The Rose of Tralee International Festival is based on the love song The Rose of Tralee, by William Mulchinock a 19th century wealthy merchant who was in love with Mary O’Connor, his maid. Mary was born in Broguemaker’s Lane in Tralee and worked as a nanny. When William first saw Mary he fell in love with her, but because of the difference in social class between the two families their love affair was discouraged. William emigrated, and some years later returned to Tralee only to find Mary had died of tuberculosis. He was broken hearted and expressed his love for her in the words of the song.
The Festival as it is today stems from Tralee’s Carnival Queen, once a thriving annual town event, fallen by the wayside due to post-war emigration. In 1957 Race Week Carnival was resurrected in Tralee that featured a Carnival Queen. A year later a group of local business people met in Harty’s Bar in Tralee and decided to revamp the Carnival in a way that would regenerate the town, encourage tourism and keep the race crowd in town overnight.
The new event would be called a festival and the carnival queen event turned into a celebration of the Rose of Tralee song. Young women would also be sought from outside Tralee, and heats were held as far away as London, Birmingham, New York and Dublin with the help of local Kerry people living abroad.
The first Festival in 1959 had Roses representing Tralee, London, Dublin, Birmingham and New York, and cost just IR£750. It is indicative of the growth of the event that by 1965 the budget had grown to IR£10,000. Each Rose had to be a native of Tralee, but this condition was relaxed in the early sixties to be a native of Kerry, and in 1967 “Irish birth or ancestry” became the criterion.
The 1959 Festival was a resounding success with Alice O’Sullivan from Dublin becoming its first Rose. The organising committee extended their sights to include setting up centres in other areas, beginning with the United States. As well as Ireland, the UK and the US, the Festival now has centres in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Dubai and Luxembourg.
The original proposed title of the event was the Festival of Tralee. However a member of the New York Kerrymen’s Association recommended Festival of Kerry as a title that would facilitate support by Kerry émigrés from other parts of the county. It was in the 1970s that editor of The Kerryman newspaper, Seamus McConville, suggested that the title Rose of Tralee International Festival be used to strengthen the link to the song and to reflect the growth of the event worldwide.
The first Rose Selection took place at a dance. After a few years it moved to the Ashe Memorial Hall in Tralee town centre (then used as a cinema) with seating for 680 people. By 1972 it was obvious that the demand for tickets far outstripped capacity. The International Eisteddfod in Wales used a large marquee-like structure and this became the model for the Rose of Tralee Festival Dome which first appeared in 1973 at a cost exceeding £17,500 (the total Festival budget for 1972). Irish folk singer Johnny McEvoy topped the bill on the Dome’s opening night. The original Dome was destroyed in a storm on the last day of the 1983 festival.
The town’s impressive street lighting put up especially each year for the Festival was first introduced in the early sixties. Pieces were brought from the Blackpool Illuminations, which gives an idea of the extent and impact of the display. The streets of Tralee were bathed in coloured windmills, lighted clowns, floral arrangements and rockets all surplus to Blackpool requirements and restored by ESB electricians.
The ESB was the first company to install extensive lighting and moving parts on a float (others involved a cable trailing from the car in front to run a few spotlights). One of the most spectacular floats ever built was an ESB helicopter with flashing lights and revolving rotor blades with Roses sitting in the cabin.
Decorative floats for the parade were introduced in 1967. The first float incorporated a background based on a scallop shell, until a couple of days before the festival somebody realised that the design was very similar to a global oil company’s logo and the float had to be changed. Initially floats were floral and countless hours were spent decorating them with hundreds of thousands of artificial flowers.
The streets have always reverberated with entertainers, music and big name live rock bands, including Westlife, Gabrielle, James Brown, Inxs, James Last and Phil Coulter, but began with folk groups, American school choirs and pop bands. In the early sixties a group from Dublin, The Harmonichords, played on the streets for an all-in fee of IR£5. They enjoyed themselves so much they returned from Dublin the following night for another fiver. They later became known as The Bachelors.
The Tavern in Tralee was a popular pub in the early sixties for ballad groups. A Canadian TV Crew were in Killarney and came to Tralee to film some of the Festival. Directed to The Tavern, they filmed the group performing and their subsequent programme was shown across Canada. The fledgling ballad group? The Wolfe Tones.
The Gala International Rose Ball was introduced in the seventies, as was the involvement of Irish Cultural Organisations including Siamsa Tíre, the band of An Garda Siochána and US military bands.
Telefís Éireann first broadcast Rose Selection live in 1967 from a stage outside the Ashe Memorial Hall. Compere for TV was the late Joe Lynch (Dinny from RTÉ TV soap Glenroe). The show also featured a major parade of entertainers in front of the stage.
Rose Selection has been compered by Kevin Hilton, Joe Lynch, Terry Wogan, Brendan O’Reilly (RTÉ sports), Michael Twomey (‘Cha & Miah’), Gay Byrne, Kathleen Watkins, Derek Davis, Marty Whelan, Ryan Tubridy and Ray D’Arcy.
The first time a Taoiseach officially opened the festival was in 1986 when Charles Haughey TD departed from the traditional ministerial speech and recited a poem composed especially for the occasion. President Mary McAleese attended a Gala Dinner in Tralee’s Earl of Desmond Hotel to celebrate the 40th festival.
No Centre has won the title in successive years. The closest was New York which won in 1974 (Maggie Flaherty) and 1976 (Marie Soden). Dublin has won the event more often than any other Centre – 5 times - beginning with Alice O’Sullivan in 1959, Ciara O’Sullivan (1962), Cathy Quinn (1969), Sinéad Boyle (1989) and Orla Tobin (2003).
Two gentlemen who were Escorts have attained a measure of fame outside their Festival roles. Former Dublin Lord Mayor Royston Brady and Bull Island’s Alan Shortt were both Escorts. Alan Shortt got his first break as a comedian when Gay Byrne brought him on stage during Rose Selection to tell a few jokes.
There is an actual rose named The Rose of Tralee. Sam McGredy was an internationally renowned Portadown rose grower who became involved with the Festival in the 1960s. He bred and registered the Rose of Tralee rose and presented rose bushes to Tralee, which still grow in the Town Park.
Since 1959 the Festival has grown, incorporating centres from all over the world and is firmly established on everyone’s events calendar. RTÉ’s live coverage of the Rose selection has helped install the Festival in the national psyche, and it has remained their top rating show for many years, with nearly a million people tuning in for the 2006 result.