TRALEE, Ireland — Ask about the Rose of Tralee International Festival, held each year in this west coast town in County Kerry, and participants will immediately tell you what it’s not.
It’s not a beauty pageant. Also, it’s not a competition.
Then things get complicated. Because to the uninitiated, the event, held this year in late August, sure looks like a beauty pageant, which is, by definition, competitive. The festival begins with 32 roses, as the women are called, and ends after six hours of live television spread across two nights, with close to 700,000 viewers in 61 countries.
Nearly all of those hours are devoted to onstage interviews conducted by a tuxedoed, 43-year-old television presenter named Daithi O Se (pronounced DAW-Hee Oh-Shay), who seems like a cross between a game show host and a nosy uncle. Before a seated, audience of 2,000, each rose banters for five minutes or so. (Sample prompt: “Tell me about your Irish heritage.”)
Most then perform a “party piece,” which could be a talent as conventional as singing or as surprising as, say, deadlifting 220 pounds on a barbell while wearing a red, full-length gown.
“I’ve done all my stretches, I’m loosened up and I’m ready to go,” said Meghan Byrne, the Rose of Meath, right before hoisting the weight to her knees.
The fuzziness surrounding this noncompetition’s non-beauty criteria date back to its founding, 60 years ago. The festival is inspired by a 19th-century ballad, “The Rose of Tralee.” In it a man pines for a woman who is “fair as the rose of the summer” — but it “was not her beauty alone that won me.”
“What we’re looking for is someone to represent the festival, themselves, their family and the community,” explained Mary Kennedy, the festival’s chief judge and a television personality. “Our identity, I feel, is very centered on community.”
That community is a diaspora of 80 million, so the roses come from all around the globe. The 32 women here have already been named the rose of their county (if they hail from Ireland), their state (if they are one of the eight entrants from the United States) or their country, in locales as far away as the United Arab Emirates and New Zealand.
All that’s needed to enter these feeder competitions — scratch that, they’re officially known as “selections” — is some Irish ancestors. Those anointed as roses must also be willing to vie for the title of Rose of Tralee by spending a frenetic week or so in this postcard-worthy town, where they navigate a dozen or so events, culminating with the televised grilling by Mr. O Se.
Though freewheeling and unabashedly goofy at times, the show has a wistful subtext. It is a family reunion organized by people who want to marvel at what their relatives have become while lamenting, in the case of those residing in other countries, that they ever parted. The story of every mass migration begins with sorrow and separation. Ireland’s is no different.
The five-day festival in the streets and parks of Tralee, on the other hand, feels more like a straight up county fair. The population of the town nearly doubles from its usual 24,000, with crowds eating sausages and ice cream, drinking Guinness and packing the sidewalks to wave at the roses, who parade by on colorful floats on three separate occasions.
The roses radiate a sunny wholesomeness that somehow brings the aesthetics of the ’50s to mind, and they are both accessible and chatty. Just don’t expect any of them to state what would seem obvious to most Americans: that they want to win.
Part of what makes this event so quintessentially Irish is the premium everyone here places on humility, which includes, among its many forms, a disdain for show offs and brazen ambition. This may be one of the few international competitions where an essential quality is a seemingly authentic indifference to victory.
“We had a parade on Saturday night where you’re up on a Thomas the Tank Engine float,” said Victoria O’Connell, the Clare Rose, forswearing any interest in winning by suggesting that the preshow hoopla was triumph enough. “And they’re waving at you, screaming at you. If someone else gets it tomorrow night, how can I come away thinking I haven’t won?”
It started at Harty’s Bar here in 1959, with a handful of local businessmen brainstorming ways to goose tourism, much like the Miss America pageant, which was launched as a promotional tool for Atlantic City. What did Tralee have to offer? That song. Around it, the burghers built what was then part of a carnival that coincided with a week of horse races.
“Right from the start we were in newspapers, we were in cinema newsreels,” said Alice O’Sullivan, who took the first ever Rose of Tralee title. “It was mega.”
