Northern Ireland

Rose of Tralee: The flower has grown, but traditional roots remain firm

Why did the Roses cross the road? Some of this year's competitors stopping traffic Image copyright Domnick Walsh Eye Focus
Image caption Why did the Roses cross the road? Some of this year's competitors stopping traffic

Father Ted fans in the UK could have been forgiven for thinking Craggy Island's memorable Lovely Girls Contest was a random idea thought up by the show's writers apropos of nothing.

But when it was first broadcast in the 1990s, Irish viewers would have recognised Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews were having a gentle poke at the country's most watched, and arguably most loved, annual pageant - the Rose of Tralee.

Two decades on, organisers of the week-long festival still struggle to shake off the image portrayed in that Channel 4 episode of young "colleens" parading their "lovely bottoms" and "lovely laughs" in a parish hall for the chance to win dinner with a priest.

On Tuesday night, the Chicago Rose, Maggie McEldowney, was crowned 2016's winner in front of a live audience and millions watching at home.

The event, held in County Kerry every year since 1959, began as an attempt by local businessmen to draw tourists to the town.

Image copyright Domnick Walsh Eye Focus
Image caption The runners and riders - 'Roses' gather at Harolds Cross racing ground

Today it is one of the most successful pageants in the world, drawing expat competitors from the Middle East, Australia, Canada and, perhaps most commonly, the US.

From the outset, the competition featured "Roses" whose heritage was specifically from Tralee, but as the years went on this rule was relaxed to include all women of "Irish birth or ancestry".

Tale of the Tralee tape: Facts and figures

The show is now hosted by Dáithí Ó Sé, an ex-weatherman turned TV presenter who married a former Rose in 2012.

The live TV final is one of the most-watched shows in Ireland, with up to a million - a quarter of the Irish population - tuning in to see who is crowned Rose of Tralee.

Brunettes have won the crown 85% of the time - only 13% were blonde and 2% redheads.

In 2013, the pageant was marred in controversy when it emerged the prize had been engraved with the name "O'Sullivan", days before the event - Texas Rose Haley O'Sullivan went on to win the title.

Unsurprisingly, like footballers in Ireland's past World Cup teams, the ancestral link can be somewhat tenuous at times.

The inspiration for the event comes from the ballad of the same name, which told the story of a beautiful young Tralee woman called Mary, who was "lovely and fair".

Image copyright Domnick Walsh Eye Focus
Image caption 2016 Roses with their escorts

The song is believed to have been written by the wealthy Protestant William Pembroke Mulchinock for Mary O'Connor, a poor Catholic maid in his parents' household.

Throughout the years, judges are said to choose their winners based on their encapsulation of the qualities Mary exemplified:

'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."

Perhaps it is not surprising that some have slated the festival for being archaic, patronising and parochial.

Image copyright Domnick Walsh Eye Focus
Image caption 2016 Roses, including this year's winner, Rose Maggie McEldowney from Chicago, admire a picture of birds

Those involved with the festival insist it is forward thinking - they say every Rose must represent the "aspirations, ambitions, intellect, social responsibility and Irish heritage" of women today.

Nonetheless, every Rose must have an escort - a chaperone for the week.

As the 2015 Escort of the Year told Irish news website "You chaperone your Rose for the week. You have to be courteous, be polite, try to assist the Rose, even if just carrying a handbag.

"It's about being a positive influence, a touch point of information for the family about when events are on. You make the Rose feel comfortable and support them over the course of the week."

Image copyright Domnick Walsh Eye Focus
Image caption Meet the escorts - who also go through a rigorous selection process

Hmmm - wasn't that line about "making a woman feel comfortable" the advice that Father Ted gave to Dougal about how to respond to a female?

However, presumably in the name of equality, the escorts also go through a vigorous selection process to prove themselves worthy.

The tasks included cycling, hiking, abseiling, kayaking, surfing, ironing and sewing - all to show they have what it takes to be a Rose escort.

In an open letter online this year, the festival's executive chair Anthony O'Gara denied that the pageant was about "Paddy Whackery, Colleens on Parade, flagrant misogyny or masquerading as Irish culture".

Clearly tired of the "outdated lovely girls joke", his letter strived to "correct some misconceptions that are foisted on the unsuspecting public annually by some zealous, angry, if perhaps, misguided social commentators".

"The Rose of Tralee is one of the most important threads to connect Irish people throughout the world with home and that is a fact for over 55 years," he wrote.

Image copyright AP
Image caption This year's Roses give us a wave

"We don't have a 1950s ethos - we do have a proud history and each year the Roses reflect women as they are today.

"[They] and the rest of us live in the real world, where bad things happen and people struggle."

It can't be denied that the event has become gradually more progressive over the years.

Previously, unmarried mothers were banned from competing, however, the no-babies rule was relaxed in 2008.

At the time, Mr O'Gara said that it was "important to move with the times".

"We try to balance tradition with the modern world, which is sometimes a difficult balancing act," he added.

It is unclear if any contestants since 2008 have actually been single mothers.

Image copyright RTE
Image caption Cavan Rose, Lisa Reilly, was speaking to presenter Dáithí Ó Sé, when the campaigner stormed the stage

However, on Tuesday night, a Fathers 4 Justice campaigner stormed the stage while the Cavan Rose, Lisa Reilly, was speaking to presenter Dáithí Ó Sé.

He did not get much time to make his point, but the comical efforts to remove him during an ad break - the security man also fell to the ground as he ushered him off the stage - once again drew comparisons with the dreaded Father Ted series.

Image caption Clockwise from left: Genevieve O'Reilly, Gabby Logan and Aoife Mulholland

Roses then and now

Noreen Culhane, the 1970 New York Rose, went on to become Executive Vice President of the New York Stock Exchange.

Michele McCormack, the 1985 Chicago Rose, became a reporter and producer with CBS, winning the Edward R Murrow Award for journalism.

Aoife Mulholland, the 2003 Galway Rose, is a West End star

Genevieve O'Reilly, the 1996 Adelaide Rose, appeared in both Star Wars and The Matrix films, as well as the recent ITV drama The Secret.

Mr O'Gara and others insist that physical beauty is not the deciding factor, although the vast majority of winners, it has to be said, have been easy on the eye.

But, unlike other beauty contests, there is no swimwear section and entrants are judged on personality as well as appearance.

Each competitor is required to do a party piece, such as singing, dancing or reciting a poem, to showcase their talent and ability.

Although some may look back and cringe at performances of the past, many "Roses" have moved on to stellar careers in journalism, acting, banking, and medicine.

Image copyright Domnick Walsh Eye Focus
Image caption Puppy love: These Roses find a new friend

Even BBC sports presenter Gabby Logan threw her hat in the ring in 1991, cheekily warning then presenter Gay Byrne that she was after his job, before reciting a poem in a Yorkshire accent. She did not win.

However, although her red meringue dress and perm haunted her on Twitter in recent weeks, the experience clearly didn't do her career any harm.

Only time will tell if this year's winner from Chicago goes on to a lucrative career.

It seems certain though, after a gripped nation watched on for another year, still mesmerised by the glitz and the glamour, the tears and the frocks, the Rose and the crown, that she has bright prospects.

After all, in the words of Stevie Wonder 'isn't she lovely?'