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Why the Rose of Tralee should embrace the only diaspora that matters this year.

Stephen Fernane


Stephen Fernane asks if this year's Rose of Tralee Festival should honour Kerry's Ukrainian community given its strong links with diaspora, culture and emigration. 

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The iconic Rose of Tralee statue in Tralee Town Park.

The iconic Rose of Tralee statue in Tralee Town Park.

The iconic Rose of Tralee statue in Tralee Town Park.

kerryman

The Rose of Tralee ballad is a story of love, loss, war, and emigration. Even though we claim it as Kerry’s official anthem, its lyrics represent thematic moods that are universal and personal.

It’s not overstretching it to explore the mutual themes that exist between the famous nineteenth-century ballad - as we in Kerry understand it - and the emotional hurt and displacement from the war in Ukraine.

Thousands of women and children are currently grieving for the loss of home and loved ones as we speak, a large proportion of them in Kerry where they are welcomed with open arms.

The Rose of Tralee’s idyllic symbolism is everyone’s to decode and make of it what they will. It’s why, I feel, this year’s festival should consider making Ukraine’s diaspora part of the party in a symbolic way.

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‘In the far fields of India, ‘mid wars dreadful thunders, /Her voice was a solace and comfort to me, But the chill hand of death has now rent us asunder’.

This line from The Rose of Tralee is about loneliness during the Indian Rebellion of the mid-nineteenth century. It’s a ballad of separation in a time of war, something, it seems, that hasn’t changed much in over 160 years.

For the sake of artistic license, if one were to replace ‘India’ with ‘Ukraine’ and add in the emotion of Ukrainians living here, Kerry’s mythologised anthem suddenly has more authentic significance.

For this reason, 2022 creates an unusual scenario for the Festival of Kerry. It’s not often the message behind the allegorical lines of its famous balled - love, loss, war, and emigration – are so vivid, relevant, and before our very eyes.

Far be it from me to tell the organisers of the Festival of Kerry how to run things. They do a good job of this without my fussy intervention.

But do we risk missing out on making our Ukrainian guests the centre of the festival, the origins of which is relatable to their own story?

Let’s look at it another way. The Festival of Kerry sources its identity from the Irish diaspora, a diaspora whose historic past is not dissimilar to Ukraine’s unfolding story in the here and now.

Each year during the live Rose selection, the world watches as Roses from various countries recite poems and stories about Irish emigration, usually with a rags to riches outcome. It’s a timeline of Ireland's journey with elegiac undertones at its centre.

The Roses are educated, confident and modern young women. They are proud to speak about family links with Famine ancestry, of relatives forced to leave Ireland, often because of the actions of a larger, less-than-empathetic neighbouring country. It all sounds familiar.

We might even ask: who better to relate with Ukrainians regarding forced migration than the Irish.

This is no random attempt to graft Ukraine’s darkest hour with some jolly festival in the remote southwest of Ireland for the sake of it.

There are, I believe, cultural and emotional nuances between the two that are worth utilising in a positive way.

Isolation and longing for home and loved ones is the cold reality for Ukrainians living in our community today. The Rose of Tralee’s origins- as both myth and festival - make it a medium, of sorts, for Ukraine’s diaspora.

The Festival of Kerry would be correct to make a correlation between the migration of Ukrainians and the re-emergence of cultural revival by an overseas community. After all, this is one of many functions of international Rose centres today.

It would be unfair to start listing every festival event next week that Ukrainians should be given a stage on which to show how proud and courageous they are.

The obvious ones include the centrepiece parades on Saturday and Sunday. These are ideally suited for Ukrainians to mark six months of resistance.

Equally, the live Rose selection from the Munster Technological University (MTU) raises opportunities for inclusion.

What better way to send a strong message then live television. Why not invite Ukrainian women on stage to tell a little of their story and the courage behind it.

Rose selection nights have become famous for entertaining sideshows: surprise engagements, escorts stealing the limelight, etc. But how about a platform for Ukrainians this year?

The Festival of Kerry need to include the Ukrainian community in as much of the entertainment as possible, especially children.

From what I gather, all 33 of this year’s Rose Buds have now been selected. I’m not sure if this number includes local Ukrainian girls. If not, perhaps there’s still time to do so.

By making Kerry’s Ukrainian diaspora a focal point of the Festival of Kerry, it ensures memories will be carried back to Ukraine in the future.

For such memories to find a permanent place in the hearts and minds of Ukrainians, it would surely symbolise the sincerest form of promotion the festival could wish for.

And just to add, a precedent for making Ukrainians feel included in Kerry festivals already exists. In May, Killorglin's K-FEST made its own moving gesture towards Ukraine.

They reached out to Ukrainian musicians and artists who fled to Ireland to avoid the conflict.

K-FEST invited them to perform and participate alongside local artists. A mural of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was even put on display in the town.

Are there artists and musicians within the Ukrainian community in Kerry who can perform during the Rose of Tralee festival?

In essence, any such gesture from the Festival of Kerry would be one of solidarity. The message need not be overly political, but one that recognises the personal sacrifice of Ukrainians in the face of persecution by Vladimir Putin.

During this year’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations almost every parade in Ireland invited its newly arrived refugees to front its parade. March marked the early days of the war in Ukraine when solidarity here was at fever pitch.

It’s not like that anymore. Life has moved on and there is less interest in Ukraine. This is even more reason to reach out to war-torn Ukrainians and include them in the Rose of Tralee.

Festival of Kerry personnel may already have considered and discussed this with the Ukrainian community.

Perhaps the latter respectfully declined the offer of being put in the spotlight during Kerry’s premier festival. That’s fair and understandable.

But if this isn’t the case, then it would be prudent to consider making them our Festival of Kerry VIPs for 2022.

After all, remembering and cherishing diaspora is what the Rose of Tralee is about. What better opportunity to do this when the eyes of the world are on Kerry.


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