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'Lovely Girl' festival going strong after half a century despite changing times

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'Ireland is a totally different place compared to when I took part,' says first Rose Alice O'Sullivan

'Ireland is a totally different place compared to when I took part,' says first Rose Alice O'Sullivan

Alice O'Sullivan at the 2009 launch yesterday with current Rose Aoife Kelly and broadcaster Ray D'Arcy, who will host the event as it celebrates its 50th year

Alice O'Sullivan at the 2009 launch yesterday with current Rose Aoife Kelly and broadcaster Ray D'Arcy, who will host the event as it celebrates its 50th year

Reigning Rose of Tralee, Aoife Kelly at the launch of the 2009 Rose of
Tralee in Dublin yesterday

Reigning Rose of Tralee, Aoife Kelly at the launch of the 2009 Rose of Tralee in Dublin yesterday

Alice O'Sullivan when she won the Rose of Tralee in 1959

Alice O'Sullivan when she won the Rose of Tralee in 1959

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'Ireland is a totally different place compared to when I took part,' says first Rose Alice O'Sullivan

It has been 50 years since a bashful girl of 18 donned the glittering tiara to become the first Rose of Tralee.

Original 'Lovely Girl' Alice O'Sullivan, from Dublin, will join fellow winning Roses from down through the years when the event's 50th anniversary is celebrated later this year.

Yesterday, she joined the reigning Rose, Tipperary's Aoife Kelly, to launch the search for the next crop of contestants.

Now aged 68, Alice still has the same unmistakable smile and sparkle in her eyes as when she was crowned half a century ago. However she has noticed a change in the ensuing years as contestants blossomed and became more self-assured.

"Ireland is a totally different place compared to when I took part, as we now see confident women from exotic places and, I must admit, they are light years away from the appallingly shy 1950s girl that I was," she said.

When Alice first took to the stage, the beauty pageant was part of an attempt to revamp the Tralee Carnival Queen competition, which had fallen by the wayside. A group of local astute business people decided that resurrecting the event would be a canny way of ensuring the crowds, flocking to race week, stayed overnight.

Relaunched under a new name and on a shoestring budget of just £750, the 1959 Rose of Tralee Festival was a relatively small affair, with girls representing just a handful of towns and cities, including Tralee, Dublin, London, Birmingham and New York. The selection process took place at a local dance, with Alice the ultimate winner.

At first, each Rose had to be a native of Tralee, but this condition was relaxed in the early 1960s to include any native of Kerry. However, by 1967 the rules had been loosened further so that a prospective Rose had merely to be of "Irish birth or ancestry".

The event later moved to a local cinema before moving to a bigger marquee and then the first Festival Dome in 1973. The original dome came a cropper on the final day of the 1983 festival when it was blown down in a storm.

Celebration

Now billed as a celebration of the "aspirations, ambitions, intellect, social responsibility and Irish heritage" of modern young women, the festival attracts entrants from as far afield as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Dubai.

Speaking on Dublin's Grafton Street, current Rose Aoife said: "I would encourage any woman to take part as it is an experience of a lifetime, regardless of the outcome."

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Broadcaster Ray D'Arcy will return for his fifth outing as host this August when, for the first time, 50 Roses will descend on Tralee to mark the event's Golden Jubilee. These will be whittled down by judges, with 32 appearing on television.

The 2009 winner will receive a prize worth €25,000 to fund a year of travel promoting the festival and Ireland. Entrants must be aged between 18 and 27 and can be nominated by clubs, associations, businesses or even by a proud mammy.

Meanwhile, for the boys, there is the chance to become an escort -- just don't try to hog the limelight.


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