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Rose of Tralee

About the Festival

The Rose of Tralee festival is an international competition which is celebrated among Irish communities all over the world. The festival takes its inspiration from a nineteenth century ballad of the same name about a woman called Mary, who because of her beauty was called The Rose of Tralee. The words of the song are credited to C. (or E.) Mordaunt Spencer and the music to Charles William Glover, but a story circulated in connection with the festival claims that the song was written by William Pembroke Mulchinock, a wealthy Protestant, out of love for Mary O’Connor, a poor Catholic maid in service to his parents.

The Song and Story

The Story of The Rose of TraleeMary O’ Connor, born in 1820 (approx.), was the original “Rose of Tralee” Her parents’ house was in Brogue Lane in the Rock. Her father was a brogue (shoe) maker Her mother worked as a dairymaid at Cloghers House owned by the Mulchinocks, a wealthy merchant family. One of their sons was William Pembroke, a dreamer and a poet.
Mary was a dark haired beauty with very alluring eyes, but beautiful or not, she would only obtain a position as a maid or helper. At seventeen, she was employed as a kitchen maid to the Mulchinocks. However, Maria Mulchinock chose her as her kitchen maid.

William occupied himself with pastimes that wealthy young gentlemen pursued, one being a trip to the horse fair at Ballinasloe. At a ball there, he met Alice Keogh. In spite of his protestations of love, he soon returned home. When he arrived home, his sister Maria took him to see her children in the nursery where he got his first glimpse of Mary O’ Connor and was completely smitten by her look. He used every opportunity to meet her and eventually, they became a couple. He spent many evenings in her parents’ house where he was well liked. But his family disapproved, after all she was a Catholic peasant and he a wealthy Protestant.

One night by the pure crystal fountain, he took her in his arms and asked her to marry him. She declined because she was afraid that such a marriage would end in disaster even though she loved him. One evening, he took her to the same place and sang to her the first two verses of “The Rose of Tralee”.

The following evening, Daniel O’ Connell held a meeting in Denny Street and William was the leader of one of the repealer groups. A fracas broke out between one of these men and a man called Leggett, who was badly hurt in the fight. One of the policemen informed Mulchinock that he would be held responsible if Leggett died.

After the meeting, he went home where he met Mary and produced a ring, which she accepted. They were now betrothed. Suddenly his best friend, Bob Blenerhasset rushed in and told him Legett was dead and the police were coming to arrest him. Bob gave William a hundred gold sovereigns and his horse and told him ride to Barrow Harbour and take a ship anchored there.

William ended up in India in 1843 as the war correspondent. He became friendly with the British commander in chief known as “Old Gough”. When Mulchinock told him the story of what happened, the general saw the injustice of it all and used his influence to enable William to return to Tralee.

In 1849, he checked into the King’s Arms in the Rock. The proprietor, George Cameron served him a Cognac and then drew the curtains as a funeral was passing by. When Mulchinock inquired who was dead, the landlord said it was Mary O’ Connor, The Rose of Tralee. She was approximately 29 years of age.

The only thing left to him now was to visit the grave constantly at Clogherbrien. In time he became reacquainted with Alice Keogh and married her and they eventually went to America in 1849 where they had two girls, Alice and Bernadette. But eventually, they separated and he returned to Ireland in 1855 where he found solace in drink. He never forgot his one true love and he wrote the final verse for her.

William Mulchinock lived in a lodging house in Ashe Street run by a woman named Old Biddy. He died on 13th October 1864 and was buried in Clogherbrien beside his “Rose of Tralee”.

The lyrics to the song The Rose of Tralee

The pale moon was rising above the green mountains,
The sun was declining beneath the blue sea;
When I strayed with my love by the pure crystal fountain,
That stands in the beautiful Vale of Tralee.
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.

The cool shades of evening their mantle were spreading,
And Mary all smiling was listening to me;
The moon through the valley her pale rays was shedding,
When I won the heart of the Rose of Tralee.
Though 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.

In the far fields of India, ‘mid wars dreadful thunders,
Her voice was a solace and comfort to me,
But the chill hand of death has now rent us asunder,
I’m lonely tonight for the Rose of Tralee.
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.

Origins

The festival has its origins in the local Carnival Queen, once an annual town event, fallen by the wayside due to post-war emigration. In 1957, the Race Week Carnival was resurrected in Tralee, and it featured a Carnival Queen. The idea for the Rose of Tralee festival came when a group of local business people met in Harty’s bar in Tralee to come up with ideas to bring more tourists to the town during the horse racing meeting and to encourage ex-pats back to their native Tralee. Led by Dan Nolan, then managing director of The Kerryman newspaper, they hit on the idea of the Rose of Tralee festival. The competition started in 1959 on a budget of just £750
Originally, only women from Tralee were eligible to compete, in the early 1960s it was extended to include any women from Kerry, and in 1967 it was further extended to include any women of Irish birth or ancestry.

The Rose of Tralee Festival Today

The Rose of Tralee festival is now held annually at the end of August in Tralee, County Kerry, to choose a young woman to be crowned the Rose. The winning Rose is the woman deemed to best match the attributes relayed in the song: “lovely and fair”. The winner is selected based on her personality and should be a good role model for the festival and for Ireland during her travels around the world. In contrast to beauty pageants, there is no swimwear section in the Rose of Tralee contest and the contestants are not judged on their appearances but rather their over-all personality and suitability to serve as ambassadors for the festival. The festival bills itself as celebration of the “aspirations, ambitions, intellect, social responsibility and Irish heritage” of modern young women.

Who Can Enter

Each of the 32 counties in Ireland select a Rose and there is also a Rós Fódhla representing the Gaeltacht or Irish-speaking areas in Ireland. Regional finals are held in June where six Irish women are selected to take part in the International Rose of Tralee festival. Roses from Kerry, Dublin and Cork automatically qualify for the festival held in August.
There are international Roses chosen from around the world who also participate in the Rose of Tralee festival. These include the centres of Birmingham, Boston, Darwin, Dubai, France, London, Luxembourg, Leeds, Newcastle, New York, New Orleans, New Zealand, Perth, Philadelphia, Queensland, San Francisco, Southern California, South Australia, Sunderland, Sydney, Texas, Toronto and many more centres who take part in the qualifying rounds.

When is it on?

The contest, which is broadcast over two nights by RTÉ was hosted in 2010 by Dáithí Ó Sé.It was previously presented for over twenty years by Gay Byrne. Other previous presenters include Ray D’Arcy (2005–09), Ryan Tubridy, Marty Whelan and Derek Davis. The first presenter of The Rose of Tralee (prior to it being televised) was Kevin Hilton.