The real roses are the women who live in Tralee

As a Tralee native, I find the annual ‘lovely girls’ show hard to take, but scrapping it would harm more women than it would help, writes Clodagh Finn.

Down Rose Fainche McCormack said that an RTÉ documentary treated the Roses like animals in a circus. Picture: Domnick Walsh

I LOVE this time of year because, for one short week, the light of international attention shines on Tralee, the too often forgotten county town in Kerry.

I also hate this time of year for the very same reason. I’m already cringing ahead of the TV spectacle that was so pointedly labelled “the Kate Middleton impersonation competition” by Brianna Parkins, last year’s Sydney Rose.

Brace yourself for the ‘Dáithí, damhsa, and cailíní deasa’ show which will be broadcast from a fancy tent erected in the middle of a tarmac car park and beamed to viewers all around the globe. At best, it’s a kind of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ in ball gowns for women of Irish descent who gather in Tralee for what the organisers say is a “global celebration of Irish culture”.

At worst, it’s a form of cynical reality TV, which it clearly became last year when contestants were “treated like animals in a circus” — to quote the Down Rose Fainche McCormack — during a so-called behind-the-scenes documentary that brutally culled 32 of the 65 participants.

Thankfully, that disgraceful and disingenuous performance will not be repeated this year because, if there’s one thing you could say about the Rose of Tralee, it is that it gives those who come a good-old Oirish welcome, cloying as it may sometimes seem.

However, what was encouraging about the whole sorry X Factor-like episode was what the women themselves said about it. Try as you might to turn grown women into smiling, waving, non-political clotheshorses, you’ll find it is impossible to impose a gagging order.

There might have been a social media ban, but women will still find a way to call it as it is. Roses, after all, come with thorns — and thank heavens for that.

I was with the many who cheered on Parkins when she called for the repeal of the eighth amendment live on stage.

It doesn’t really matter whether you agree with her point of view or not but, in airing it, she was making a far more important point: Roses don’t just talk about shoes, bags, and the sex appeal of a festival escort. They also talk about reproductive rights, equal pay, international politics, taxation, art, literature, and, whisper it, what constitutes feminism.

On an aside, it’s interesting to see that the bould Brianna still mentions the Rose of Tralee in her Twitter bio. It reads: “ABC journo at Media Watch. Contributor to swear jars everywhere. Wilted 2016 Sydney Rose of Tralee.” Actually that’s another very sweet thing about the Rose of Tralee. There is no such thing as a ‘former Rose’; once a Rose always a Rose, whether wilted or not.

But back to the controversy — and mark my words, there’ll be another one in 2017; the festival thrives on it — Parkins’ remarks led to suggestions it was time to repeal the Rose of Tralee.

A witty remark indeed, but scrapping the Rose of Tralee would harm far more women than it would supposedly help. For a moment, let’s leave aside the fact that many of those who take part say they have a great time.

Let’s ignore, too, the unavoidable truth that nobody is forced to enter the competition, much less travel halfway around the world to take part, but focus instead on the real Roses — the women who live in Tralee all year round.

For the last 58 years, the festival has brought a welcome end-of-summer boost to a town that has suffered more than most in the economic downturn.

Depending on the estimates you read, it’s worth some €7m to the local economy. It also puts the kind of focus on Tralee that might encourage others to think about visiting it when the car park tent is dismantled and the circus has rolled out of town.

Last year, Enterprise Ireland ran an International Business Women’s Conference at the same time as the festival. There were several invited guests and speakers who spoke with the aim of celebrating the business achievements and success stories of women.

It was, I’m sure, meant as a foil to the flouncy dresses and frivolity taking centre stage elsewhere, but it wasn’t at all necessary because if you want to celebrate achievement and strength and courage, you don’t have to look further than the women of Tralee themselves.

Here’s one anecdotal example. It’s been a rather unusual summer as I crossed paths with more former school friends than I have in quite some time. Among their ranks you’ll find an engineer, a solicitor, an accountant, a financial analyst, a mayor, a mother of four who writes plays and books at her kitchen table, a nurse, a pharmacist, a lecturer, and a broadcaster.

Not bad for a generation of women who were raised in an era when the most common career-guidance question was: “Have you thought about the bank?”

However, just three of those friends still live in Tralee, although many more might consider returning if the town hadn’t been named an unemployment blackspot in Census 2016.

Calling time on the Rose of Tralee Festival would drain the lifeblood from a town already struggling, but more than that, it wouldn’t make the world any less patronising towards women.

What the “lovely girls” show has shown over the years is that women won’t stand for being ‘lovely-ied’ any longer. They have also forced the organisers to look the new Ireland directly in the face. In 2008, a single mother was celebrated on the stage. In 2014, Maria Walsh became the first openly gay Rose of Tralee.

I’m waiting for the day when there will be a black Rose and a Rose from the Travelling community. It will come, I’m sure of it. In the meantime, please let overlooked Tralee have its imperfect moment in the sun. Let us celebrate its streets, its twisting lanes, its park, its canal, its surrounding mountains and beaches but, most of all, its own wonderful women.

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