Last week, I had the pleasure of taking a little trip to County Kerry, Ireland. The idea for the holiday was floated by my friends, Brendan and Beck. Brendan is from Cork and has visited Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula (where we stayed) several times before. In asking a bunch of us if we’d like to go, he mentioned that the trip would coincide with the Rose of Tralee International Festival.
I can almost see your blank faces and hear the inevitable question: “What on earth is the Rose of Tralee International Festival??”
I’m so glad you asked! In the simplest terms, it’s a strange amateur-ish pseudo beauty pageant competition thing which takes place every August in the small Irish town of Tralee. In truth, there’s really no simple way to explain this event, but I’m gonna give it my best shot in this post. Because while Brendan was definitely joking about the draw of the Rose of Tralee, Louise considered it the best reason for going on the trip. She eagerly waited for tickets to be released and snapped up a handful as soon as she could.
So last Monday, the four of us found ourselves sitting in the “Dome” – a temporary marquee that is decidedly not dome-like in the least – in the midst of a crowd of intense Rose fans, waiting for the first of two live shows to get going. I should mention that two other friends – Sam and Emma – were meant to join us on this trip, but an unfortunately timed and rather grim stomach bug prevented them from coming. This was a bummer for all of us as we were really looking forward to seeing them, but I think it was particularly distressing for Brendan as it meant he had to come along to RoT instead of letting Emma take the fourth ticket for a girls night out.
Now let me begin to try and explain exactly what this competition is… As I said before, it really is almost beyond explanation, but I will try to convey the amazingness of the experience for you. Louise had actually talked about it before, so it wasn’t a totally foreign concept to me when Brendan mentioned it. Louise became particularly fascinated by it when she happened to cycle through Tralee during the festival several years before. In explaining it to me in the past, she used this clip from beloved 1990’s sitcom Father Ted, which pokes fun at this type of local “lovely girls” competition:
Actually, the real Rose of Tralee does not feel radically different from that. There is something delightfully quaint and non-threatening about the whole thing. It is a million miles removed from the Miss America or Miss USA or Miss Teen USA or Miss Universe beauty pageants I grew up watching. And I think it’s safe to say that the girls competing in the Rose of Tralee would be horrified by the likes of Toddlers & Tiaras and its ilk.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up and deal with the questions I am sure you’re asking – questions like “Who are these women?” or “What are the eligibility requirements?” and “How does one make it to the final?” Oh dear, sweet reader. I wish any of one of these questions had a clear answer.
Despite attending the event in person and reading the website extensively, I am still pretty vague on how the whole thing works. One might expect that it’s just a bunch of Irish ladies, but actually there are women competing from all over the world. At no point during the televised event did anyone explain how the representation works or what the qualifications are. After years of watching Miss America, where every little moment is painstakingly explained as if the audience is a group of particularly stupid toddlers, I found it oddly disconcerting to be so clueless about the process. Therefore, for the benefit of my own sanity and because I am sure you’re all DYING to understand everything about RoT, herewith are some general rules I’ve cobbled together from my experience and perusal of the website:
1. The Roses must have some sort of Irish heritage. That makes sense, right? What is left unclear is the extent of Irish heritage required. Should they be able to trace it on both sides of their family? Do their parents need to be Irish or can it be a grandparent or great-grandparent? Or is it cool if they’ve just got an uncle who moved to Ireland on a whim after a tragic divorce and now speaks in a poor attempt at an Irish brogue? A lot of them seemed to have lived for at least a short period in Ireland – is this a requirement? I literally have no idea.
2. Each Rose represents an “Irish Centre” located somewhere in the world. This year, there were Roses from Canada! Australia! Dubai! England! USA! Luxembourg! Loads of other places! To make things more confusing, sometimes the Rose represents a whole country (i.e. Germany), sometimes she represents a city or state (i.e. London or North Carolina), and sometimes she represents a region (i.e. Western Canada, Southern Australia, or Boston & New England). And then of course, every county in Ireland has it’s own Rose. Again, at no point is it explained why the representation is kind of all over the place.
3. The Rose representing any given Centre does not have to be from that particular location. However, it seems that they do need to be currently living in that location…? So, for example, the Rose from Darwin, Australia (one of my personal faves – more on her below), grew up in Ireland and had only recently moved to Australia and had actually bounced around in Australia before settling in Darwin. That seemed to be more-or-less the story for most of the outside-of-Ireland representatives. There were quite a few who had grown up in Ireland and were now living elsewhere – like Luxembourg or Abu Dhabi – and therefore, represented that place. Even the girls from the States might have grown up in Texas but be currently living in New Orleans or something, but also spent a few of their childhood years living in Ireland while their dad had a midlife crisis. It was supremely confusing.
