With this year’s Rose of Tralee International Festival underway Siobhán Breatnach debates the issue with two women – both living in Britain but with differing views. For journalist Katy Harrington the 54-year-old festival is nothing more than a beauty pageant but former participant Grace Kelly says you’ll never see a Rose on the cover of FHM.
SB: Can the Rose of Tralee be considered a true reflection of Irish women today?
Katy Harrington: It’s certainly not a reflection of any Irish women I know. To me, the only thing the festival represents with the perfectly-presented, smiles-all-around, groomed within an inch of their life ladies is someone’s (certainly not my) fantasy of an Irish cailín.
Grace Kelly: The majority of the girls I met during my time at the festival as the 2007 Liverpool Rose were some of the most interesting people I have ever met… and before the festival I had by no means led a sheltered life. The girls were extremely varied in their level of Irishness. Some had never been to Ireland before, while others had been brought up with the festival. So that in itself does not represent a typical Irish cailín. Many of the girls are third/fourth/fifth generation Irish and have a lot more than their Irishness to offer.
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KH: But isn’t she just the perfect, inoffensive Stepford wife? The last time I met a girl on the street who acted like a Rose was the last time I heard an Irish person say ‘Top of the morning to ya’… Never!
GK: In terms of being perfectly presented, yes, there are people on hand to help with clothing etc… but we had the autonomy to wear what we wanted — granted, no jeans allowed. I agree that it might seem that the girls are ‘smiles-all-around’ robots who can turn it on and off, but to be fair those who may have been ‘putting it on’ would have found it difficult to keep this up for 12 days non-stop.
The analogy of a Stepford wife might indeed be the opinion of many, but the girls are everyday girls. Yes, they may be on their best behaviour — just as you would at a job interview — but they are far from dull, monotone individuals.
The women I met were all extremely intelligent women who were well qualified in their field. They were all-rounders and well balanced. Each and every young woman who enters the Rose of Tralee Festival is a modern woman, who is ultimately a role model for the younger generation.
KH: I’m sorry, but a festival that asks women to demonstrate their ‘caring sides’ while wearing frocks, and doing a song or dance on stage to impress the judges is the very opposite of modern.
The Rose of Tralee is stuck in the dark ages and doesn’t resonate with the majority of Irish people. It’s cringeworthy to watch and this is reflected in the slumping viewership figures.
SB: Katy do you see any positive side to the Festival? Does it not help to spread the ‘Visit Ireland’ message to tourists around the world. Over £6million was generated in Tralee at last year’s International Festival…
KH: It’s clearly a huge money spinner. And in such low times for Irish tourism, I’m in favour of anything that will get visitors to our shores — except if those are things that damage our environment or our reputation. And I think the Rose of Tralee does the latter.
Also, I am sure that everyone genuinely has a great time. I have heard from former Roses that they make friends they would never have crossed paths with otherwise — but why that couldn’t happen under different circumstances is beyond me. What about a festival where women aren’t reduced to pretty young things to be ooh-ed and ahh-ed?
GK: Tralee generates a lot of money — it is after all a business. There are people employed in full time jobs to ensure its success. Generating that money creates an amazing once-in-a-life-time experience for everyone involved.
Many people go to Tralee for their annual summer holiday and others from Rose centres worldwide have re-visited the town on numerous occasions. I can’t agree whatsoever that the Rose of Tralee damages Ireland’s reputation.
It wouldn’t have survived 54 years if this was the case. Making life-long friends is another part of Tralee. I have a small group of friends who are now among some of the best I’ve ever made.
KH: As an Irish person living in Britain, I hate it when we are parodied abroad as drunken oafs who eat potatoes and can’t swim.
Yet when we persist with self-inflicted paddywhackery at festivals like this, I can’t help feeling we only have ourselves to blame. The festival promotes a ‘faith and beggorah’ Ireland that is alien to me.
GK: For me the festival was an opportunity to represent the Irish community where I was living. The opportunity to expand my experience in public speaking, interviews and etiquette were all positive things that helped me after the festival.
SB: So Grace, there was nothing negative about the experience you had as a Rose?
GK: I honestly think the festival promotes young women and shows what they have and can achieve. These girls are excellent ambassadors and are given a platform to show so.The festival has moved with the times.
People say it’s boring to watch 32 girls over two nights talking about similar things… but if it is as boring as all that then why does RTÉ’s ratings peak to an average of 1.3million viewers on both televised nights?
KH: For anyone who has ever sat through the entire show, it feels like days not hours.
It’s almost too silly to care about but if it’s only a bit of craic why does our tourism board support it and our national broadcaster cover the winner on the main news?
People at home and abroad take it seriously, and that’s worrying because The Rose of Tralee is as authentic as green beer on St Patrick’s Day.
If we are happy to be seen as a backward nation, that treats women as inferior objects, to be paraded around in gowns and judged on whose best behaviour meets some 1950s standards, then I don’t see any negatives about the festival at all.
GK: It’s a cultural event… it’s been around for years. As for those people who watch it on the TV merely to score the dresses… I’d ask, have they been to the week-long festival, which has a jam-packed schedule for young and old alike from traditional music to Irish dancing and cultural events.
Yes, that could happen without having 32 girls parade around the streets, but without them the festival wouldn’t exist in the first place.
SB: Girls parading around… then is the festival not simply an American-esque beauty pageant by another name? Why not just add a bikini round and be done with it?
KH: Lord above! No one wants to see any of these women in a bikini! That might have the unintended consequence of making us think about Ireland’s great longest-standing taboo — sex.
Seriously though, I wish they would just call it a beauty pageant — not a representation of Irish women — and stop dressing it up as something else. Then I’d happily back off.
