Last week, like much of the nation, I sat down to watch the Rose of Tralee. It is what our American cousins call a beauty pageant, but it’s a weird one.
It started in 1959 as a way to boost Tralee and stay in touch with the Irish diaspora. Here’s how it works, women (under 28) are selected from Ireland and around the world. They must have some Irish link but it can be pretty tenuous (one Irish great-grandparent is fine). These are the “lovely girls” parodied by evil old Father Ted. The song, “The Rose of Tralee” features the line “She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer/but ’twas not her beauty alone that won me”. The organisers constantly emphasise this line and that it’s not about looks alone. The women meet the judges several times during the week long festival. Certainly, the participants tend to be easy on the eye but they are not all startlingly beautiful and several of them were grand big girls this time round. Gratifyingly, none of them looks as though she’s starving.
So, the format is that contestant goes onstage, talks about her Irish roots (if from abroad), has a small chat with the presenter and then demonstrates a talent. In the past, almost invariably, Irish dancing (and there are still a fair few among the diaspora who can do a very impressive slip jig). They all wear evening dresses. This is most emphatically not the kind of event where there is a swimsuit round.
They are an impressive bunch all the same. They stood there in front of a big audience – no visible nerves and chatted away happily. As time has gone on the cohort has grown more and more educated and now the Roses are overwhelmingly young professionals – a lot of accountants for some reason – or students finishing their degrees (it’s the only beauty pageant you’d be happy to see your daughter participating in). A doctor Rose (Perth and obstetrics, since you ask) wanted to do some suturing as her special talent but the television people demurred as it would be hard to capture successfully on screen. She belted out a very acceptable song instead.
Some of my highlights from this year’s event.
Insensitive presenter: And you have a brother who is very severely handicapped?
Derby Rose: Yes, that’s right. He has Cornelia de Lange syndrome. [She explains a bit about it and says she loves her brother.]
Presenter: It’s genetic, isn’t it, so your children could have it.
Her: It’s possible but the odds against it are huge, it’s as unlikely as winning the lottery.
Presenter: And as your parents get older, who will look after your brother? I suppose it will be you.
Her: Well, yes, but I love him very much and will be happy to care for him.
Presenter: So how did you become a Rose?
Her: Ray, my mother always wanted me to do the Rose of Tralee.
Presenter: And we’ve met.
Her: Yes, I was at the young scientist exhibition (she’s a science teacher) and some of my students saw you. They went running up to you and, like a big eejit, I ran after them. My mother was there too to help with the students because of the cutbacks and she ran up to you too. She told you that she had always wanted me to be in the Rose of Tralee and you misunderstood and thought I was a former Rose. So, my mother said, “If Ray D’Arcy thinks that you were a former Rose you can definitely do it.”
Presenter: And was she delighted when you were selected?
Her: Actually, Ray, she died that week.
Presenter (slight pause): And your father’s dead too, isn’t he?
Her: Yes Ray, he died when I was very young.
Presenter: So, you’re an orphan.
Her: Yes, I am.
Presenter: But there was another man who was like a stepfather to you.
Her: Yes, Tom.
Presenter: But he’s dead too.
Her: Yes, he is, he died when I was 17.
Presenter: God, you’re like a black widow or something.
Was she cast down? No. Afterwards for her talent she did a science trick that you could use in the pub – sucking liquid into a glass using matches, an ashtray and a vacuum. Personally, I was hoping that she would win.
Presenter: So you’re a trainee solicitor in Arthur Cox.
Dublin Rose: That’s right.
Presenter: Of course, they’re acting in relation to NAMA.
Her: Yes, that’s right. It’s a great indication of the excellent service which the firm provides.
Presenter: And they acted for a bank as well. Any concerns about conflicts of interest there?
Her: No, Ray, we have what are called Chinese Walls… [it was at this point that Mr. Waffle retired saying that he couldn’t face a Rose of Tralee contestant explaining Chinese Walls to him]
San Francisco Rose
Presenter: So you work in IT.
Her: Yes, that’s right. In Kaiser Permanente.
Presenter: And what do they do?
Presenter: Oh great, can you explain President Obama’s plans for healthcare reform.
Her: How long do we have, Ray?
The winner was the London Rose – a management consultant (who had done a stint as a Japanese weather girl). We heard that she got 6 A1s in her Leaving Certificate and was a scholar in Trinity College. As it happens, I was at dinner on Saturday night with four former Trinity scholars and I asked them whether they thought that having a Rose of Tralee among their number debased the currency somewhat. The jury was divided. The women felt that it did rather. The men were just baffled.
You can watch it on the internet next year. Go on, you know you want to.