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Critics be damned, I’ll always be a Rose of Tralee fan

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The winner of the Rose of Tralee 2013, Texas native, Haley O’Sullivan, with host Dáithí Ó Sé
The winner of the Rose of Tralee 2013, Texas native, Haley O’Sullivan, with host Dáithí Ó Sé


For as long as I’ve lived in Ireland, colleagues, friends, housemates, and now my wife and children know that the penultimate Monday and Tuesday evenings in August every year are reserved in my calendar for watching the International Rose of Tralee competition on RTÉ (Ireland’s national broadcaster).  Indeed, even on the two occasions when I found myself back in Boston in late August over the past decade, I watched the Rose of Tralee online.  The only thing I don’t like is that it serves as my annual harbinger of the end of summer.

And so it was this past Monday and Tuesday that I was glued to the proceedings from 8:00 right through till 11:30 PM.  Some readers may find the fact that I truly enjoy the Rose of Tralee unusual, or even disturbing, but I am not alone.  In excess of 600,000 people in Ireland watched the competition for the approximately three hours it aired each night.  Many thousands more around the world watched the competition on www.rte.ie.

The competition was again presented this year by RTÉ personality and former TG4 (Irish language television) weatherman Dáithí Ó Sé, himself an IrishCentral contributor.  A Kerry native, he clearly enjoys the task in his home county, and he performed it well again this year.  His banter with the Roses was witty and genuine.  Of course, Ó Sé has another very special connection to the Rose of Tralee in that his wife, Rita Talty, was the New Jersey Rose and a contestant in Tralee in 2008.  The 2013 winner, defying both the bookmakers’ odds and the overwhelming majority of social media pundits, was the Texas Rose, Haley O’Sullivan, whose grandfather emigrated to the US from remote Bere Island in Co. Cork.

There can be only one winner, yet it was hard not to be impressed by each of the Roses who represented their home counties in Ireland, and by those Roses from both traditional hubs for the Irish diaspora and newer, more far-flung locales.  It is particularly poignant and illustrative of the dearth of opportunity for young Irish people at home that a number of the 2013 Roses are recent emigrants.

Well-educated, beautiful, confident and ambitious, they are a real credit to themselves, their families and their communities.  While the competition, as always, had its share of cringe-inducing moments, these were far outweighed by hearing the Roses’ typically inspiring stories, seeing the joy and pride on their parents’ faces and witnessing their myriad talents on display.  This year, there was even the first ever marriage proposal – the New Orleans Rose was proposed to live on stage by her longtime boyfriend.  Despite appearing completely flabbergasted, she said yes.  For us “softies,” the two evenings were fantastic entertainment on multiple levels.

As well as being entertaining for the audience, the competition and the international festival of which it is a part are vitally important to the economies and reputations of the town of Tralee, Co. Kerry and the entire island of Ireland.  The 32 Roses travel the country prior to arriving for several days of festivities in Tralee.  In 2013, for the first time, they travelled to Belfast and Derry, where they were warmly greeted.  Moreover, the Rose of Tralee serves as another bridge to the global diaspora.  Through the years, it has reunited families separated by thousands of miles and has been the foundation of many lifelong friendships and numerous marriages.  What’s not to like?

Well, not everyone likes the Rose of Tralee.  Some actively despise it.  They can be divided into two groups: 1) the snobbish cynics who look down their noses on it and 2) some feminists who disapprove of any competition of this sort.

The first group comprises those who believe that the Rose of Tralee is merely an awful vestige of an “old Ireland” that is, in their minds, thankfully long gone.  They ridicule it as a “lovely girls competition” and criticize the Irish media for giving it blanket coverage.  A further aspect of the Rose of Tralee many in this group can’t abide is that many of the participants are members of the Irish diaspora in the US.  They disdainfully imitate the accents of the American Roses and, although these Roses are often first generation Americans, mock the extent, or distance thereof, of their Irish connections.  They need to lighten up and focus their negativity elsewhere.  And in some cases, judging by their familiarity with what’s happened in Tralee, they need to stop sneaking peaks at something they profess to hate.

I accept the sincerity of the feminists who oppose the Rose of Tralee on principle.  Writing in the Irish Independent this week, columnist Colette Browne complains that the competition exalts “society’s archetypal brand of femininity” and is “about as contemporary as a telegram.”  I can’t help but think, however, that there is absolutely nothing about this competition that demeans women.  The Roses wear long dresses and are judged not alone on their beauty.  There has never been a shred of evidence that any contestant was less than thrilled to take part – before or afterward.  I believe that the Rose of Tralee is an excellent platform for accomplished young women who are superb role models for girls.  In my view, the two nights are a welcome antidote to the relentless onslaught of perverse, grossly unrealistic notions of what it means to be a woman on television, in movies and on the internet that girls (and boys) are now subjected to.

In the end, those who dislike the Rose of Tralee are perfectly entitled to their opinions.  But I’ll always be a fan.  I just hope the Boston Rose wins the competition at some point in the not too distant future so that I can recoup the money I’ve lost to Paddy Power over the years!

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