Rose of Tralee: The Loveliest of Competitions – a history of Irish pageants

Ireland’s most famous festival (all together now: ‘It’s not a pageant!’) the Rose of Tralee kicks off tonight.

The first round of 32 Roses will join Daithi in The Dome to step dance wildly on stage as the garda band play ‘Oro Se Do Bheatha Bhaile’.

While the Rose of Tralee is considered the ultimate ‘lovely girls’ competition in the land, it’s not alone.

Over the years there have been a host of other festivals offering women the chance to take to dance/ sing/ vacuum/ milk a cow/ or read a poem on d’telly. 

The Calor Housewife of the Year

Dubbed ‘The Rose of Tralee for mammies’, the Calor Housewife of the Year ran from 1983 – 1994, and became a national institution. This was a celebration of domesticity. Women were judged on personality, sense of humour, and their ability to cook a decent meal within a two hour window.

The women would also list off their achievements, which could include working on a voluntary basis in community projects, and would tell viewers the secrets to being the perfect housewife.

It was hosted by Old Uncle Gaybo and according to RTE audience research was hugely popular with housewives all over the country. However it was dropped in the mid-1990s amid complaints that too many women working outside the home were taking part.

The morning after the final show, a caller phoned RTE to protest that most of the finalists “would never get down on their knees to scrub the floor”.

The Blue Jean Country Queen Festival

Inspired by the song Blue Jean Country Queen by Linda Hargrove, this Athboy based festival champions women “weaned on rock’n roll, golden soul and faded denim jeans”. I’m not sure how you can be ‘weaned on jeans’ but let’s not split hairs here.

The festival is organised by Macra na Feirme and has been running since 1987 – taking a one year break in 2001 due to Foot and Mouth.

To enter women must never adhere to the following rules; she must NEVER have worked in any capacity as a model, she must be a member of Macra na Feirme, Young Farmers’ Club or Irish Association Abroad. Most importantly, she must arrive at the competition with one fancy dress outfit, one formal dress, and of course, one pair of blue jeans. This year’s theme was ‘Sound girls doing mad things’ which in fairness sounds like a lot of fun.

The Mary of Dungloe (and the Little Miss Mary)

The Mary of Dungloe was set up in 1967 in Donegal. The title comes from the tragic ballad of the same name. The song tells the story of Mary Gallagher; a sweet hearted woman who had a very unfortunate life.

First her parents refused to let her go to ‘Amerikay’ to marry the man of her dreams, so she immigrated to Australia. Things started to get better in Oz – she got married, and had a baby… then she died. But the memory of her plucky attitude and sweetness lived on.

The Marys in the competition try and emulate her spirit. The event is hosted by Daniel O’Donnell (of course) and the highlight is the crowning of The Mary, while the losing Mary’s watch on.

The arts festival runs for ten days, and attracts “Marys” from the US, Australia, the UK and Ireland. The Miss Mary is a pageants for Little Mary’s hoping that one day they will grow up to be Big Marys.

The Queen of the Land

The Queen of the Land Festival is hosted by Offaly Macra na Feirme, and aims to give one lady the very prestigious title of Ireland’s Queen of the Land.

This is based on appearance, personality, energy, confidence, rural knowledge and eloquence. The three day festival began life in 1964 as part of the Kilkenny beer festival, before becoming an entity in itself.

Miss Ireland

Founded in 1947, Miss Ireland is the longest running pageant in Ireland. It has been a launch pad for many models including Rosanna Davison and Roz Purcell and feels more like an All Americana pageants than any of the above.

It has run into its fair share of scandal over the years. In 2012 Maire Hughes was stripped of her title after it emerged that she was 25 and thus ‘over the hill’ and in the 90s winner Niamh Redmond’ caused a stir when she featured on a contraceptive commercial. 

Alternative Miss Ireland

It began in the late 1980s and drew to a close in 2012. The pageant aimed to celebrate beauty in all shapes and guises. According to Dr Panti Bliss the pageants appealed to ladies with “a lot of gumption, a little spark and some originality”. The winner was handed a Medusa Crown of Shamrocks.

Winners include Mangina Jones aka Cian O’Brien (artistic director of the Project Arts Centre) and Minnie Melange (activist Sinead Burke). When it ended in 2012 – many described it as the end of ‘Gay Christmas’.

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