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First Time for Everything

'I thought I'd hate the Rose of Tralee but being there changed my mind entirely'

For someone who’d never watched the Rose of Tralee, 2018 seemed like a pretty good year to start.

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IT’S A WEIRD thing to admit that you’ve never interacted with the Rose of Tralee, especially as an Irish person. It’s something that I never watched growing up because it wasn’t put on in our house.

Sure, I remember Brianna Parkins advocating for a vote on the 8th Amendment back in 2016 and I remember the backlash she received at the time. It made me think that the Rose of Tralee was this backwards ‘lovely girls’ competition that was a relic of an old Ireland. It was something I didn’t really want to engage with.

But then again, it’s easy for me to dismiss the Rose of Tralee because it was never important to me. It’s easy for me to sit here and tear the festival apart for being old-fashioned. Or, I could go down to Tralee with an open mind and see what all the fuss is about. Which is exactly what I did.

Rachel O'Neill Rachel O'Neill

When I arrived in Tralee, the first thing I saw was two old men having a row about a third man who was dressed up as Spiderman. The cause of said row wasn’t clear to me but it wasn’t the weirdest thing I saw. In fact not five minutes later I came across a group of puppets including Olaf from Frozen who were singing that they were ‘free of sin’.

Let it go indeed Olaf.

Aside from the strange goings-on, Tralee seemed pretty pumped for the festival. Obviously, not everyone is keen on the festival, like bartender Shane Mac who pointed out to me that he’d be working up to 70 hours over the festival. Others aren’t keen on the whole thing because they think the Rose of Tralee is old fashioned, something that I’d tend to agree with myself. That was until I entered the Dome for myself.

Something you need to understand is that EVERYONE is dressed up to the nines for the main event. I did not get this memo so turned up with bright purple hair, three euro flats from H&M and a shirt and leggings. I stood out like a sore thumb and I did catch one or two double takes at the purple hair so I think my entry for Kildare Rose 2019 is probably scuppered.

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Aside from that, my experience of the Dome was overwhelmingly positive. Maybe it’s because I’d never watched it before so my view wasn’t tainted but to me, the Rose of Tralee, while being a bit twee, had a positive undertone to the whole thing.

Yes, of course, it’s a lovely girls competition which people can find hard to swallow, myself included. But if 2018 was the year that the Rose decided to grow up and become more diverse, then it may have just saved itself.

Kilkenny Rose Helena Hughes told us she has “two daddies and one mammy” and was frank about how hard it to go through a divorce as a kid. Mayo Rose Rachel Gibbons spoke frankly and honestly about her mental health and how she had suffered with depression and anxiety and had spent time in St Patricks Hospital.

If it wasn’t for my family, I don’t think I’d be alive today.”

For me though the two biggest moments came on night one. Waterford Rose Kirsten Mate Maher made the point that everyone had focused on the fact that she was the first African Irish Rose rather than asking her about anything else.

I’m the same as any other girl in the Rose. You need to look past what we look like.”

Kirsten would of course win and deservedly so. Her rendition of ‘Feeling Good’ brought the house down reminding us that talent trumps everything.

The second real sign that the Rose of Tralee is moving (albeit slowly) with the times is Shauna Rae Lacey. Not only was she the first televised Rose to have a child, she spoke candidly about living with parent’s heroin addiction growing up. Five years ago, this would never have happened but now in 2018, we have Roses who are speaking about very real issues that affect Irish women and Irish people in general.

Shauna chose to use her platform to speak about how addiction affects more people than we’d assume, and the difficulties of losing her father Francis. Despite the “bad cards” she was dealt in life, she was making a life for herself and her daughter. Her mother Angela told her frankly; “I wasn’t in your life but I will be in Emmy’s life” and has now been sober for the last four years.

Now sit back and think for a second. When was the last time you heard someone talk about living with addiction on national television that wasn’t in a documentary setting?

Having been in the Dome, I can tell you that you could have heard a pin drop when Shauna was speaking. It felt like the Rose of Tralee had matured and was prepared to start tackling bigger issues than ‘How long have you and your boyfriend been together?’.

Of course, there were some absolutely mad moments as well. Dáithí seemed to be in his element as he was power lifted by Westmeath Rose Leanne Quinn and milked a fake cow with Laois Rose Grainne Hogan. If anyone who didn’t know what the Rose of Tralee was had turned on the telly and witnessed half the show, they might have called a doctor and asked was Ireland ok.

What we seem to forget is that all the Roses want to be there. They chose to be there so who are we to tell them that what they’re doing is wrong? Yes, Dáithí can be a bit embarrassing, suggesting that every woman’s dream job is to be a fashion buyer in Brown Thomas but that’s the joke. Everyone in Tralee from the Roses to Dáithí knows that the Rose of Tralee is a bit old fashioned but they’re all in the joke and so are we.

Does the Rose of Tralee have some problematic elements to it? Yes of course it does but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a place in Irish society. If we all thought it was horseshit, it would have died a death a long time ago. It may not be the ideal celebration of women but that doesn’t mean it can’t be. If it’s willing to adapt as it’s shown this year, then we should be willing to give it a chance.

I went down thinking that I knew everything about the Rose of Tralee and I ended up falling a tiny bit in love with the whole thing. It’s not perfect, not by a long shot but at the heart of it, I think we’d all be sad if it was to end. Because honestly, life would just be a little duller without it.

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