Of beauty pageants and birthdays


Boston native Maria Walsh, who moved to Mayo and now lives in Philadelphia, was named the 2014 Rose of Tralee. A few days later she came out as gay.


The Rose of Tralee and me each date to 1959. We’re both 55 this month.

I noticed the coincidence reading some news coverage of the annual event, which takes place this year 15-20 August. I follow @RoseofTralee on my @markieam Twitter feed because of the Kerry connection.

The Rose of Tralee International Festival is based on the love song “The Rose of Tralee” about the impossible union of 19th century merchant William Pembroke Mulchinock for his family’s maid, Mary O’Connor.

She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer,
Yet ’twas not her beauty alone that won me.
Oh no, ’twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning
That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.

Here are the song lyrics; the story of William and Mary; and a detailed history of the event, all from the festival’s official website.

Winner Haley O Sullivan from Texas is congratulated by fellow contestants at last year's Rose of Tralee event. Image from Irish Independent.

Winner Haley O’Sullivan from Texas is congratulated by fellow contestants at last year’s Rose of Tralee event. Image from Irish Independent.

Of course, many people scoff at such pageants as being hopelessly old fashioned or exploitative of the young women. “I know people snigger at it, but over a million people watch it every year, they’re over run with girls interested in being part of it,” RTÉ weather presenter and festival judge Nuala Carey told the Irish Independent.

And if the event helps the Kerry economy, all the better.

The Rose festival is the Irish version of the 92-year-old Miss America Pageant, which last year returned to its Atlantic City roots after running off to Las Vegas for several years. I covered the pageant in the early 1980s as a young reporter in Atlantic City. I was a peer of the contestants. But I missed history, having left the city a year before the first African-American winner was crowned, an event nearly as dramatic as the U.S. electing its first black president 25 years later.

Likewise, the Rose of Tralee has expanded from a field of local colleens from the town or Kerry to an international pool that welcomes young women of “Irish birth or ancestry.” The reigning Rose is from Texas. Who in 1959 would have thought that was possible?

I suppose I have a soft spot in my heart for both events. After all, what’s not to like about youth, beauty and talent, and the late summer festivals that bring people together to celebrate all three?