A Bad Year for the Roses (my SBP Artistic Licence column from 26.08)

The rumbles of discontent could be felt within minutes. The Rose of Tralee had arrived on the box in all its antiquated, dewy-eyed glory, but it didn’t take long before fans, eagerly awaiting their annual wince-fest, were left reeling. The 32 Roses had gone and shocked all of us, and not in their usual, perfectly acceptable fashion — by simpering at us in weapons-grade sparkly dresses until we begged for mercy. No, things were much worse than that. These Roses appeared to be staging a rebellion before our very eyes.

The tweets came flying in. “Is there a ban on the party piece?” asked mystified tweeter Becky Cawley (@becky_cawley). “What’s the point of being a Rose if you don’t do a party piece?” wondered @siobhansiobhan. Rose after Rose came and went with a flutter of the hand, a swoosh of the dress, a bit of small talk about their career goals and then — nothing. Zip. No song. No dance. No demonstration of `talent’.

The party piece is not compulsory, explained @roseoftralee_ — the official Twitter account — somewhat defensively. “Each gets to pick a party piece if they wish.” But it was a sad state of affairs when the best of the tragically few party pieces in the overstuffed ballroom came courtesy of the Kilkenny Rose, who, like a good sport, agreed to make her trademark dolphin noise (remarkably convincing). Other party pieces included a Maori song, a failed magic trick, an extract from Oscar Wilde and a version of Whiskey in the Jar (let’s just say the Sydney Rose was creative in her rendition).

All the Roses who performed made mistakes. But the mistakes were part of the point. Forget all this nonsense about the “truth in her eyes ever dawning”, the Rose is about so much more than that. It’s about pluck and vim. It’s about saying that one can perform under conditions that are almost impossible and with skills so meagre that only a Rose with the most giant of balls would dare don a sparkly dress and try to sell herself to an audience. The Rose is a metaphor for Ireland itself: pinched into a tight dress, vulnerable and forced to sing for its supper.

Consider the pluck last year of the Dublin Rose, ferociously giving herself over to hip-hop manoeuvres, despite the dress issues, sound glitches and audience of baffled blue rinses in front of her. Now that’s what I call entertainment. Without such events, who would we have to parody? What would Father Ted have done? And how has it come to such a pass that presenter Daithi must don high heels to give us a lift?

It was no surprise that, after the virtually non-existent party pieces, the attendance in front of the telly was low for the second night of the Rose of Tralee festival — the lowest audience that the Rose of Tralee has pulled in for eight years. Frankly, those 32 shyster Roses deserved our apathy — well, at least those of them who refused to perform.

At the end of the two nights, it was the teacher, the Luxembourg Rose, who bravely admitted to giving her teddy bears exams as a child, who was crowned the winning Rose. It was no surprise, really. Nicola McEvoy had a song. She sang La Vie en Rose, and made a good fist of it — not impressive enough to be a pro (no one wants X-Factor), but not bad enough to scare the horses. “Gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous,” cooed Daithi, mopping his brow with relief. At last, here was someone who understood the game.

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