Ireland’s International Rose of Tralee Festival will celebrate its Golden Jubilee 50th anniversary this year when the renowned event kicks off on August 21.

50 Roses from all different walks of life will travel from around the world to compete at the festival.

History of the competition

The Rose of Tralee Festival has been held in Tralee since 1959. Its origins lie in the romantic tale of William Mulchinock and his true love Mary O'Connor.

William was a merchant in the town in the 19th century and Mary was his maid. They fell in love but, because of the class difference between the two families, their love affair was discouraged. William emigrated.

Years later, unable to forget Mary, he returned to Tralee, only to discover she had died of tuberculosis while he was away.

Grief-stricken, he expressed his love for her in the words of a song - "The Rose of Tralee."

In this song, William describes his Rose of Tralee being “lovely and fair.” However, William was not the superficial type as he would explain in the following lines:

“But it was not her beauty alone that won me,

Oh no, twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning,

That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.”

This song caught the imaginations of a group of budding entrepreneurs in 1950s Tralee. The town had suffered from mass emigration in the post-war years and they were eager to start an event that would bring life and enthusiasm back to the town. They decided to start a carnival and they chose the "Rose of Tralee" song as its theme.

The main event of the carnival was the search for a queen - a young woman who embodied the qualities of Mary, the original Rose of Tralee.

With the help of Kerry people living abroad, they chose Roses from London, Birmingham and New York as well as from Tralee and Dublin to compete.

Ever since, the Rose of Tralee festival has grown and developed to become the internationally renowned festival of today.

The first Rose of Tralee, Alice O’Sullivan, plans to participate in all anniversary celebrations and remarked how different things were when she took the tiara 59 years ago.

“Ireland is a totally different place compared to when I took part as we now see confident women from exotic places and I must admit they are light years away from the appallingly shy 1950s girl that I was,” she said ahead of this year’s contest.

The 2009 Roses

Nine women from Ireland will compete, along with Roses from the U.S., Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Luxembourg and Dubai.

Roses include an Irish musician from Armagh, an Irish dancer from Germany, an All-Ireland horse rider from Dubai, a Gaelic football player from Georgia, an Irish actress from Sydney and a New Jersey contestant who’s involved with an Israeli-Palestinian peace group that models their approach on the Northern Ireland Peace Process.

Not just a beauty contest

With such impressive contestants, the Rose of Tralee is clearly not a beauty contest, and it’s about a whole lot more than competition.

In an Ireland that has changed so much in recent years and in a country whose population has spread to countries all over the world, the Rose of Tralee asks important questions: What does it mean to be Irish? Who are we today? Who were our ancestors yesterday? And who do we want to be in the world of tomorrow?

The annual famous festival is about bringing people “home,” exploring what it means to be Irish in the modern world, and more specifically, redefining the contemporary Irish woman as a strong, intelligent, sincere, confident force to be reckoned with.

The Rose of Tralee is a tribute to Irish heritage, and the Roses who hail from outside Ireland regard the festival as a celebration of their links with the country of their ancestors. Irish people from all over the world come together in Tralee to celebrate the bonds and relationships that link them to each other.

But the festival is not all about serious philosophical questions – it is also very much about fun.

Each of the Roses gets to live the life of a princess for a week. They wear beautiful clothes. A hairstylist and make-up artist are on hand at all times to make them look stunning. Crowds queue to ask for autographs. They have a handsome male chaperon to look after them. And finally, they get to appear on TV.

The importance of being a good escort

One of the most important jobs during the Festival is to find an Irish escort capable of accompanying each Rose on her hectic schedule. Not only will the escort be accompanying at the competition and the Rose Ball, he will also provide a strong shoulder to lean on at the many functions and events that the Roses will attend during the busy week. .

Every year, festival organizers comb the country to find the best exponents of Irish manhood and escort coordinator Colm Croffy explains exactly what is need to be a Rose of Tralee escort.

“To be a good escort, you need to wear a creaseless tux like you were born into it, but to be a great Escort you need to have the Bond swagger, the diplomatic touch – and critically at this event, an understanding of the timeless tradition that has stood the Rose of Tralee festival,” said Croffy

“We are hosting 50 Roses from all over the world and each will require an escort who will be ever present to guide the ladies to and from the many engagements that will take place over the five days of the Festival,” he added.

Ray is the Roses’ man

One of the most like radio personalities and broadcasters in Ireland, Ray D’Arcy will have his tux dry cleaned and ready to interview 32 Roses over the two nights of TV interview

D’Arcy, who shot to fame with puppets Zig and Zag on RTE in his early years, Ray has an easy Irish charm and good nature that has settled the nerve of many a Rose contestant over the years. Now the host of a morning radio show on Today fm, Ray’s continued involvement in the festival lends a friendly authoritative and cool presence on stage in the heat of competition.

Prizes and duties

The reigning Rose of Tralee, Aoife Kelly from Tipperary, will hand over her title to the 2009 Rose at the end of this year’s 50th anniversary festival, which takes place Friday, August 21 to Wednesday, August 26.

The 2009 winner will receive a prize worth €25,000 to fund a year of travel that includes fares and accommodation, a clothing allowance, spending money and the use of a car during her reign.

She’ll also be given a Newbridge Silverware Tiara and Perpetual Trophy as well as a selection of Newbridge jewelry.

The winning Rose’s duties are not set in stone, but she travels to numerous Irish centers abroad, promoting the festival and building on Irish links. She’ll also do extensive work for a charity of her choice.