Sixty years on, and dozens of roses, frocks and party pieces later, the Rose of Tralee International Festival has returned to the Kingdom writes Jess Casey. Love it or loathe it, the annual festival has seen both its ups and downs through its long history, including a televised proposal, financial woes, a gatecrashing priest and a potential boycott.
With its roots in a local pageant by the name of ‘The Carnival Queen’, the Rose of Tralee as we know it was devised in the 1950s by a group of local business people looking for a novel way to attract ex-pats home.
Based on the ballad of the same name by William Mulchinock, it wasn’t until 1967 that women from outside of Kerry were allowed to enter, with the competition restricted to those hailing from the Kingdom during the festival’s very early days.
In 2008, the competition opened up further as unmarried mothers were allowed to enter for the first time. There has also been another slight change to the competition’s entry requirements this year, as Roses can now enter up to the age of 29, as opposed to 28 as in previous years.
While the Rose of Tralee is not a beauty contest, the winner each year is the Rose deemed the most ‘lovely and fair’ based on her personality, who will represent the festival well both at home and abroad during her time as the winner.
First televised in 1967, 12 comperes have hosted the Rose of Tralee throughout its history; These include Joe Lynch, known for his role as Dinny in Glenroe, Terry Wogan, Brendan O’Reilly, Marty Whelan and Ray D’Arcy.
Veteran presenter Gay Byrne remains the longest standing host, presenting the live shows for 17 years before he bid “tooraloo to Tralee.”
His wife Kathleen Watkins remains the only woman to have hosted the show in its 60-year history. Since 2010, the Rose of Tralee has been hosted by RTÉ favourite Daithí O’Shea.
In his nine years of presenting the live shows, the West Kerryman has puckered up to a fish (yes really, in 2013), tucked himself in tight for a bed-time story, and allowed himself to be hoisted over the Westmeath Rose’s shoulder as she demonstrated her strength.
Some of the most well-known past winners of the festival include Mayo Rose Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, who went on to launch a successful broadcasting career after she was crowned in 2005.
She is also an assistant professor at the School of Mathematics & Statistics at University College Dublin, after she received her PhD from Trinity College Dublin in 2014.
In 2014, Philadelphia Rose Maria Walsh revealed she was the first openly gay woman to have won the Rose of Tralee.
The Mayo woman later went to become a Fine Gael MEP for the Midlands–North-West constituency following the European elections last May.
In 2018, Carlow Rose Shauna Ray Lacey won raised after she opened up about her parents’ struggle with addiction.
The festival has seen six decades of different styles showcased by the various Roses. So much so that an exhibition of each past winner’s dress opened earlier this month at the Kerry County Museum in Tralee.
With most winners opting for black, cream or white dresses, Cork Rose Denise Murphy was a trendsetter in 1991 after she donned a two-piece with a removable skirt for her Irish dancing piece. The outfit had been designed by a Cork designer who thought it was “quite unladylike for any lady to lift up her dress to do her party piece.”
The festival has not been without its controversy in recent years; Ten formal complaints were lodged with RTÉ following the live shows in 2016, after the Sydney Rose Brianna Perkins said she would like to see a repeal of the eighth amendment.
Five complaints were also lodged with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland over Ms Perkins' comments and those of the North Carolina Rose about Roman Catholic Mass.
All five were rejected by the authority. 2016 also saw a ban on Roses reciting poems live from the Dome; That same year the Cork Rose literally set the stage alight as Denise Collins engaged in a bit of pyromancy.
This year, boycotts saw the Irish Greyhound Board withdraw its sponsorship of the festival after online threats were made against Roses.
Through the year’s Dublin has collected the most Rose of Tralee winners with five wins, followed by New York, with four winners, and Belfast, Cork, Galway, London, Chicago and Waterford with three winners each.
This year the bookie’s favourites are the Kerry Rose, the Mayo Rose, the Clare Rose and the Donegal Rose.