Every year, without fail, the Rose of Tralee performs its true purpose with flying colours: But that true purpose is not – as you might naively think – to crown a member of the diaspora as the very avatar of young Irish womanhood.
No, the true purpose of the Rose of Tralee is to provide a reliable topic of national debate in the dog days of August when all the politicians have taken a break from messing things up, and there’s nothing else to talk about on the radio.
So it was, then, that starved of a news item yesterday morning, RTE’s Morning Ireland went back to the well for yet another conversation about whether the Rose of Tralee is outdated and twee and should be abolished, or whether it is outdated and twee and should be retained. In one corner, Dr. Finola Doyle O’Neill, an academic, making the case that the festival is outdated and twee but makes the diaspora feel good about themselves and gives them a connection to home. In the other corner, the leader of Fine Gael in the Seanad, Senator Regina Doherty, making the case that the festival simply doesn’t reflect modern Ireland, on account of how all the contestants are disappointingly white women from nice middle-class families, without even one of them being possessed of a penis. If you wish, for some reason, to listen to the segment, it’s here.
The rules of media engagement around the Rose of Tralee are clear and have been for some years now: The debate has only two permissible sides – the modernisers, and the abolitionists. It is mandatory that the debate begin from the same starting position: That position being that all good middle class Irish people will automatically agree that the Rose of Tralee is a bit cringe. The moderniser will then argue that we should put up with it for the sake of the Irish Americans, and maybe make it a bit more “inclusive”. The abolitionist will want it gone, for the official reason that it’s degrading to womankind, and the real reason which is that they just can’t abide other people liking things that they themselves do not.
The “debate” is a nonsense for many reasons, but mainly for this one: There’s no modernising the Rose of Tralee without destroying it. You might as well try to make soccer more attractive to young girls who like “Barbie” by putting the players in pink tutus – the audience you gain will be dwarfed by the audience you lose.
Take Senator Doherty’s complaint about the absence of a “trans woman” from the competition, and imagine for a moment that the organisers contrived somehow to put a trans woman on stage and have that person win the competition. Would the Rose of Tralee get a brief bit of positive coverage from media outlets full of journalists fawning over inclusivity and a historic moment? Certainly – but that would be a sugar high. The very next year, those people would go back to decrying it for all the other reasons that they presently decry it – that it is objectifying, outdated, and a bit cringe.
Meanwhile, the audience that does tune in may well find a penis-owning Rose of Tralee to be a bridge too far, and abandon the festival altogether. You’d end up with an inclusive festival that nobody wanted to watch.
As with everything else in Ireland: The more inclusive you make a thing, the less anyone really wants to be included. In fairness to the organisers of the Rose of Tralee, they seem to be reasonably well aware of this, with the format having remained largely unchanged in a changing country.
It should also be noted, of course, that those who dislike the Rose of Tralee nonetheless seek constantly to ape its success: Just a few years ago, the country was subjected to something called “The Gathering”, which was Fine Gael’s attempt to do what the festival has been doing for decades: Connect the country with the diaspora, and celebrate global Irishness. The same impulse justifies Ministers carting themselves off to the four corners of the globe every March to perform an Irish jig for some amused Chinese, or offer a bowl of shamrocks to the President of the United States. If handing over a bowl of the national weed to an American politician every year is not twee and embarrassing, then how can the same people worry themselves as much as they do about the Rose of Tralee? If anything, the festival is much less leprechauny than having the Taoiseach greeted with a “top of the mornin’ to you” by various Congressmen from Arizona and North Dakota.
The answer, if you’re wondering, is tribal: Travelling to America with the Taoiseach gets our journalists a nice annual outing on expenses, and a bit of glamour – so all the excuses about “building relationships” can be deployed. But having the Texas Rose build relationships between Ireland and the Irish Americans in Texas does nothing for the average talking head in Dublin, so it can be freely scorned.
It’s August, they’re bored, and Regina Doherty can always be relied upon to say something stupid. Hence, we’re getting our annual outpouring of insufferable smuggery.