Rose of Tralee: Are we missing the point?

“The annual Rose of Tralee brings with it a slew of disdainful articles, all predictable and totally missing the point! ”

Well, there you have it. A comment in response to today’s’s opinion piece on that most divisive of pageants: The Rose of Tralee. Joining Lorraine Courtney in the condemnation corner is Louise O’Neill in The Examiner. Both allude to the anachronistic nature of the event: the casual objectification of women (albeit without the bikini round); the ethnically homogenous participants; and the less-than-subtle assumptions on sexuality with the safeguarding of an exclusively male line-up of chaperones. Because, in the case of the latter, where would the ladies be without one? Getting sick sideways out the tour-bus window no doubt. If only.

Like any cultural phenomenon, the spectacle shouldn’t be spared a periodic good kicking to see how it stands up. Courtney is concerned with the perceived dumbing down of personalities through the banal interview that forces participants to temper their individuality via self-censorship and insipid responses. O’Neill, meanwhile, despairs that regardless of the purported elevation of brains above beauty to ensure a more respectable affair, it is the sparkly dresses and winning smiles that little girls looking on remember. The impact of the resulting absorption of such messages on female success should not be underestimated.

Like any article written on women by women, neither writer is spared the reciprocated on-line kicking. The substantive points both make are frequently overlooked by readers more concerned with pointing out their apparent uptightness and compulsion to peddle a pro-feminist message. Imagine that. The particularly enlightened commentators cite several points missed: the choice women have to participate (or not), the ‘harmlessness’ of the revenue-generating bit of fun local communities depend on, and not least the professional and educational status of the wimmin. What’s all the whinging for?

“Some of the most accomplished women have taken part in the Rose of the Tralee and last years winner is a medical student and as a cancer survivor will I believe, go on to be a fine doctor.” (sic)

Indeed. And this is perhaps what makes it a uniquely Irish Festival of Respectability: the degree and the big job. The ultimate status symbols. That most beloved of combos after low-esteem and big ego. Which to this reluctant spectator, is what has helped contributed to the event’s durability.

Louise O’Neill asks when the last time a woman of colour entered? While this is a fair question, so dominated has identity politics become by issues of gender and sexuality that the most glaring issue of inequality that encompasses many women irrespective of ethnicity appears to go unchallenged: that of class. When is the last time a woman without the mandatory third level education and impenetrable job title entered?

“Of course no mention that the majority of these women are all ready successful in there lives much more successful then the women that complain and want to stop them from doing this.”

Another Journal commentator roundly telling the critics off.

There is just one thorny problem with that analysis however: people are born with conventional beauty (or pay for it), but it is privilege that awards them ‘brains’.  In the common Irish sense. The Rose of Tralee sense. The status and respectability sense. The national middle-class definition of success sense.

The centrality of women’s education in combating global inequality and access to the labour market is a given. Ambition and determination are not to be sniffed at either. But they are not the preserve of the formally educated who have benefitted from the opportunity to have their ‘brains’ nurtured. A degree and companion ‘profession’ isn’t a pre-requisite for contributing to keeping society successfully on its axis, nor an accurate measure of ‘intelligence’; and the meaning of ‘success’ goes beyond what’s reflected back at us from our job titles and pay-cheques.

When I watch the conga of lovely girls sashaying on to the stage, it is not exposure to identikit glamour and bad jokes I fear most for my own girl. It is the stark class divisions and national obsession with defining success according to a system of inequality that leaves the bitterest after-taste. The narrow definition of success. The one-track route to worthiness. Will the unconscious absorption of the message on ‘success’ stalk her throughout her life? In choosing to go to college or not. In adjusting aspirations and priorities if children enter the fray (if she wants them, and lucky to have them). If they don’t, will she be shunted into that limiting corner where her worth must proved by workplace success? Will jettisoning the big job and opportunities result in itchy feelings of failure? Will having the benefit of a formal education (if lucky to receive it) for life and knowledge be sufficient?

Modern mainstream musings on women are freighted with these anxieties, and written mostly by ‘successful’ women. Valid though they be, they have, in the main, become an issue of entitlement for the already entitled. With scant attention given to equality of access to education, and the merits of it remaining the chief determinant for just about every ‘respectable’ job going. And we don’t need to re-open any discussion here on the lack of respect afforded to predominantly female areas of work.

