Yes, it’s that time of year again. The time when lovely girls from all over the world head to Tralee to sing songs, do a dance, tell stories and exchange awkward small talk with a lovely boy in a tuxedo. Four Anti-Room writers give their thoughts on the Rose of Tralee.
Tonight the “lovely girls” will get their second consecutive annual primetime outing courtesy of our national broadcaster, RTE and to be sure and begorrah there won’t be a dry eye in the land. These tears will be prompted by old fashioned sentimentality, raucous hilarity and, in some cases, sheer bloomin’ frustration.
For me the Rose of Tralee represents something of a conundrum – fascinating and repellent in equal measure. I’m intrigued that such an outwardly archaic and patriarchal event continues to find such universal favour, effortlessly commanding a secure place in the national broadcaster’s schedule when comparable events such as Miss World have quite rightly been denigrated and dropped.
The festival was founded by a group of four Tralee business people, amongst them one woman, as a laudable attempt to boost interest in their town. That worthy ambition has been comprehensively realised. However, it’s the vehicle that I take issue with. Organisers, participants and fans are keen to point out that this is no beauty pageant… in that case what the hell is it?
Fans maintain that the elusive quality sought is something far less superficial than physical beauty. This claim is backed up by the story of the festival’s origins, to be found in the words of a nineteenth century love song penned by one William Mulchinock, a wealthy merchant with the temerity to admire his maid, Mary O’Connor. Mulchinock claimed that his affection was roused by the fact that Mary was not merely “lovely and fair”. In fact “’twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning” that prompted his admiration and that is still apparently sought by today’s judges.
So what became of this lovely Mary? Did William do the decent thing and ignore the protestations of his family to pluck her from penury and make a decent woman of her? No, he buggered off and left her to die of TB, only penning his lament posthumously.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the positive attributes of our citizens and indeed widening this to laude the qualities of members of our wider Diaspora. However, aspects of this event really bother me. It clearly discriminates along gender lines as men are precluded. It is ageist as contestants must be aged between 18 and 28 – one distraught Donegal aspirant was disqualified for just exceeding this limit in 2009. Married women are precluded from entering and, in my opinion; the whole event is quite simply sexist. Thankfully organisers recently dropped one of their harshest and most discriminatory criteria when in 2008 they allowed “unmarried mothers” to enter the contest for the first time.
According to the official website “The Rose of Tralee International Festival celebrates modern young women in terms of their aspirations, ambitions, intellect, social responsibility and Irish heritage”. All very laudable and goodness knows we women could use a bit of positive discrimination and a celebration of qualities that are more than skin deep. However, if this is the case then it does rather beg the questions why the age limit, the marital status requirement, the fancy frocks and derisible “party pieces”, the crowning ceremony and the whole darned pageantry of the thing. I’m assured that the whole occasion is “great craic” and of this I have no doubt but let’s leave the dressing up to the lovely girls and not dress it up to be more than it really is.
God bless the Rose of Tralee and all who sail in her. I don’t know if there is much craic (I’m channelling Daithi O Se here) in this year’s contestants but I don’t have much of a problem with a competition that last year saw a girl wrestle a snake, another lip sync to Bon Jovi and one who managed to fit her entire fist into her mouth.
No doubt someone will read something sexual into that last party trick but I think that says more about the critic than the woman they’re criticising. And I say that as someone whose party trick is to bend my fingers backwards to show how double-jointed I am. If you want to read something extra into how I may apply that skill in other situations, then good for you. Happy dreams.
The naysayers call the Rose of Tralee outdated and insulting to women. They say that it perpetuates the over-rated value of ninny-headed femininity, so brilliantly skewed by Father Ted’s Lovely Girls episode.
Come on. The party pieces said it all: don’t take this too seriously. It’s like the Blarney Stone – a bit of harmless tourist hokey-cokey. Everyone has a bit of a laugh, the contestants included, and the local economy gets a shot in the arm. If we’re going to get excited about this, we might want to start picketing the Ireland’s Bachelor of the Year contest. Down with this sort of thing, etc.
I just flipped the calendar and there it was. August 20th -24th, The Rose of Tralee. No matter how many times I mention it I am met by a wall of blank faces. It’s a beauty pageant, right?
“Oh no!” say shocked young women who complain every day about not getting a fair go of it in the work place because of their gender. “It’s just a “lovely girls” competition, you know, like in Father Ted.”
It’s innocent then. Nothing to do with youth and beauty and a patriarchical feminine ideal. It’s all to do with being a nice person, who is Irish, even if sometimes, somewhat, tenuously. There’s no swimsuit section so it can’t be a beauty pageant.
So if it’s not about who is the prettiest but instead who is the nicest, how does that make it any more palatable than a beauty pageant? And what, please tell me, is the male equivalent? The Thorn of Tralee (the most sullen acting fella in the village)?
And can we have it please?
Mens Hour recently started a 5 week run on BBC Radio 5 Live, to mixed reviews. Perhaps now is the time for Ireland to produce a “lovely boys” show. RTÉ could get a great reality format out of it to boot. When we get our Rose and our Thorn we could send them off to a tropical island with only her clarinet and his silence for company and see how long it takes them to try to swim for it.
LISA MC INERNEY
The general argument against the Rose Of Tralee is that it’s outdated, sexist, and pointless, a relic that festers in the corner of our sitting rooms every August, like an elderly relative wheeled out for a grandniece’s wedding. The general retort is that the women who take part in the modern competition are thoroughly emancipated in outlook and ambition. Contemporary Roses are University-educated, career-focused gals, gleefully carting with them such a glut of extra-curricular activities that their hobby schedules sound more like a community centre’s Adult Ed. programme. One Rose will be a champion Irish dancer with a degree in astrophysics and a pet anaconda. The next will have climbed Kilimanjaro, come first in her class in marine biology, and designed her own guna for the hooley.
All very capable and wonderful, indeed, but these thoroughly modern goddesses, to me, seem the products of solid opportunity and a helluva lot of parental nagging, women who’ve had every advantage – a pricey education, Saturday activities, medals and ribbons and gloss. The perfect Irish woman, it seems, needs as much shove and moolah behind her as any amount of loveliness, or beauty, or truth-ever-dawning, and the result is as authentic a sampler as a shop-bought apple tart at the parish bring-and-buy.