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The Kingdom's Rose


Now and then... Kerry's only Rose, Margaret O'Keeffe and (inset) how she appeared at the Rose Festival in 1964.

Now and then... Kerry's only Rose, Margaret O'Keeffe and (inset) how she appeared at the Rose Festival in 1964.

Now and then... Kerry's only Rose, Margaret O'Keeffe and (inset) how she appeared at the Rose Festival in 1964.

BY 1964 what had been dubbed 'the Greatest Free Show on Earth' was well-established in the Irish psyche as the Rose of Tralee Festival went from strength to strength.

With more visitors, more activities and more events only one thing still eluded the people of Tralee and County Kerry — to have one of their own crowned Rose of Tralee.

As the 14 Roses arrived in Tralee in August 1964, among them was the beautiful 18-year old Margaret O'Keeffe, the daughter of Jack and Madge O'Keeffe of Oakpark, Tralee — the young woman who was about to change all that.

Margaret, who had tragically lost her father Jack the previous year, was 17 years old when a young gentleman from Listowel asked her to a dance in the Manhattan Hotel, now better known as Ballygarry House Hotel, in March of 1964.

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"I was asked to the dance and I believe the young gentleman in question had gone to a lot of trouble having borrowed his suit and tie from none other than John B. Keane" said Margaret told The Kerryman this week.

"The selection of the Tralee Rose was held at the ball; to my surprise, I was selected as the Tralee Rose. From there on it was all a bit of a whirlwind; I had only turned 18 in May."

Margaret recalled how the level of excitement grew around her in the run-up to the Rose selection that August. "The Dublin Rose was the bookies' favourite year, they didn't give me good odds at all!" she said.

As festival week arrived, the festivities went up a notch.

"I suppose it was kind of like the way it is today; we had a fabulous time — we enjoyed lovely garden parties, sailing trips, a visit to the golf club, day-trips out to the countryside — it was wonderful."

"I remember my photo being taken with Brendan Boyer — I was a huge fan of Elvis and Brendan Boyer at the time and was blown away by the fact he had his arm around me!"

On Rose Selection night in the Ashe Memorial Hall the excitement was palpable and Margaret recalls coming before a diverse selection of judges.

"There was a rose grower from Co. Down, a Mr. McCreedy who had left the North because of the Troubles; he was a lovely gentleman indeed. He was joined by another Rose grower from Holland, an Aer Lingus representative and a lady named Dot Tubridy who was a friend of the Kennedys."

"Kevin Hilton was compere on the night; I also remember thinking that he was a gorgeous man," Margaret recalled.

As the Ashe Memorial Hall fell silent and Margaret's name was called, announcing that the young Tralee woman had become Tralee's and indeed Kerry's first Rose of Tralee, she was overwhelmed by a great sense of pride.

"Being a Tralee person I was really pleased and proud to be crowned the Rose of Tralee" said Margaret, "It was a great feeling." To this day, Margaret remains the only Kerry Rose to have won the coveted title of Rose of Tralee.

Margaret subsequently went on to train as a general nurse in Galway before training as a midwife in the Combe in Dublin. She married Connemara man Ned O'Flynn and they had a son and a daughter. She also spent some time in New York and Bordeaux before settling in Co. Wicklow.

"After all the excitement, nursing brought me back down to earth" said Margaret. "However, over the years I have managed to retain links to the Festival, having judged a few Rose selections in the UK. I am even still in contact with my friend Noreen who was the Sydney Rose in 1964."

Since her devoted husband Ned has passed away, she plans to attend this year's Rose Ball with her sister Jackie Dillon, who lives in Tralee and is looking forward the 50th anniversary celebrations.

"We are welcomed back with open arms every year and normally around seven or 10 Roses will attend; this year we are expecting in the region of 42 so it's very exciting!" said Margaret.

"I am still very proud and honoured to have represented Tralee and have become Kerry's first Rose of Tralee."