ALISON O'CONNOR: Rose of Tralee is still all about judging young Irishwomen

I almost found myself not wanting the Philip Tracey-designed crown to be taken from Maria Walsh, writes Alison O’Connor

I’M WATCHING the Rose of Tralee with a group of small girls, ranging in age from five to nine years. There is great excitement. During the break for the news and weather they disappear upstairs and come down a few minutes later wearing dresses so we stage our own mock contest. It’s all going swimmingly and rather charmingly until our oldest Rose contestant, the nine-year-old, announces to “Dáithí” that she does work for a suicide charity because her sister committed suicide a few years ago.

Gulp. Luckily the real programme comes back on and we settle down again on the sofas to begin the countdown to the moment when we discover which of the 32 Roses is the most lovely and fair, with just the right amount of truth in her eyes.

I do apologise for slipping into cynicism just there but I had to keep it so much at bay in front of the little girls that it’s bound to slip out now. This annual Irish extravaganza brings out such a host of mixed emotions. They are anchored in childhood and come right up to the present day where it seems so lovely to sit down with my own daughters and their friends and all these years later do what I did when I was their age — look at the lovely girls and dream about one day being like them.

I did have a sense of enjoyment watching it and sharing the experience — although we could have done without the condom ad during one of the final commercial breaks. I felt that familiar tug of emotion when Meath Rose Elysha Brennan was crowned, as her proud parents looked on. But what kept popping into my mind during much of the time that I was trying to curb my own tongue was Pantibliss’ Noble Call at the Abbey Theatre when she spoke of the inner homophobic in all of us, including herself. Well for me the Rose of Tralee, as well as the bursts of nostalgia, also unearths and encourages my inner misogynist.

When you strip it all back this is about judging these young women — be it for their talents or their looks or their bouncebackability after suffering some awful adversity in life.

Without the children I’d have been sitting there, glass of wine in hand, having my own Gogglebox moment commenting on the dresses, the hairstyles, the whiteness of the teeth, the off-keyness of some of the tunes, the get-up of “Mom and Dad” in the audience, and the poems that didn’t rhyme quite as much as they should have.

The girls, in fairness, are far too young to be bothered with any of this and generally only had positive comments. As a mother I couldn’t help but be secretly pleased when one of them would announce: “She’s wearing far too much make up”, or “she’s too thin” and other comments such as “I really like her, she has a lovely smile” or “I don’t like her dress”.

The contestants were nothing but supportive of each other, and publicly at least we are given the notion that if there was even the vaguest display of bitchiness, or God forbid competitiveness, it would immediately be trampled on by a collective bunch of outraged Roses. We are invited to forget that they are contestants even though they are actually competing to win a crown. No cat fights here, thank you very much, ambition is a dirty word. There they sat in the front row smiling up supportively, often linking arms, at whichever of their number was being put through their paces at that time by Dáithí.

Dáithí seems so suited to this role it’s like he was genetically engineered to do it. I also heard him say in the days before the TV shows that the two nights on the stage are only a fraction of what goes on, pushing home the message that this is far more than a beauty contest.

Sure what harm could there be in this type of innocent family fun? Nobody can accuse the festival of not moving with the times. There is lots of emphasis on bright, capable, strong and talented young women ready to go out there and take on the world. This year there was even an international women’s business conference described as “a celebration and recognition of the business ambitions and achievements of modern women of the Irish diaspora”.

I almost found myself not wanting the Philip Treacy-designed crown to be taken from Maria Walsh’s beautiful head. I’m certain Elysha Brennan will be a fine Rose of Tralee but as she said herself, immediately after being crowned: “I have the biggest shoes I’ve ever known to fill after Maria Walsh”. This is the woman who ended her reign by skydiving into Tralee, having completed a Trek2Tralee which saw her run and cycle 242km from her home town of Shrule to Tralee for charity. Maria, as we all know, is a lesbian and non-drinker, so on those two fronts alone she broke the mould when it came to being crowned Rose of Tralee.

She came across during her reign as an exceptional human being who you would love to see staying in Ireland, having big success with her new career as a wedding planner for gay marriages. Ultimately you’d even love to see her ending up perhaps in politics, because a woman of her substance would be a very welcome addition indeed to that arena.

Before he handed over the envelope with the name of the winner in it the executive chair of the Rose of Tralee International Festival Anthony O’Gara spoke on Tuesday night of how the festival operated to “celebrate and honour exceptional women”.

Elysha Brennan looked genuinely and sweetly shocked when she was announced as winner but still managed to deliver the message of female strength which the organisers insist underpins the festival: “I have never been surrounded by such inspirational, moving, strong, driven, focused, ambitious, wonderful, spectacular, young ladies... I am in such good company, I thank you so much and I hope to do the Rose of Tralee proud”.

SO THAT’S the end of the late night TV for the small people in our house, until the Late Late Toy Show comes around in December. I could spend the next few days casually chatting to those girls about the type of young women who get to be Roses, and go down the route of stressing their strength and their fitness and their intelligence. But that would be a pig in a poke. No matter how much the organisers try to make the Rose of Tralee seem a competition for our modern times it remains an anachronism.

No matter how I might try to break it down we have just spent two nights watching scores of women on stage, dolled up to the nines, and been encouraged to judge them on their appearance, their party piece, their plans for life and their ability to be “up for it”, yet also display no ambition to win because that would be unsisterly.

This would not be an ambition I’d have for my daughter but I don’t think it would be the smartest parenting move to hammer home that message at this point.

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