Roses have had their day. But with leadership they could bloom again

THE Rose of Tralee Festival is in financial trouble again. “What else is new?” they were asking facetiously on the RTÉ news.

The festival has attracted more than its share of publicity in recent years, often for the wrong reasons. But much of this is because it was so successful for so long.

It began back in 1957 when some businessmen had the idea of holding a carnival to boost the annual three-day race meeting in Tralee. A couple of years later a few of them came up with the bright idea of calling it the Festival of Kerry and selecting a Rose of Tralee as the centrepiece. This was based on a pageant that was held in the town in 1939 and 1940, but it had been discontinued because of the Second World War.

It was probably just luck, but their timing in 1959 was impeccable. Seán Lemass was about to take over as Taoiseach, and his government realised that tourism had real potential with the growth of affordable air travel. The Festival of Kerry was in a position to exploit this. It was still before the era of television in the west of Ireland, so the festival was able to attract attention by introducing things that most people had only seen in cinemas, such as go-cart racing, sheepdog trials and parachute jumping.

The festival also got in on the start of the folk music boom. It was billed as the Folk Festival of Ireland during its early years. Music competitions were held and the early winners included the Wolfe Tones and Teddy Fury and his three sons.

The Wolfe Tones actually made their breakthrough in Tralee and the first broadcast they ever made was a live recording made in Tralee by Donncha Ó Dúlaing for RTÉ's Munster Journal in 1963. Their song that night was not A Nation Once Again, but The Sash. Some years later when Donncha played the song again, a bomb went off near the Donnybrook studios, and it was presumed that this was in reaction to that song.

During those early years many people came to Tralee from Northern Ireland, and I remember their bemused faces in the mid-1960s when people in the bars began singing The Sash. For a moment they reacted as they could not believe their ears, then they would join in and say afterwards that nobody at home was going to believe what they were singing in Tralee. It was probably more than a coincidence that two of the major pronouncements on the Northern Troubles by Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch were made in Tralee.

In 1959, the unveiling of the civil war monument at Ballyseedy was timed to coincide with the festival. Two planeloads of people came from the United States and a cavalcade of 80 cars went to pick them up. One of those coming in from London that day was Billy Clifford, who had been somewhat notorious around Tralee as one of the "Dandy Six", locals who had joined the Free State Army during the civil war.

He ended up in the back seat of a car with a former colleague from the War of Independence who had fought on the republican side in the civil war. They had not spoken since 1922. It was strained at first but by the time they reached Tralee, they had shaken hands and decided to put the past behind them.

The real strength of the festival in those early days was the way in which it was able to call on the assistance of Kerry people of any political persuasion from around the globe. At that stage it was not a Tralee festival, but the Festival of Kerry, and the Roses would visit various Kerry centres during the week.

Within a decade it was solidly established and inspiring many other festivals. President de Valera's staff considered it unseemly for him to be seen with the Roses, but Taoiseach Jack Lynch was photographed with them, as has each of his successors.

Politicians wished to be seen in Tralee during the festival. In 1970, just a couple of weeks before the beginning of the Arms Trial, the Special Branch reported that Minister for Justice Des O'Malley was seen there with Charlie Haughey. So also was Brian Lenihan. Haughey was photographed in the press with his father-in-law, former Taoiseach Seán Lemass.

Over the years the Rose selection attracted growing interest as a spectacle. A series of professional comperes took charge of the selection. The first of the professionals was Terry Wogan, who recalled in his memoirs that a dance was held as part of the selection programme. His wife Helen, who accompanied him, refused one young man's invitation to dance.

"Ah, well," the youngster replied, much to Terry's amusement, "you're too old for me anyway."

Brendan O'Reilly and Michael Tuomey ??? followed Terry Wogan, before Gay Byrne made the programme his own. He persuaded RTÉ to televise the proceedings live.

YEAR after year viewing ratings for the programme set new records.

It had the highest ratings, even higher that the Pope's visit, or any of Ireland's games in the World Cup. More people may have watched those events. But many of them particularly in the case of the Pope's visit were attending in person or, in the case of the matches, in pubs. The result was that the ratings, based on number of sets tuned into programmes, was higher for the Rose of Tralee.

The festival, which was organised by a voluntary committee, reached its peak in the 1970s, and two of the organisers went on to make their names in other fields. Denis Reen, a dentist from Millstreet, later became the driving force in building Tralee golf course at Barrow, and the Aqua Dome in the town. His reputation and record was such that he was drafted in to save the Jeanie Johnston project last year.

A Bord Fáilte veteran of over 30 years in North America recently described the Jeanie Johnston's visit as the biggest thing that happened for Irish tourism during his years on that side of the Atlantic.

Denis Reen's successor in the festival, Richard O'Sullivan, a local veterinary surgeon, was later head-hunted by Kerry Group and rose to manage some of its foreign concerns in Mexico and Brazil, before taking on the task or rescuing the equestrian centre at Punchestown. There is undoubtedly the talent to rescue the Rose of Tralee, but only what is worth saving.

The festival itself has seen its day. The format on the streets is jaded. Times have changed, and talk of 200,000 visitors to the town during last year's festival was absurd. Unlike the mid-1950s when Tralee was a decaying, depressed town, with a few rundown hotels, it is now on the tourist map, with attractions like the Aqua Dome, Museum, Geraldine Experience, Barrow golf club and six very good hotels. It has something to offer the tourist market and much to gain from it.

The Rose of Tralee contest should be retained because it affords a kind of branding for Tralee. It put the town on the tourist map. But if people have learned anything from the Jeanie Johnston debacle, they should realise that saving the Rose of Tralee will first require a whole new leadership that can inspire confidence.

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