Cohost Kathryn Thomas holds aloft the arm of winner New York Rose Róisín Wiley.
Lovely and Fair

The Rose of Tralee: A unique Irish artefact and a celebration of normal people doing their best

If you want drama and scandal, you have come to the wrong place.

LAST UPDATE | Aug 23rd 2023, 7:31 AM

“IT’S A CELEBRATION of the modern Irish woman.”

This is the theory of Tommy Cunningham. Cunningham, a primary school teacher from Kildare, was introduced to the television-watching citizens of Ireland on Monday night as Escort of the Year for the Rose of Tralee 2023, a title bestowed democratically by the Roses themselves.

That sentiment of celebration is one that the escorts appear to take very literally. Tonight, they kicked off the second evening of this year’s Rose of Tralee selection by forming a guard of honour and chanting Just Can’t Get Enough by Depeche Mode as the Roses made their entrance from the coach to the Kerry Sports Academy.

Aside: as this was unfolding, a television screen in the media room showed us Daithí Ó Sé on his back, his legs bare, rehearsing a skit for later on in the evening that would see him screaming as he pretends to get his legs waxed. This is what it’s like to be behind the scenes at the Rose of Tralee.

But back to Tommy Cunningham. During Tuesday’s press conference, he told reporters: “I’ve never been part of something so big that is so inclusive. I’ve never felt so included. I’ve been encouraged to be myself. I believe that they’re making great strides to keep with the times.”

Now if the strides are great, it’s probably because the festival had a tremendous amount of catching up to do.

Unmarried mothers were banned from the contest until 2008. Last year’s festival was the first time married women or trans women could participate. In that same year, the maximum age for a Rose was bumped up to 29, which remains the current age limit. Most of the strides have come very late in the day, with most surely in agreement that such rules were antiquated long before they were done away with.

Charlotte Burton, this year’s South Australia Rose and the first ever married Rose, spoke today about the modernisation of the festival, saying: “There are neurodivergent women. There are women who are dealing with grief. The experiences of so many different are represented.” 

It was a point that was borne out noticeably during tonight’s broadcast, which foregrounded grief through the story of Aisling O’Connor, the Clare Rose. Bringing cohost Kathryn Thomas quite visibly to tears, O’Connor spoke of how she and her five brothers had lost both parents in the last five years – her father in a tragic accident and her mother to breast cancer. 

The New Zealand Rose spoke about the loss of her brother. The Texas Rose Eden Kaspak spoke about volunteering in the aftermath of the Uvalde school shooting, which saw 19 students and two teachers murdered. It seems a surefire riposte to the idea that the festival can be reduced to a beauty pageant. If the country – including organisers, broadcasters and audience – wanted a beauty pageant, we surely wouldn’t seek out something so profoundly sad. 

This year’s festival will also likely be remembered for its discussion of autism. During her segment tonight, Burton told the audience about her experience of autism. “Sounds can be overwhelming, lights can be overwhelming. People can be overwhelming,” she said. This followed on from Limerick Rose Molli-Ann O’Halloran, who spoke yesterday about her own experience of autism.

Longford Rose Grace Kemple, on the other hand, demonstrated how to perform infant CPR on a dummy child to the soundtrack of Smooth Criminal by Michael Jackson.

The tiara was won in the end by New York Rose Róisín Wiley, who was selected by the judging panel of former Rose of Tralee Nicola Dunne, and broadcasters Nuala Carey and Ollie Turner.

So then, just what is the Rose of Tralee?

If you want drama, tension, scandal, you have come to the wrong place. If you are hoping for a scintillating sore-loser moment in which an unsuccessful Rose makes a lunge for the tiara, you will be disappointed. That’s the thing about holding a competition where one of the two qualifying criteria is fairness (the other, famously, being loveliness) — those who take part tend to be fair, rather than cartoonishly evil.

A smidgen of unpredictable combustibility would make for better television, but this annual celebration of normal people doing their best is probably better for social cohesion, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Undoubtedly the festival has further to go before it learns to thread the line of celebrating its tradition while also embracing people who sit outside of tradition. Asked whether she would support a further increase in the age cap, South Australia Rose Burton said: “I definitely wouldn’t be against it. I think it just depends what form they want the festival to take.”

“Right now, I think it’s a celebration of a certain stage in a woman’s life, a celebration of coming-of-age,” Burton told The Journal today. It is certainly that.

It is also a strange expression of competitive pleasantness. It’s a celebration of tradition, with all of the problematic limits that nebulous ideas like tradition tend to entail. It’s a bit of craic to be watched on TV and scrutinised as much or as little as the audience sees fit. It’s a major boon to the local economy of Tralee, a town of tens of thousands. And, as an older relative of one Rose put it to me, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.

It is the Rose of Tralee and, even as it evolves, it remains a resolutely unique cultural artefact.

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