Even if it were to leave out ‘beauty’, The Rose of Tralee would still be left with the worrying problem of ‘brains’. So why bother with either?

rose of tralee

You’ve No degree? What kind of degree is that? Begorrah

Lorraine Courtney’s article:

Louise O’Neill’s article:



And so, we give ourselves that feel-good moment, and leave a few quid for the chambermaids tasked with speculating whether we were obliging guests or just dirty fuckers allergic to towels. From the strange, we continue further South. So impaled am I on the thrill of the unfamiliar, my fella barely conceals his surprise that I’m Huggy Bear about an extra hour’s drive. One due to dismissal of my directions. Another hour on top of that wouldn’t bother me too much. Some of us like driving to stand still. But he doesn’t need to know that.

To tell you the truth, I’m not quite sure of the way either. We are both wearing that unbearable swagger that only fits when we’re so intent on proving our familiarity with places past, we over-estimate it. His is rumbled while mine is saved by an assertion the new one-way system is the culprit responsible for back-tracks into town. Then relief as the hotel façade juts in to view. There is no new one-way system.

I inform our wee one this is the place where her Dad and I got it together proper. Where the symphony of getting-to-like-yous was composed. He points out all the stations of the courtship: the road we wobbled home drunk, the pub where held hand, and not forgetting the petrol pumps – the last pit-stop before his exit onto the motorway home. He laughs to himself at the memories of sadness he used to feel on departing.

Eight years on, it’s different but deeper. So the glossy mags and mid-day female panelists would have us believe. But I wouldn’t say no to another evening of exaggerating about being the outdoor-type, and wheeling out some of my best yarns for the first time for a few of his guffaws. In the same way I don’t love our one any less just because I wouldn’t turn down a few nights with her as a new-born. We were lucky – she was a good sleeper as a nipper; and this town was a discreet, but lively, chaperone. I wonder aloud if *list of drab towns* would have set us up as successfully, ignoring his middle-distance gaze. No need to nail it to the ground then.

I stand as a fellow tourist with the pair of them in the same spot where I stood as a new resident back then. We’re waiting on a makeshift train to bring us around the sights at a mortifying 20 miles an hour. Back then I was waiting on a coachload of families eager to see what kind of place was designated for them to set up home. With no idea of how success was to be measured.

The tour-guide points out ancient ruins to our right, while I fixate on the shop to our left where young faces hoked through emblems and crests to see which fitted. On our left, another church flings its spire in the air three doors down from the health-centre where most of them registered that day. Around the corner one of the oldest graveyards in the country apologies for itself, and I shiver at the flashback of fruitless flat-hunting on the road adjacent.

Sentimentalism is egging me on to begin another round of remember-whens. But I’ve no patience with it today. Or its inflated sense of entitlement, and obsession with converting transient feelings into something mawkish and manipulative. My inner steely tour-guide marches on, willing my resolve to keep hugging the present.

Coats hanging on the back of chairs as we clink glass. To the future. And all that. Whatever that is. The menu’s changed. Who cares.

“Are you ready to order?”

I look up directly into the brown eyes of one of those erstwhile fresh faces. Long grown out of the school blazer with at least another foot below her knees and I.. and I… and I…

The comfort of strange places

It helps that it’s near the sea with a coastal energy fizzing in the atmosphere but it doesn’t matter. So long as these road-signs are alien to me, and their contents the stuff traffic reports are made of, hundreds of tertiary roads and a higher frequency away, I’m as content as I’ll ever be.

We share a common language with the locals but mispronounce the villages, both of us struggling to hitch our respective Northern Rs up around a few that require the native blas for accuracy. And although we haven’t fled the island that harbours us all, the experience feels just as commanding as a foreign holiday.

Their stretch of sea might share a coastline with mine, but it’s not prone to stirring up treacherous storms. Their people came from the same national herd of rural dwellers but mine did not journey along these particular roads with or without a backward glance to a place where their descendants hear the echoes of their regrets and hopes, if they  listen long enough. The more they try not to, the more they try to ignore the genetic ripples in the wind, the more deafening it becomes.

The woman in the record shop slides the CD into a made-to-measure brown paper bag. If it hadn’t been for her, we would never have found the river-side café hidden in the foliage behind the bridge. If it hadn’t been for the local she met while passing through in 1979, she’d probably be somewhere else by now. They married a year later. They wouldn’t be anywhere else.

