Where would we be without the Lovely Irish Girls competition -- aka the Rose of Tralee Festival -- to save us from boredom every summer? With the Dail still on holidays and poor Olympic head Pat Hickey still stuck in Rio, there was not much to amuse us here last week.
So we should all be thankful for the Rose of Tralee, the annual journey into a Darby O'Gill fantasy land where time is frozen back in the 1950s and all the lovely girls channel their inner Maureen O'Hara, wear prom dresses and perform their party piece.
It's not exactly a Miss World style beauty contest -- there's no bathing suit section. And it's not exactly a personality contest either since a bit of riverdancing is usually the height of what they do. It's a sort of a uncomfortable combination of both, and you have to be Irish to really get it.
If you're looking for a definition, you could call it an old-fashioned charm contest. And the older people here are, the more they seem to be charmed by this innocent entertainment. The grannys of Ireland just love it.
It's all about that cheeky sparkle in the eye as the lovely girls answer the host's questions on the TV show that covers the contest and runs live over two nights at the end of the festival.
The show is still one of the biggest on the annual TV calendar in Ireland, attracting around half a million viewers each night, even if the audience has been declining in recent years. The whole country still seems to be enthralled as the lovely girls sing their song, or recite their poem or do a bit of a jig.
Most important is their ability to join in some playful banter when they are teased by the host, Daithi O'Shea, a kind of mischievous chat-up and response that always stays on the right side of what nice girls say. As Americans put it, it's just so quaint!
Except that this year it wasn't quite as quaint as usual. You may have seen from the news that several things happened that were unusual, to say the least.
The first was when a protestor from Fathers4Justice (a group that campaigns for better child custody rights for separated fathers) interrupted the show, forcing RTE to cut quickly to a break. The protestor dressed as a priest, which enabled him to bypass whatever security there was back stage before he marched on and unfurled his sign. That introduced a modern day issue into the night's traditional blarney.
But even more jarring, at least from the point of view of those who cherish the innocent nostalgia of the contest, was what an Australian Rose had to say. When asked some innocuous question about women's rights by the host, the Sydney Rose, Brianna Parkins, said that that she would love "to see a referendum on the eighth coming up soon.”
This was a reference to the campaign here for another referendum on abortion and was prompted, Parkins said later, by her seeing the Twitter account of Two Women Travel, in which two Irish women documented a journey to the U.K. to have an abortion. Parkins is an Australian journalist with a strong record of campaigning on women's rights, so it's not surprising that she used the chance to raise the abortion issue in Ireland before such a huge TV audience.
Cue consternation and outrage among the pro life lobby here which, of course, is adamantly opposed to the introduction of abortion in Ireland, no matter how many Irish women have to travel to the U.K. every year to have terminations of unwanted pregnancies.
This was politicizing the Rose of Tralee show, they fumed. It was not acceptable.
Opinion among the organizers of the festival seemed divided, with the chairperson of the judges, veteran RTE presenter Mary Kennedy, saying it was "not the place" for such a comment, but the festival chief executive, Anthony O'Gara, saying he was "delighted" the Sydney Rose had spoken out and that it was a "bit silly" to expect the Roses not to have opinions, "controversial or otherwise."
O'Gara's opinion is not surprising since the Rose of Tralee Festival has been trying recently to make itself more relevant and contemporary, stung by criticism over the past few years that it's embarrassing and anachronistic in today's Ireland. The festival, which has been going for more than 50 years, now runs for over a week leading up to the choice of the annual Rose and is a huge money spinner for Kerry at the back end of the tourist season. So naturally they want to keep it going.
There were 65 Roses from around the world involved this year (the winner was the Chicago Rose) so even the extended families who travel to the contest add up to a big tourist boost for Kerry. All those proud mammies and daddies are big spenders!
In addition to that, of course, there are all the other people who go to Tralee just to join in the fun of the festival week, with music and other events, many glamorized by the attendance of a bunch of the Roses.
A new part of this year's festival which caused yet more anger was an RTE documentary about the Roses which showed the X Factor-style elimination of 33 of the 65 contestants, leaving the 32 who appeared on the TV show.
Very early on the Sunday morning (the TV show was to begin the following night), the 65 contestants were presented with roses, some getting white and some red. They were then herded into two different rooms in their hotel, depending on which color rose they had been given -- and told that white roses meant they were in, but red roses meant they were out.
Many of the Roses, tired and emotional from lack of sleep and the excitement of the previous days, were visibly upset and their reactions were deliberately caught on camera for the documentary. RTE later claimed that the Roses were aware of the set up, but some of the girls said this was untrue.
The Down Rose said they had been treated "like animals in a circus" and that she had not signed up for “a cheap reality television show in which our emotions would be manipulated for entertainment purposes.”
Added to the Fathers4Justice protest and the abortion reference, this was another prickly moment in what was a thorny year for the Rose of Tralee Festival.
It is obvious what the organizers were at and that this was an attempt to give the show some added X Factor drama and thereby generate publicity. But it ended up being another example of the contradictions that are now becoming ever more apparent in this dated annual extravaganza in Kerry.
It's becoming a harder trick to pull off every year, getting across the idea that the Rose of Tralee is somehow several steps above other similar contests and that it's not demeaning to women, or even patronizing to them. Several young women who happened to be in our house when the show was on insisted that it is just as objectionable as bathing suit beauty contests -- and probably less honest and more patronizing.
It's also increasingly difficult to pretend that the Rose of Tralee has any relevance to today's Ireland, and that it's not an anachronistic old format that is way past its sell-by date and should be put out of its misery. For most of us, it's less X-Factor and more cringe factor, as we hide behind the sofa trying to avoid the more embarrassing moments.
There's nothing wrong with a bit of blarney and twinkle-eyed charm, of course, but you can have too much of a good thing. Charm only goes so far.
We might all think The Quiet Man is a great movie -- and it is -- but even as we are charmed by it we don't think that it has anything to do with the Ireland of today. Or relations between men and women in Ireland today.
Lads, this is one Kerry joke that is ringing more hollow with each passing year. It's time for a reboot.
In case you haven't seen it here's Father Ted's Lovely Girls Competition: