Monday 24 September 2018

From unmarried mums to the first gay Rose: the defining moments of an evolving contest

Toronto Rose Carly McGrath, escorts Patrick Cashman and Thomas
Roche, Melbourne Rose Suzie Jackson, Yorkshire Rose Alana Gallagher and Abu Dhabi Rose Sara Kate Mangan on surf boards in
the Maharees, Co Kerry. Photo: Domnick Walsh
Toronto Rose Carly McGrath, escorts Patrick Cashman and Thomas Roche, Melbourne Rose Suzie Jackson, Yorkshire Rose Alana Gallagher and Abu Dhabi Rose Sara Kate Mangan on surf boards in the Maharees, Co Kerry. Photo: Domnick Walsh

Sorcha O'Connor

It's tempting to look at the festival in Tralee with Rose-tinted glasses as a harmless beauty competition with a bit of Irish dancing and Dáithí. But for many reasons, the event in the Dome has proved much more than that.

There were defining moments of the contest that reflected the mood of the nation and created a national conversation.

Alice O'Sullivan, the first ever Rose from 1959. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan
Alice O'Sullivan, the first ever Rose from 1959. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan

The Rose of Tralee has evolved from a conservative contest which restricted unmarried mothers from entering, to one which kicked off the debate on topics such as gay marriage and abortion.

It might not be to everyone's taste, but for almost 60 years the festival has captured our imagination and fired up discussion.

Unmarried mothers

Unmarried mothers were allowed to enter from 2008. This year, 'mammy Rose' Shauna Ray Lacey will represent Carlow, the only mum in the bunch. The 24-year-old has a three-year-old daughter Emmy.

Dublin Rose Siobheal Nic Eochaidh, bottom, during her hip-hop dance routine on stage at the festival in 2011. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Dublin Rose Siobheal Nic Eochaidh, bottom, during her hip-hop dance routine on stage at the festival in 2011. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Mixed-race contestants

1998 was the year of the first mixed-race Rose, but it wasn't until 2010 that there was a mixed-race winner. Dr Clare Kambamettu, from Athy, Co Kildare, who had an Irish mother and an Indian father, was the London Rose.

Originally, only women from Tralee were eligible to take part, but in the early 1960s it was extended to all Kerry women and in 1967 it was further extended to include any woman of Irish birth or ancestry.

The first gay Rose

Rose of Tralee 2010 winner Clare Kambamettu. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan
Rose of Tralee 2010 winner Clare Kambamettu. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan

Maria Walsh revealed she was gay after winning the 2014 crown. The Philadelphia Rose, who grew up in Shrule, Co Mayo, quickly became the nation's sweetheart when she stated she was out and proud.

Abortion topic raised

In 2016, Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins caused shockwaves when she spoke out about abortion and called for a repeal of the Eighth Amendment. "I think it is time to give women a say on their own reproductive rights," she said. "I would love to see a referendum." Her wish was granted this year.

Male hosts

The festival has always been hosted by a man, except for one year, when in 1977 festival stalwart Gay Byrne's wife Kathleen Watkins stepped in on the night.

Romancing the Roses

Dáithí Ó Sé has been a pillar of the festival since he started presenting in 2010.

Before that he was on the judging panel and came face to face with his future wife Rita Talty in 2008 as the New Jersey Rose. New Orleans Rose Molly Molloy Gamble caused a stir in 2013 when she said 'no' 11 times after her boyfriend Kyle Catlett got down on bended knee. The couple happily married the following year.

The reel thing

Siobheal Nic Eochaidh was etched in memories of festival fans when she deviated from the traditional reel in 2011 to show off hip-hop moves on stage.

Transgender contestants

Some say the final frontier for the contest is a transgender Rose. The festival's rules state applicants must be aged at least 18 but not turn 28 by September 1 and must never have been married - but when it comes to gender, the form simply says 'female'.

Festival chiefs have said that a transgender Rose is not something they are actively considering, but any female is welcome to enter.

Irish Independent

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