AN Irish institution turned 50 this week. It is the most unlikely of things nowadays. On paper it should not have survived the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 70s, or the recession of the ’80s, but it did and more surprising still, is that it has made its way into the 21st century.
The Rose of Tralee Festival has been parodied on television and in film but there is something intrinsically charming about it that draws viewers, crowds and indeed entrants from all over the world annually.
This year was a little different. As well as the 50 women competing for the 2009 title, a few familiar faces could be seen in the Dome, as the past winners of the competition were honoured.
Among them was a proud Banner woman, the only Clare representative ever to be serenaded on the Tralee stage as being lovely and fair and beautiful and truthful, the 1968 winner of the title, Eileen Slattery.
“I was an 18-year-old from Clarecastle representing Clare. It was the first time a Rose was chosen from Clare. When I became The Rose of Tralee, I got to travel around the world. It was the first time they gave a world trip. What did I know? It was the most memorable year of my life. It was wonderful. When I think back on all the people I met all over the world, it is like a dream and coming back this year is so unbelievable…it is an emotional rollercoaster. The memories are coming flooding back,” Eileen told The Clare Champion.
Indeed, being reunited with one old friend, former festival president Michael Maye, was a particularly emotional moment for Eileen.
“Meeting Michael and his wife Joan, it just brought the tears I’m afraid,” she revealed.
When she took part in the festival, Michael took her under his wing, something she is grateful for to this day. She had been a little overawed having travelled there without her family.
“My family weren’t there because I think it was the fact they didn’t expect me to win. People weren’t as confident then or as proud,” Eileen reflected.
Of course, she holds no grudges and is returning to her home county this weekend at the behest of her brother Michael to judge the best-dressed competitions at the Clare Show, a trip she is looking forward to.
Although she moved to South Carolina in 1973, Eileen has always maintained her strong connections with Clare and her family here, coming home for major family occasions like christenings and weddings. She has regular contact with her brother Tom in Clondegad, Michael in Clarecastle, her sister Betty in Clarehill and her sister Anne in the UK. Her sisters Máire and Oonagh are deceased.
“We have kept a strong family tie. We are a close family and I believe family is important and I have always held that with me. The Rose of Tralee is a family too and that is one of the things I like about it and it is one of the reasons I have come back this year to honour that tradition,” she explained.
With the advent of the Internet, following the rose competition has become much easier for those living abroad and Eileen loves the local side of it still.
“I follow it as much as I can. A year hasn’t gone by that I don’t call my sister and ask who is the Clare Rose this year and I would be behind her all the way with the Banner if there was one in the final this year,” she said.
More than 40 years have passed since Eileen was crowned Rose of Tralee, so what has changed since then?
“The very core of the festival I don’t believe has changed. So far this year, the most part of the festival I have seen is the girls. The girls are still the same quality of girls, despite the fact they may have the extended education, are highly qualified, some are older but I don’t think it has changed that much overall. The girls are as lovely today as they were then,” Eileen said.
Her visit to Tralee this year has also been memorable. Again she is wowed by the warmth of the people, the calibre of the organising committee and the work they have done.
“The 50 roses were invited back because the festival is in its 50th year. We have been involved in all parts of the celebration. It is wonderful. They have made us feel so welcome. They have honoured our contribution. They have presented us with a beautiful bronze rose. It is all a bit of a daze because there is so much going on,” Eileen stated.
Indeed, having attended the Rose selection itself, a Hawaiian-themed barbeque, the parade, the Rose ball, the unveiling of a statue in Tralee recognising the festival and all the other events that form part of the week-long event, she would be forgiven if she was a little fatigued by it all.
“The great thing about the festival is that everyone is talking and the hospitality, the friendliness, that doesn’t change and while they have that, they have a winner in my eyes,” Eileen confirmed.
For those watching on television, one of the most discussed aspects of the Rose selection is the style.
Eileen’s wardrobe was planned by her late sister, Máire and her dress can be seen in the exhibition currently running in Tralee.
“I must credit my sister Anne in England too. She put my dress away with her wedding dress about 30 years ago and when I unfolded it three months ago in South Carolina it was in pristine condition. I have to thank her for having the pride to preserve it, and of course my sister Betty too, who kept my sash,” she said.
So 1968 was magnificent for Eileen but what was the highlight? “The trip around the world was memorable of course but the reception I got when I returned to Clare was second to none,” she concluded.