4. Not all the Roses appear in the live televised events. Apparently (according to the website), there is an earlier event called the Regional Festival which takes place about two months before the final. At that event, which follows the same exact formula as the final, ALL the Roses compete. At that point, they are all known as Regional Roses. It is unclear exactly how many there are – I can find no firm count of the number of Roses or Centres – but judging by the pic of all of them below, it seems to be 60 or so (I didn’t count). From that Regional Festival, 32 girls make the cut for the final competition at which point they become known as International Roses (even though lots of them were already “international”).
The final is televised over two nights. We went to the first of the two nights and saw 18 of the final 32 girls. Unlike Miss America and other similar pageants, the girls are never whittled down from that 32. They all participate fully until the winner is announced at the end of the second night. The entirety of the “competition” consists of them coming out onto the stage in a fancy dress and chatting for about 5 minutes with the host, local television personality Dáithí Ó Sé (who – I just discovered via Wikipedia – married one of the Roses in 2012. Wonderful.). Seriously, they more or less just have a little talk. They tell some little anecdote, they mention their boyfriend or their parents, they talk about where they live, they probably say something about the charity work they’re doing, they make a few jokes at the expense of their escort*, etc. etc. It’s very much like a late night TV interview where you know the host has been prepped to ask certain questions that lead the guest to tell very specific stories in a seemingly off-the-cuff manner.
There’s no bathing suit competition. There is no evening gown element. They don’t do an en masse choreographed dance at the start of the show or introduce themselves wearing stereotyped kitsch relating to their region/county/state/country (the opening number and weird introduction costumes are always the best part of Miss America, obvs). For some of them, there is literally nothing other than their little convo with Dáithí. They just walk off the stage when they’re done.
But those gals are in the minority; most of them do a little “talent” thing after their interview. And many of them are legitimately talented – Dublin did an impressive bit of Irish dance, Manchester played a tin whistle thingy, and Kerry played the concertina. But to describe this part of the show as a “talent” element is being generous. It’s more like a short little party piece. Think Tootie at the party in Meet Me in St Louis. For instance, Toronto taught Dáithí how to use an ice hockey stick.
A few girls recited/read poems. My favorite poem was an autobiographical selection from Darwin. I am so glad to say that I recorded the whole of this performance; I include it here for your pleasure:
Ah the beautiful lyricism of “my residency papers say I’m a Territorian”.
Okay, so that was a lot said about how it all works (sort of…I still don’t actually know how the judges make their final decision on the winner and I don’t really know what the winner receives other than a tiara) – probably more than you readers ever wanted to know. But hopefully that helps to paint a more vivid picture of our experience last week.
The Dome was pretty much packed with people, but I think I can confidently say that the four of us were the only people there without a personal connection to the festival – be it as a former Rose, a Regional Rose who did not make the cut, the family of a Rose, the friends of a Rose, or like the cousin of one of the cameramen. Nearly everyone was dressed in formal (or at least cocktail) attire, which made us feel woefully underdressed in our one-step-up-from-the-most-casual clothes. Loads of people had banners and flags to support their Rose.
Here’s a poor picture of the crowd, but it gives you an idea of the place:
For the most part, the audience seemed completely sincere and totally invested in the success or failure of their Rose of choice, which just made our presence there as point-and-giggle spectators all the more obvious and horrible. The best part of the evening came pretty early for me. The first Rose to come out (Scotland) sang a song for her party piece – some Scottish song that I’ve forgotten – and the woman sitting in front of me to the left openly wept. And from what I could tell, she had absolutely no connection to the Scotland Rose; she was there for someone else entirely. She was just overcome. It was so great.
Unfortunately for us, the winning Rose (Philadelphia) was on the second night, so we didn’t see her. In her absence, we all agreed that the best on our night was Abu Dhabi, whose name was – wait for it – Patrice McGillycuddy.
She told a funny story about her car sliding down a hill, she talked about living in Abu Dhabi teaching underprivileged children, she was generally charming and engaging. Best of all, for her party piece was she sang the Cups song from Pitch Perfect – complete with the cup stuff and with a very lovely voice.
Sadly, Patrice was not to be the victor. I have to assume that Philadelphia’s chat was just off the charts interesting and charming and lovely and wonderful. Otherwise, I really don’t know how she could have beat such a delight.
I’ll wrap it up there, because this post is already much longer than what I intended to write. But hey, what can I say? The Rose of Tralee was just such an incredible experience! I’ve really only just touched on its delights and surreality of our night. Just know this, if you ever find yourself in Kerry in the month of August, you should seriously consider getting a ticket.
* The escorts are all local Irish boys, who are responsible for looking after the ladies during the competition week. I honestly don’t really know what this involves, and it’s yet another thing that was never really explained. There’s a separate competition for the best Escort, who wins 1,000 Euro, so that’s something! I highly recommend reading through the Escort bios on the Rose of Tralee website. They are a delight.