GK: The festival is not a representation of every Irish woman out there. These women are representatives for the communities in which they live. It’s by no means a beauty pageant — they’re not chosen based on looks alone.
The girls are not made-up Barbie dolls… they’re regular looking girls you would see walking down the street. None of them get modelling contracts, unless that’s what they are looking for. You won’t see them on the front cover of FHM. Some of the Roses, perhaps, attend the festival with the wrong attitude to ‘winning’.
KH: Women line up on stage, done up to the nines in ball gowns, waiting to be interviewed by a judge on stage while being televised… sound familiar? It’s a beauty pageant. Fair enough, they may look for other attributes, but let’s not kid ourselves. If it wasn’t a beauty pageant then why should only 18-28 year olds be able to enter?
GK: Never once, during my experience of being a Rose and judging in numerous centres since, have I seen the Rose of Tralee as a beauty pageant.
The Rose of Tralee focuses on a woman’s intellect, her character, personality, awareness of the world around her and much less on her physical appearance. Of course, all the Roses are attractive young ladies, but this is by no means an important factor in the process.
SB: The Rose of Tralee Festival claims to mirror a changing Ireland and the various definitions of Irishness worldwide. Does it reflect what it is to be Irish today?
KH: The Roses don’t reflect a changing Ireland — they reflect an ideal Catholic, white, heterosexual, pretty, ‘compassionate’ Irish woman.
Just take a look at the Roses when they are all lined-up on stage before the winner is announced.They look like carbon copies of each other — hence they all have to wear different colour dresses so you can tell them apart.
GK: In my experience not every Rose is Catholic, white… and who’s to say that some of the girls are not homosexual? The common denominator is that they share a degree of Irishness.
KH: If the festival represents a changing Ireland… where are the unemployed, the single mums, the mixed race, the divorced, the separated? Oh, I forgot, they can’t enter. Where are the fat girls, the skinny ones, the girls with crap hair, the ones with awful teeth?
GK: The festival has developed hugely over the years. The fact that there have been numerous roses of mixed-race, mixed-religion backgrounds is an example of this.
The crowning in 2010 of Clare Kambamettu, a mixed-race psychologist is proof that the festival is in touch with Irishness around the world. The notion of the festival being a parade of white, Catholic, mid-twenties girls is a thing of the past.
SB: The International Festival looks to celebrate young women’s aspirations, ambitions, intellect and social responsibility. How does this sit with what critics would say is simply a ‘lovely girls’ competition?
GK: To call it a lovely girls competition is an insult to those taking part. By taking part the girls have shown ambition — an ambition to experience something different, make new friends and share experiences.
KH: If this is all about ambition, then can someone just remind me why 30 women are on stage grinning while competing against each other for a crown and a sash?
I love the idea of celebrating the successes (and even documenting the hardships) of Irish descendants from around the globe… but why does it have to be done in such a patronising fashion to women? And if that is truly the festival’s goal, why not have men and women take part?
The Father Ted ‘lovely girls’ competition sums it all up better than I ever could when Ted says: “They all have lovely bottoms”. In order to do well or win, the girls have to be quite generic.
GK: The women who take part in the festival are in their own right ambitious, aspiring, intelligent young women. Of course they are all ‘lovely girls’ but lovely in relation to their inner beauty as opposed to what they look like on the outside.
SB: In 2008 the Rose of Tralee Festival changed the rules to allow single mothers to enter for the first time. Roses cannot however be married or previously married. How does that weigh up in this debate?
KH: They need those criteria because the women must appear ‘available’ to be desirable. It’s basically a cattle mart with hairspray.
There is always a little bit of wink wink nudge nudge about the escorts, but the festival seem desperate to present an anachronistic world of matchmaking and courting, where the men carry the women’s bags, little girls should be seen and not heard and we are all virgins until we get married.
About one third of children born in Ireland are born to unmarried parents. We can’t stick our head in the sand any more.
GK: To discount a young woman simply because she has a child does indeed support what was once a very old fashioned view of women in Irish society. It shows just how far Ireland and its attitudes have come.
SB: Are the women who take part in the Festival just too good to be true? Does what we see on stage reflect what happens back stage?
KH: I’m sure many of the girls get drunk, have sex, act like idiots and fight… because they are human. But the festival is only interested in presenting a one dimensional good girl.
GK: The majority of the girls who take part in the competition are… forgive me for wanting to use the word again… lovely. Viewers at home only see each participant for five minutes during their televised stage interview. This does not and cannot give a true reflection of anyone. These girls are genuine individuals.
KH: I don’t for a second doubt that the women who enter are lovely/genuine/caring… nor do I care if any of them are not! All I want to know is why, if they are intelligent, ambitious and successful, what do they care about a sash and a crown for?
SB: Can you sum up what you think is the ‘typical Rose’?
KH: Yes. She is pretty but not too sexy, smart but not too clever. And let me guess — she loves to work with children, charities, animals and is family orientated. Basically she’s nice but dull, or even worse, pretending to be.
GK: A type does not exist. Each Rose of Tralee has been different in so many ways to her predecessor. Of course the common denominators are there such as being well educated, having the ability to speak in public, character, life experience etc. Dull is definitely not a word I would use to describe any of them.
KH: I know the women who take part do so willingly. And as long as women run, enter and support competitions like this they will continue. Men aren’t going to stop this, they couldn’t care less if we are covering our mouths politely while we laugh, doing lovely dances and singing like angels to score points with judges, because they are off running the world.
So by all means, be pro-Rose of Tralee, I don’t want to be a killjoy. But to me, this festival fails to represent even a fraction of the talented, cool, clever and funny Irish women out there. But then why would any of them want to enter anyway?