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War of the Roses

Rose of Tralee Day One: A GAA raffle meets The X Factor meets a job interview

Three hours of television at which soundness is to the fore.

THERE ARE BALL gowns, there are tuxedoes. Family members have brought banners and posters and cardboard cutouts of young women. The competitive Debs-ing is underway for yet another year.

Rose of Tralee 2023 marks the second year running that the festival’s main event is not housed in the iconic Dome. These days the televised section of the festival – known to festival veterans as the Selection Nights – takes place in the Tralee campus of Munster Technological University. More specifically: in the Kerry Sports Academy.

In the corner of the gym reception hall, a jazz duo – appropriately named the Foyer Jazz Band – plays mood-setting renditions of You’ve Got A Friend In Me, Baker Street, and If I Were a Rich Man, from Fiddler On The Roof, the seminal musical about what it meant to be Jewish in Russia at the turn of the century. A screen playing a slideshow over reception advertises the gym opening hours and the hydro class timetable and occasionally plays a message wishing the Roses luck.

At one point, one man excitedly asks his wife for a camera and when she asks him who it is he wants a photo with he says “Michael Healy-Rae!”

Much reporting of Irish cultural events is fighting the overwhelming urge to look around you and say: “Sure, where else you get it?”. It’s not a very satisfying observation, after all, but there is something quintessentially Irish about this: a GAA raffle meets The X Factor meets a job interview.

As for the show itself, tonight was the first time that RTÉ’s Rose of Tralee broadcast will have a co-host in the form of Kathryn Thomas alongside Daithí. Carpet has been laid down over gymnasium flooring and temporary seating accommodates an audience of no less than 1,400 people. 

While the panel of judges has spent the last week with the 32 Roses (in order to inform their final decision), the public at large has only around five minutes to assess the vibe of each individual Rose.

Nominally, the winner is meant to best capture the spirit of the woman described in folk song Rose of Tralee, the “lovely and fair” bit in particular. The song also mentions “the truth in her eyes ever dawning”, which sounds like a high bar to clear for anyone who doesn’t have the gift of prophecy. By and large, though, it seems the core criterion for being selected as the Rose of Tralee is that most Irish of ideals: soundness.

At the risk of appearing overly earnest, it bears pointing out that within this weird paradigm, tonight’s Roses consistently brought nothing but “credit to their family” vibes to the table, making for three hours of television that is unfailingly sound.

The Offaly Rose speaks eloquently on her experience with bullying (who would ever bully this woman?) while the San Francisco Rose tells Kathryn about working as a firefighter and says that finding a fellow woman in a male-dominated profession is the quickest way to forge a bond, before drawing comparison to her sisterhood with her fellow roses.

The Arizona Rose’s name is Ashley Jackson, which is the most Arizona Rose name you could possibly come up with. The Wexford Rose talks about the sanctuary school where she works and says the kids teach her more than she teaches them. The Limerick Rose speaks about her experience of autism spectrum disorder before singing that song from the Little Mermaid. The London Rose delivers one of the finest flute performances I’ve ever seen — and I’ve seen, well, not that many, but the point stands.

Did I well up multiple times? Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t. This is my article, I don’t need to tell you anything. I am an admittedly easy mark, but you can’t tell me that this isn’t nice.

Sure, parts of it are a bit rushed, like one moment when, in response to hearing the name John Hume, Kathryn Thomas simply said: “What a man.” Though, in fairness, she isn’t technically wrong.

At the halfway mark, it seems unclear why the Rose of Tralee needs a winner, exactly.

If anything we should be widening the net and going through the entire population, inviting people one-by-one onto a stage in a Kerry gym hall made up to look like one of the ballrooms on the Titanic to put our best selves forward while a scandal-free RTÉ host says something like “Aren’t you fantastic?”

Nevertheless, there will be a winner. Tonight, we saw the first 18 candidates, and tomorrow we’ll meet the remaining 14. 

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