The search for the next Rose of Tralee entered its final phase on Monday night when the first of two selection nights began at the Kerry Sports Academy's Rose Dome – in a television show full of tales of personal struggle, success and triumph.
Of the 32 Roses, 18 took the stage, where they were quizzed by longtime Rose of Tralee presenter Dáithí Ó Sé and, for the first time, a co-host – Kathryn Thomas.
Cork Rose Kate Shaughnessy (25), care coordinator at a Ballincollig care home, opened the evening's program – “a great honour”, as she herself said.
Ms Shaughnessy's parents Niamh and John – both from Tralee – looked on, 40 years after they first met at the Rose of Tralee festival. Before the show, Ms Shaughnessy's aunt, Una O'Mahoney, spoke about her family's pride in the Cork Rose.
“She is one in a million… She is the born Rose of Tralee – if there were a list of criteria she would tick every box,” said Ms O'Mahoney, holding a Cork flag as she stood in front of the Kerry Sports academy complex Monday night.
Katie McFadden, 22, the Rose of San Francisco, took on Ó Sé in an unconventional competition on stage – a race to don the Kerry Fire and Rescue Service uniform.
Ms. McFadden is a firefighter with the San Francisco Fire Department. “Every day is a new day…it's amazing.”
Offaly Rose Allie Leahy (24), receptionist at a vet in Tullamore, told Thomas about her experience of bullying in secondary school, which ultimately inspired her to choose the Rose of Tralee.
“You go through those things in life, and without those things I wouldn't be the person I am today,” she said.
There was a usual singing and dancing group. Fiona Weir, 23, the Boston & New England Rose and registered nurse, slipped into her tough shoes and danced to the tune of “Shipping Up To Boston,” while Limerick Rose spoiled Molli-Ann O'Halloran, 19, a traditional singer the audience with a rendition of “Part of Your World” from Disney's The Little Mermaid..
“I'm really excited to support everyone in the autism community,” said Ms. O'Halloran, who was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome at the age of eight.
As the hall filled on Monday night, East Cork natives John and Noreen Dunne posed for a photograph. They were at the Rose to support Katie Casey, the Melbourne Rose.
It is the first time the couple have been back at the Rose of Tralee since they met at the festival 43 years ago, Mr Dunne said. “That was our first date.”
Earlier on Monday, Ó Sé and Thomas sat side by side on an upholstered leather couch somewhere deep within the Rose headquarters – the Meadowlands Hotel on Oakpark Road in Tralee – and talked about what the Rose of Tralee means in 2023. At the front desk, escorts lingered while Roses alternated between hair or makeup appointments, media duties and lunch with the judges.
“It's a celebration of Irish women,” said Ó Sé, not yet in his tuxedo. “And when is a celebration of Irish women obsolete?”
Thomas also brushed aside the recurring criticism of the festival. “I don't think we have to do everything politically,” said the first-time Rose presenter.
“These are women who want to go out and do this, they want to do it for their community, their family, their lives [own] themselves, their careers, to further their music, whatever it is.
“This is about choice,” she said.
The festival has also changed and opened up over time, Ó Sé said. “There was a time when you couldn't get married, now you can. There was a time you couldn't have a baby, now you can. We invited trans women to come forward.”
Charlotte Burton, the South Australia Rose, is the first married woman to compete in the Rose of Tralee.
As Tralee slowly woke up on Monday after the previous night's hubbub, the Roses were on the ground early completing rehearsals at Munster Technological University's Tralee campus – a run only partially interrupted by a fire alarm-triggered evacuation around midday .
The Rose of Tralee International Festival continues on Tuesday, with the winning rose being chosen at the end of the second live TV event.