In the decades since, much has changed for Irish women. They have taken greater control over their bodies and their lives — joining the work force, gaining access to birth control and, thanks to a 1995 constitutional amendment, winning the right to divorce. But the Rose of Tralee Festival is essentially the same.
There have been minor tweaks. At first, the women needed to have roots in Tralee. By the end of the ’60s, the festival included women around the world with Irish ancestors, who were single and between the ages of 18 and 28. (Now it’s 29). Irish ancestry is key but women of mixed heritage are welcome, too. With bursting pride, the festival revels in demonstrating that the definition of “Irish” is now broader than ever. The father of last year’s winner, Kirsten Mate Maher, is Zambian.
A portion of the Irish public nonetheless consider the festival either ridiculous or sexist, or both. But judging from the running flow of witty, flabbergasted tweets, even some detractors tune in for the televised hours of the Rose of Tralee, a largely unscripted spectacle that is odd and compelling enough to watch with ironic detachment or with no detachment at all.
It takes place in what for some reason is called the Dome, which is actually an immense, rectangular tent decked out with lights, cameras and a bedazzled stage. The format of the show is simple. It’s 16 one-on-one chats the first night, then 16 more the next, all conducted by Mr. O Se, now in his tenth year on the job. He prepares for this marathon of breezy dialogue by losing 16 pounds.
“I try to get down to about 215, and that’s done by eating lentil soup, grilled chicken and water,” he said. “My God, it’s horrible. I’m sick of it.”
His interviews do not have a format so much as a set of recurring themes. Roses will be asked about their jobs (there are lots of teachers and teachers in training) and for some reason Mr. O Se wants to know where their parents met (“A pub” was the common answer). Personal setbacks, like health scares and family deaths, are hashed over. If the rose has a boyfriend, and the pair have dated for a long time, there will be blowback.
“We’re together about ten years,” said Sally-Ann Leahy, the Kerry Rose, when asked about her relationship with a lad named Thomas.
“You get seven for manslaughter!” Mr. O Se yelped. “Ten years! Are you getting impatient or anything?”
“Not at all,” Ms. Leahy said. “I’m still a young girl.”
The roses are invited to share a few quirky biographical highlights. The Rose of Dublin, a veterinary nurse, once performed CPR on a hamster. The Rose of Galway has so many first cousins she may have lost count: “Sixty two, I think?”
What many viewers don’t know is that the core of the competition has occurred before the lights go up in the Dome. In the preceding days, four judges have interviewed the roses, in one-on-four chats as well as group discussions.
“We do have scoring sheets,” said Ms. Kennedy, the chief judge. “Warmth is one of the sheets. Empathy. Confidence.”
For TV viewers, the only way to get a sense of who may win — and nab the crown as well as jewelry, a car and about $27,000 in travel funds — is through betting sites.
It’s true. You can gamble on the roses.
“Oh, they’ll bet on two flies walking up a wall around here,” said the woman behind the counter at the local Ladbrokes, a London-based betting chain, the day before the first broadcast. “The grannies come by and put a fiver on their favorite rose.”
Thanks to the internet, the betting chains never close and because the odds fluctuate based on which rose attracts the most money, their payouts rise and fall, in real time, as they talk and perform. A strong showing can instantly transform the action.
Toward the end of the first night, Emer Fogarty, the Rose of Kildare, sang “The Parting Glass,” a traditional Scottish song, a tribute to her deceased father. Once viewers had dabbed away their tears, they wagered enough money to make her the 2-1 favorite at PaddyPower.com, a popular bookmaker.
Underneath the betting, the home-county boosterism and the evening-gown weight lifting, a note of melancholy hums faintly in the background here. Just five percent of the world’s Irish live in Ireland. So a longing suffuses the festival, a sense among natives that they are re-embracing the progeny of people who departed long ago, often under duress.
When Mr. O Se interviews Irish-born roses who now live abroad they are typically asked, in the friendliest terms, why they left. Foreign-born roses are quizzed about the particulars of their Irish roots. There was a collective sigh of pleasure when the Rose of Arizona, Kayla Gray, said she’d only learned she is Irish three years ago, through a 23andMe genetic test.
