As a child I spent deliciously long summer holidays in Tralee, County Kerry, my mother’s hometown. And every year holidays in Tralee were punctuated by the town’s most famous event: the Rose of Tralee festival, which is taking place now.
For the uninitiated, the Rose of Tralee bares close resemblance to a beauty pageant but it is supposed to be much, much more than that. To quote the eponymous 19th century ballad ‘it was not her beauty alone that won me’; no, the Rose of Tralee is supposed to be a celebration of the talents of exceptional young women of Irish birth or ancestry who represent different places in the world. Here are this year’s hopefuls: http://www.independent.ie/entertainment/festivals/summerfest/meet-the-65-roses-of-tralee-2015-31449603.html
Pass the sick bucket
Now, as entertainment it’s chintzy and horrendously un-alternative. As I write this, I’m watching the sort of nauseating documentary Irish state broadcaster RTE churns out in a futile attempt to keep pace with Anglo-American celebrity trash. It’s about the Rose of Tralee, specifically Alabama’s hopeful of 2014, a woman who appears to ooze vacuous white right wing America from her every pore and who was proposed to – live on air – by her boyfriend during last year’s festival. It’s resolutely the tiara and tears school of femininity.
As this indicates, the whole thing is, of course, very dated in its conception. Emanating from the reimagining of the town’s Carnival Queen contest by the local bourgeoisie in the 1950s, it’s a wonder that the event has survived at all, weathering the massive social and cultural changes of late twentieth century Ireland.
For even back when I was a kid, the festival was being pretty mercilessly lampooned. The most famous piss-take is probably the ‘Lovely Girls Contest’ featured in the ‘Rock a Hula Ted’ episode of Father Ted from 1996 which featured various parodies of homespun sexism (virginal young women on stage awkwardly undertaking competitive bouts of sandwich making, displaying their ability to walk between cones and to giggle coquettishly) with girl-next-door ‘Imelda’ eventually crowned winner by Ted. This was predated by Christy Moore’s 1987 song ‘Me and the Rose’, a brilliant ditty that satirises so much more than the Rose of Tralee but in its crooning rendition of the Victorian love song captures the erstwhile staidness of the Tralee event.
And I read in today’s Irish Times that there’s now a new Dublin stage comedy taking the mick, featuring characters such as the ‘typical Rose’ (Ashling, 24, lovely brown hair, spent three months in San Diego but oh how she missed her Irish creature comforts like Tayto crisps, loves her boyfriend and her mammy); the ‘unconventional Rose’ (butch, combative, wild farm girl from the Aran Islands) and the ‘escort’ (brash young local ladykiller).
One day, when you grow up, you could be an Escort
On this latter role, the Escort is another curiosity of the event. Every aspirant girl taking part in the competition gets a local male chaperone. Some of these lads are like rural stereotypes who have walked off the pages of a John B Keane satire: ‘eligible’ bachelors, Gammon-steak skin tone, probably set to inherit farm land with road frontage. I can safely lampoon them now (aged over thirty I’m debarred from ever becoming one) but as a kid we were half-jokingly encouraged to aspire to this role – hair neatly brushed, dickie-bow on, leading a gorgeous young woman around on your arm all week. And as a young lad, I’m afraid that the lipsticked beauties of the Rose of Tralee exerted some sort of pre-sexual fascination for me. These smiling young things paraded for the TV cameras as ideal specimens of conventional gender roles the nuances of which I didn’t fully understand. This was of course before I realised that the Rose of Tralee definitely wasn’t cool.
And maybe it’s because my teenage-honed and adult- perfected cynicism now bobs straight to the surface when I come across any coverage of the Rose of Tralee that I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s pointless to point and laugh any more. In fact, at this stage, the Rose of Tralee’s detractors and defenders both appear a little ridiculous in some of their earnestly held opinions.
Too easy to point and laugh
While skits on the Rose of Tralee like that in Father Ted retain their humour, the satire is now itself dated. It’s almost too easy to take the piss out of the Rose of Tralee.
Meanwhile, the pious protesters who maintain that the event is sexist are, in my opinion, correct in their view. But to point this out now appears so obvious as to be pointless. Of course the thing is cringey and of course it’s sexist. But like those cultural commentators who trot out Eamon de Valera’s 1943 St Patrick’s Day speech (complete with comely maidens) as evidence of the conservatism of Ireland at that time, one might respond “yeah, obviously” – but the idiom was, even for its time, self consciously escapist in its conservatism. To point and guffaw seems just a tad churlish at this stage.
Some of the festival’s defenders are just as bad. In response to the piss-takers, last year the festival chairman hit back, claiming the event is not about “paddy whackery, colleens on parade, Stepford wives tricked out as national stereotype”. Ah come on, of course it is, isn’t it?
Well, the festival organisers certainly won’t admit as much. As if to prove his point (and to demonstrate just how ‘with it’ the festival now is) last year, anticipating Ireland’s recent acceptance of gay marriage, we got the first openly lesbian Rose of Tralee. Look, the girls are no longer making sandwiches, they’re career women who don’t need no man to hold them back.
Like an aunt who has had Botox dancing wildly with young men at a wedding, the Rose of Tralee festival is now middle-aged and, like men and women of a certain age who are starting to fear the grim reaper and feel the need to desperately prove they’re still down with the fashion and dance crazes of the kids, the festival organisers’ attempts at modernisation are embarrassing.
What I’m getting at here is the fact that the Rose of Tralee, in somehow persisting through Irish social liberalisation, the ascent of materialism and the decline of Church power has – by virtue of its longevity – passed into the realm of postmodern unassailability. Because when it’s not trying ever so hard to keep up with the pace of modernity, the event self consciously parodies itself. In doing so, it ensures its success and defies the critics. It might be terrible, but, as the festival website puts it, the contest …
‘is based on the love song The Rose of Tralee, by William Mulchinock, a 19th century wealthy merchant who was in love with Mary O’Connor, his maid… When William first saw Mary he fell in love with her, but because of the difference in social class between the two families their love affair was discouraged. William emigrated, and some years later returned to Tralee only to find Mary had died of tuberculosis. He was broken hearted and expressed his love for her in the words of the song.’ How’s that for cloying romanticism? And why be ashamed of it? The Rose of Tralee need not strive to battle the modern tide. In continuing to embrace the mawkish sentimentality of its conception, it will safeguard its future.