Ryle Dwyer looks back at the origins of the Rose of Tralee festival and how it captured the public imagination right from the beginning

The Rose of Tralee Festival was established to boost Tralee’s annual racing meeting, which had suffered a somewhat chequered history since the first two-day race meeting was held in Ballybeggan Park in 1896. The annual meeting ran into difficulties in the 1930s. It was suspended in 1936 and was not revived until 1946.

The meeting enjoyed some success in the following years, and in 1957 the Racing Board granted Tralee an extra day’s racing. Some business people in the town decided to boost the first three-day race meeting with a carnival and the selection of a Carnival Queen to preside over proceedings.

While the horse racing was in abeyance in the 1930s, a Carnival Queen was first selected in 1939. The man behind that initiative was local curate, Father James Enright, who had been appointed spiritual director of the Catholic Young Men’s Society (CYMS), which had just built a hall in Tralee. He arranged for an industrial exhibition to be held in the hall, and the Carnival was designed to boost those proceedings.

From the outset, the initiative captured the public imagination. The official opening of the carnival included messages of congratulations and encouragement from leaders of Church and State.

The order of the messages was really a sign of the times. It began with a message from his lordship Michael O’Brien, the bishop of Kerry; followed by monsignor David O’Leary, dean of Kerry and parish priest of Tralee, followed by taoiseach Éamon de Valera, and then the leader of the opposition, WT Cosgrave.

“I congratulate you on bringing before the eyes of the country a practical example of what can be effected by co-operation between the different sections of the community,” wrote de Valera. He seemed captivated by the local mood and the idea of capping off the proceedings with an aeridheacht.

“If efforts such as these are applied to the task of restoring the national language we may have every hope for the speedy realisation of our aim in that regard,” declared the taoiseach.

“On the occasion of your aeridheacht I would ask that this be made the resolve of each one of you — to leave undone nothing that is within your power by example, and the encouragement of others, to make Irish again the living spoken language of all our people.”

Eithne O’Sullivan of Valentia was selected as the first Carnival Queen. She presided at the various events throughout the festivities and presented the prizes.

The famous trapeze artists Harry and Zuma, from the Bertram Mills Circus in London, enthralled the public on four afternoons and four evenings with their daredevil aerial trapeze act in the park beside the CYMS Hall. It was described as a “death-defying spectacle” that had to be seen to be believed.

The industrial show was a particular success, attracting 9,821 paying customers. Another highlight that added some culture to the festivities was a “midnight matinee” given by May Devitt, the celebrated soprano, who enthralled a packed Ashe
Memorial Hall.

Charlie Downing, a local solicitor and horse-racing enthusiast, filled the void caused by the collapse of the annual two-day race meeting with two days of horse-racing and jumping in the Town Park.

He persuaded the celebrated jockey Tim Hyde to compete. Hyde had ridden Workman to win that year’s Grand National. It was the first totally Irish winner of the race, as it was not only ridden by an Irish jockey, but also bred, owned, and trained in Ireland.

More than 10,000 people watched the equestrian events in the Town Park. Hyde — on the aptly named Tralee Carnival — won the Thompson Cup, with its attractive £25 prize, in the jumping competition.

“Tralee was never a spot where pleasures are taken sadly,” reported the Cork Examiner. “It must be, I think, one of the jolliest towns between Cork and Donegal, and last week the flood gates of its good humour overflowed during the Carnival staged by the townspeople.”

The carnival was deemed such an “outstanding success” that The Kerryman observed that the following year’s Carnival in 1940 promised to be “the greatest week Tralee has ever known”.

It was widely hailed in the midst of the deprivations being suffered during the years of the Second World War. Despite its success, the selection of a Carnival Queen was discontinued due to the Emergency travel restrictions of the war years. But its revival in 1957 came at a particularly propitious time.

Kerry was pretty much in the doldrums in 1957. Although the Kerry football team was beaten by Cork in the Munster final of 1956, the county had the satisfaction in seeing Kerry’s Paudie Fitzgerald win Rás Tailteann, in which Kerry also won the team event. But in 1957 Kerry football suffered the indignity of being dumped out of the championship by Waterford, and the county failed to field a team for Rás Tailteann, due to internal difficulties. Then Kerry suffered the further indignity of being defeated in Tralee by Carlow in the National League by 5-5 to 3-10.

The reintroduction of the Carnival in Tralee provided some welcome respite. The Carnival Queen that year was Doreen Sheehy, a daughter of John Joe Sheehy, who had captained Kerry to win the all-Ireland football finals in 1926 and 1930. Her brothers Paudie, Niall, and Séan Óg Sheehy, also distinguished themselves in winning All-Irelands with Kerry.

The next Carnival Queen in 1958 was Beatrice Spring, a niece of Dan Spring, who had also captained Kerry to All-Ireland victory in 1940. She later married Niall Sheehy in 1962.

With football in the doldrums, Kerry made its mark in another sport. One of the highlights of the 1958 carnival was a golf exhibition in Tralee involving the Killarney duo of Christy O’Connor, then the resident professional, and the famous amateur international, Dr Billy O’Sullivan. They played against the Dublin pairing of Harry Bradshaw and
British Amateur champion Joe Carr.

After the exhibition, Bradshaw and O’Connor flew to Mexico City where they won the prestigious Canada Cup (now the World Cup). While discussing the success of the 1958 Carnival, four local businessmen came up with the idea of replacing the Carnival Queen with the Rose of Tralee, in order to exploit the internationally famous love song, which was written by William Pembroke Mulchinock, a local merchant.

Mulchinock had fallen in love with Mary O’Connor, a servant girl working for his family, who were bitterly opposed to the relationship. William was packed off to India in the army to forget her, but he never did. When he returned, he learned that she had died, and he wrote the famous song.

On becoming taoiseach in 1959, Seán Lemass set about invigorating the Irish economy with a major push towards industrialisation. The government recognised the importance of tourism, and the Festival of Kerry sought to put Tralee on the tourist map.

From the outset, the festival tried to capitalise on well-placed Kerry people in the civil service in Dublin, as well as Kerry emigrants who had been successful abroad.

Many of those were eager to do something for their native county. The new festival provided an outlet for men like Brian K Sheehy in New York City, Billy Clifford in London, and John Byrne, who had recently been persuaded to return to Ireland, after making his fortune in construction and dance halls in Britain.

The annual selection of the Rose of Tralee is currently in its 58th year. For many years, the Rose selection was the most popular programme on Irish television. Although its ratings have fallen back in recent years, it still boasts a massive international audience on the live screening of the show on computers around the world.

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