“My dad was adopted,” she explained from the stage. “This DNA test really gave me the heritage I’d always been looking for.”
No one is urged to return to the homeland of their forefathers, though one rose volunteered that this, in fact, was her plan.
“I have an Irish passport and I want to use it,” Molly Eastman, the Rose of Washington, D.C., told Mr. O Se during her interview. “Why not move to one of the best countries in the world — if not the best?”
Ms. Eastman fielded one of the few political questions asked on the stage: She diplomatically deflected a chance to weigh in on President Trump with a short riff about her respect for the office of the presidency. But little was said about Ireland’s unbidden, central role in the noisy drama now unfolding in London, the United Kingdom’s faltering efforts to leave the European Union.
The Rose of Tralee International Festival celebrates Irishness, said John Drummey, who handles communications for the event. It isn’t a venue for solving problems.
“The Irish built the world,” he said, “emigrating through famine, through oppression, going right back to the 1700s. The Rose of Tralee connects the Irish and their ancestors. There’s no politics in it.”
What’s in it, instead, is a great deal of modesty.
“I’m just a regular person from Sydney,” said Rebecca Mazza, the Rose of Sydney, during her interview.
Similar sentiments were uttered all evening. In part, this reflects the festival’s self-image as a place where regular women, as opposed to aspiring celebrities, get a moment in the lights. But it is also conveys a uniquely Irish aversion to preening or vanity.
“Even on your wedding day, if someone says you look beautiful, you’re supposed to say ‘nah,’” said Chloe Burke, a young resident of Tralee, who was walking downtown with friends one afternoon. “Irish people don’t know how to take a compliment.”
Apparently, it’s been ever so. A few days before the broadcast, an exhibition was set up in the Kerry County Museum featuring every dress from every Rose of Tralee on the night she was crowned. A crowd of about 30 people crammed into a room on the second floor to listen to about a dozen roses offer variations on the same idea: “I didn’t win. It was my dress.”
The one exception, naturally, was an American. Maggie Flaherty, who took home the crown in 1974 as the Rose of New York, thought her dress looked like it was produced for a circus act. She overcame the Barnum & Bailey-ness of her frock, only to later realize, upon her return to Manhattan, that boasting about her new laurel was pointless.
“What am I supposed to say, that I’m the Rose of Tralee?” she asked with a chuckle during a post-exhibition interview. “Nobody knows what it is. It’s like, ‘That’s nice. What’s for dinner?’”
Some of the party pieces this year seem destined to join others over the decades as touchstones of national memory. The Kilkenny Rose, Clodagh Cassin, dressed Mr. O Se in the protective gear of a hockey goalie and then pelted him with plastic balls. The Rose of New York taught Mr. O Se Greek phrases while he downed shots of ouzo, a perfect-for-any-other-evening tribute to her father’s roots in Cyprus.
The Rose of Ohio may have bested all comers, though, when she presented what was essentially a life hack: how to open a bottle of wine by slipping it into a boot and then slamming the boot, over and over, against the side of a table.
“Yes world,” tweeted someone named Conrad Brunstrom, “we have a competition you can try and win by opening a bottle of wine with a shoe.”
The ending was a suitably drawn-out affair. Mr. O Se unsealed the envelope with the name of the winner, then let a good 15 seconds of silence pass before he shouted one word: “Limerick!”
That would be Sinead Flanagan, a 27-year-old junior doctor, with dark hair and a demur, effervescent smile. She looked shocked, then reached a palm to her forehead, the way people do when they’re about to faint. She was immediately escorted by Mr. O Se down a set of stairs in the middle of the stage through an aisle to hug her parents. She was serenaded with “The Rose of Tralee” amid applause and a swirl of glittering confetti.
In a brief interview the following day, she wore her new sash and tiara and quickly proved that the judge’s had chosen wisely.
“Obviously, someone is named Rose of Tralee and that’s a fantastic honor,” she said. “But the prize for most of us is just being part of the festival.”