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ColumnCultureFirst person

I was wrong about… the Rose of Tralee

By August 28, 2022No Comments



As a child, Clare Egan dreamed about becoming a Rose. In the latest instalment of her column, she reflects on what she thinks the festival really celebrates


The end of August means one thing in the Irish calendar: it’s time for the Rose of Tralee. The regressive, sexist celebration of the supposed Irish female ‘ideal’. It launched recently with photographs of presenter Dáithí Ó Sé, surrounded by an abundance of thin, white, able-bodied* women in dresses, sashes and heels on Sandymount Strand. I thought the time had passed when it was considered insulting to compare adult, human women to passive pieces of vegetation but apparently not. Flowers are beautiful. They smell nice. They look good on the dining room table. But women are not flowers. 

That message hasn’t quite penetrated minds in Tralee, nor the 54 Rose centres around the world. Each year, they seek the woman who best matches with the attributes relayed in the song: “lovely and fair”. The festival is keen to emphasise that the winner is selected on the basis of personality, that she should be a good role model for the festival and an ambassador for Ireland during her travels around the world. There’s no parading women around in their swimsuits, they say. Though of course there is a parade through the streets of Tralee. Women smiling in pretty dresses, their sashes emblazoned with a sponsor’s logo. The Roses participate alongside Rose Buds, young girls aged between 6 and 10 who are specially selected to take part. A canny partnership with RTÉ ensures that the whole enterprise is broadcast to the masses. 

There was a time when I wanted to be a Rose. I watched every year with my family and saw the role I could play. “I have red hair. They’d love that,” I reasoned. I imagined my dress – a modest, satin gown in bottle green. It would be tasteful, flattering (a euphemism for slimming). I might need to have it specially made so I could unhook the bottom part and be ready to showcase my talent for Irish dancing. I wasn’t much of a dancer, but that was beside the point. My dress would have a dramatic second act. 

Back then, women had to be younger than 28, unmarried and childless in order to qualify. In recent years, the Festival has made some progressive efforts. They allowed married women and mothers to compete and raised the qualification age to 30. They released a statement saying that trans women were allowed to take part though they were careful to point out that they were never explicitly excluded. The fact that there has never been a trans Rose tells us everything we need to know about how welcome that community feels.

Nor has there been a trans escort, nor a non-binary participant in either category though that’s perhaps unsurprising given that the whole festival is based on the strict enforcement of a rigid gender binary. Festival supporters point to Maria Walsh as the first openly gay winner or Brianna Parkin’s comments about bodily autonomy during the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment as evidence that the festival has modernised. They have also been several non-white winners.

But the festival is merely doing what archaic institutions often do: pointing to moments of progressivism in order to deflect attention from its overarching goal which is to celebrate a very traditional (some would say old-fashioned) idea of female success. When we see the Roses, they are immaculately dressed and smiling amiably. Aside from a brief chat on stage, they remain quiet. Each woman’s contribution on stage follows a familiar pattern: she talks about her family and how proud they are, her career success, her (often heteronormative) values, her commitment to giving back, her interest in caregiving either professionally or someday, aspirationally, for her own family. 

The festival showcases a very narrow interpretation of femininity and what the ‘ideal’ woman should be. She is thin. She is white. She is pleasant. She has a nice smile. She works in the service of others. She is demure, almost asexual. She volunteers. Her family is proud of her. She is friendly, down to earth, wholesome. There is no place for the radical or the counter-cultural. There is no anger, no rage, little passion. There’s a sprinkling of progressivism to stave off the critics, but the heart of the festival has remained the same since it began in 1959. It’s easy to point to PR statements or examples of individual winners who exist outside the cis-het white norm. It’s much harder to do the work of re-shaping the festival to reflect the values and ideals of modern Ireland. It is also, potentially, less economically lucrative. 

When the festival was canceled due to the pandemic, the local economy lost upwards of €15m. That money is made, primarily, on the backs of women’s labour. It takes both time and money to conform to the rigid ideal of femininity celebrated by the festival. The money spent on fake tan and jewel-toned dresses and elaborate hairstyles boomerangs into the local economy lifting the profit margins of local business owners. The prize for being crowned Rose of Tralee is the opportunity to spend a year promoting the festival. You’ll wear your nice dress, crown and sash and smile for the cameras whenever it’s required. Roses become an emblem of Irishness, a flesh and blood embodiment of a very marketable commodity.

Poet Eavan Boland warned of the dangers of appropriating Irish femininity as a national emblem: “Once the idea of a nation influences the perception of a woman then that woman is suddenly and inevitably simplified. She can no longer have complex feelings and aspirations. She becomes the passive projection of a national idea.”

*Of course, it’s not always possible to tell a person’s health status by how they look. Some participants may have invisible illnesses or disabilities that impact their lives.