working on selecting this year's crop since November. More than 200 people applied, and 170 of these were interviewed over Skype to see if they were suitable candidates.
Background and character checks were carried out on the most suitable contenders. After interviews, the final 65 were brought to Kerry for an intense training programme - like an escort bootcamp.
They set up camp in the seaside village of Castlegregory on the Dingle peninsula last weekend. Keys, wallets and phones were taken from them and they were tasked with pitching tents and building campfires.
"We wrapped the meat in tinfoil on a shovel and then put the shovel on the coals so it kind of acted as a frying pan," said Conor Caufield (25), an escort from Co Monaghan whose works as a business analyst at KBC.
"It was definitely a new experience eating a steak fresh off a shovel. My sister was the Monaghan Rose last year so I saw first-hand the experience and fun she had, and thought this was something I would like to do."
The men come from an eclectic mix of backgrounds: there are students, gardai, teachers, an Italian chef, a reporter from RTÉ 2FM and an architect in the mix. All will be expected to behave in a manner that befits the festival's wholesome image.
"If they can't hold their own at a boring Ferrero Rocher reception, they are no good to us," says Colm.
"They have to explain and defuse and distract. Just remain mannerly at all times. Be courteous. No lewd or loud behaviour, no aggression, ultimate tact and diplomacy and to not carry out any behaviour that would impugn the character of himself or his colleagues. The rule of thumb is that if your grandmother would be embarrassed about what you did, then don't do it. The idea of the bootcamp is to train up the escorts to let them know what they are getting themselves in for."
A packed schedule at the weekend's training camp had the escorts climbing Mount Brandon, surfing, abseiling, kayaking, swimming, running, and taking a seaweed bath before a visit to one of the country's longest caves. And that's just Saturday. On Sunday, the group went paintballing, crushed corn at a windmill outside Tralee, and got fireman lessons at Tralee Fire Station to equip them for an emergency.
There was also a very important recce of Tralee town and a glimpse at their accommodation for the festival so the men could get their bearings.
It may sound like an adventure holiday, but Colm says the tasks are important to build team morale among the escorts.
"I told the guys on Sunday evening that if they are tired now, they must remember we have only done a day-and-a-half of festival week. There are three parades and the tragedy for most of these guys is that they will be on their feet for more than 19 hours every day. If they are not reasonably fit they are going to be in a spot of bother."
There is no time for romance, he insists, although one escort, Mark Duffy (24), a student from Mayo, said he would not rule it out: "If something happens, it happens."
All of the men are united with one aim though - to meet new people and make friends from across the globe.
Shane Kenny (24) is from Tralee and the reigning escort of the year. "I now have friends from places as far apart as Australia and the US and they will always have this to link them for the rest of their lives. It is fantastic," he says.
Isn't all this escort business just a bit old-fashioned though?
"One opinion suggests that it is very twee and old-fashioned to have a chaperone running around a fair maid, and that it is medieval and it reduces the girl and her independence," says Colm.
"But the growth of social media means everyone now wants a selfie with a Rose. If she is there being watched by judges and representing Boston or Ballyhaunis, she is not going to want to put a foot wrong. The escort is very good at intervening there and saying 'sorry, we have to go to our next function'."
Sceptics see the Rose of Tralee as a faintly outdated six-hour TV show that does little more than remind viewers that it is almost time to go back to school after the holidays. However, the occasion is something far more important. "It's culture, it's emigration, everything," says Mark. "This is a celebration of our history and our diaspora."