The streets are teeming with strangers. Work colleagues respectfully studying the pavement as the other relays a yarn requiring concentration. Be-capped men in door-ways leaving their silence to do the talking. Eastern Europeans serving coffee with all the flair and lilt of locals. Robust, newly born buildings with an arm each around delapidated shops holding them up from collapse. I know no-one. Our streetscapes are distant cousins through geography. We have no history, and no future. But a three-night stand with this place makes me feel like I’m firmly in the present. That most exclusive of holiday destinations.

Northern exposure

Part of the ritual of a trip to the flicks is a gawk at departing viewers as the lights come up and the credits roll.  It used to be an unconscious reflex, curiosity to see who else the film appealed to without processing it too finely. But this evening, the descent of young lads two by two-steps at a time is impossible to ignore. They’re of the generation that wasn’t born during The Conflict. Yet here they are, quietly absorbing a documentary on Hunger Striker, Bobby Sands. Like Sands needs any introduction….

The film’s appeal is proof positive that his place in the enduring mystique of Republicanism is safe. Where he continues to be romanticised in a way those from the armed movement’s ‘legitimate targets’ are not.

The newly released documentary 66 Days is compelling viewing chronicling the turbulent period of Sands’s physical demise and corresponding rise of his political determination. It does so while unpicking the competing perspectives of those who considered him a freedom fighter with unflinching conviction against others who categorised him and his comrades as terrorists. All the while transcending firm conclusions by illuminating the contradictions and hypocrisies of violence directed towards others alongside feats of self-sacrifice (something the IRA were not generally known for). Contractions that propel a handful of individuals into the universally recognised iconography of the oppressed. An enigmatic few with an ability to attract derision and admiration, often simultaneously.

For all its success at even-handedness, and impressive line-up of talking heads, it is a struggle to ignore the film’s lack of female voices. According to director, Brendan J Byrne, the women he ‘wanted’ (Sands’s sisters, Bernadette McAliskey) declined to participate. When pressed for a comment on Twitter, Byrne responded:

“..I know but it was mainly a war fought by men… Inserting a female voice for the sake of it felt tokenistic to me”

To this viewer, the inclusion of women wouldn’t have been any more tokenistic than having Fintan O’Toole as the main analyst could be seen as a tactical effort to give the film broader respectability. Instead there is an entire male cast of historians, commentators, former politicians, and political analysts.

More critically, Byrne appears to ignore the finer aspects of his own film. For there are women everywhere throughout it, if silenced by the sound of men talking. So we do not hear the bin-lids they bang, nor their cries of grief at funerals, nor the stomp of their feet as they march in mandatory black berets and matching shades, nor their tearing down of corrugated iron surrounding the H-Blocks that contributed significantly to the eventual end of the Hunger Strikes seven months and 10 dead men after they started. Backroom strategists remain out of view.

As Bernadette McAliskey remarked only last week during a discussion on women in history: “history is what it says it is”.

An examination of war doesn’t require the insertion of female voices into the story. They have always been in the middle of it. Feeling the impact of it more keenly than most.


Bobby Sands’s Mother & Sister at his funeral

A different corner

I don’t have any problem moving house. It’s the staying put that gives me jip. I used to think it was down to a restless gypsy soul. Therefore conferring a certain romantic status on invisible voids strewn across my sense of self.

On closer inspection, roaming between destinations within a few hundred mile radius of each other hints less at a wanderer than a fidgety fugitive. From what? Heartbreak? Conformity? Boredom? Prison? If life’s continuum is a process of breaking free towards the next point of the present, then surely it pays to stop and look around every once in a while to see how it measures up against the brochure.

But flicking forwards and backwards to the other glossy pages became a habit. Until the habit became a pathology. Until the pathology had me sitting cross-legged and leaning over kitchen tables, weekend papers, bar counters, pillows, cinema seats, my own pointed fingers, and steering wheels, weighing up the pros and cons of moving to anywhere-but-here.

And now I’m about to give all that up when we make the permanent move next week…to a mile from here. No longer will I be able to luxuriate in fabricated futures that were never going to be anyway. Just rogue horizons on the shoreline of segregated schools and communities. Rusting fire escapes leaning against hardened vowels beneath tribal flags flapping in the stillness of political ineptitude.

Would it be different elsewhere? Probably not. There would just be different windows through which I could day-dream my way into a new existence. A new job. A new me. The elusive mysterious me I can’t quite pin down. Because when push comes to shove, she’d probably prefer a ground-hog Saturday evening to something anything but.

The 40s are a strange time. The game is up in many respects, but getting used to some things that are so right still takes getting used to.