Festival History


The Rose of Tralee International Festival is based on the love song The Rose of Tralee, by William Mulchinock a 19th century wealthy merchant who was in love with Mary O'Connor, his maid. Mary was born in Broguemaker's Lane in Tralee and worked as a nanny. When William first saw Mary he fell in love with her, but because of the difference in social class between the two families their love affair was discouraged. William emigrated, and some years later returned to Tralee only to find Mary had died of tuberculosis. He was broken hearted and expressed his love for her in the words of the song. Click to read The Rose of Tralee story.

The Festival as it is today stems from Tralee's Carnival Queen, once a thriving annual town event, fallen by the wayside due to post-war emigration. In 1957 Race Week Carnival was resurrected in Tralee that featured a Carnival Queen. A year later a group of local business people met in Harty's Bar in Tralee and decided to revamp the Carnival in a way that would regenerate the town, encourage tourism and keep the race crowd in town overnight.

The new event would be called a festival and the carnival queen contest turned into a celebration of the Rose of Tralee song. Young women would also be sought from outside Tralee, and heats were held as far away as London, Birmingham, New York and Dublin with the help of local Kerry people living abroad.

The first Festival in 1959 had Roses representing Tralee, London, Dublin, Birmingham and New York, and cost just IR£750. It is indicative of the growth of the event that by 1965 the budget had grown to IR£10,000. Each Rose had to be a native of Tralee, but this condition was relaxed in the early sixties to be a native of Kerry, and in 1967 "Irish birth or ancestry" became the criterion. 

The 1959 Festival was a resounding success with Alice O'Sullivan from Dublin becoming its first Rose. The organising committee extended their sights to include setting up centres in other areas, beginning with the United States. As well as Ireland, the UK and the US, the Festival now has centres in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Dubai and Luxembourg.

The original proposed title of the event was the Festival of Tralee. However a member of the New York Kerrymen's Association recommended Festival of Kerry as a title that would facilitate support by Kerry emigres from other parts of the county. It was in the 1970s that editor of The Kerryman newspaper, Seamus McConville, suggested that the title Rose of Tralee International Festival be used to strengthen the link to the song and to reflect the growth of the event worldwide.

The first Rose Selection took place at a dance. After a few years it moved to the Ashe Memorial Hall in Tralee town centre (then used as a cinema) with seating for 680 people. By 1972 it was obvious that the demand for tickets far outstripped capacity. The International Eisteddfod in Wales used a large marquee-like structure and this became the model for the Rose of Tralee Festival Dome which first appeared in 1973 at a cost exceeding IR£17,500 (the total Festival budget for 1972). Irish folk singer Johnny McEvoy topped the bill on the Dome's opening night. The original Dome was destroyed in a storm on the last day of the 1983 festival. 

The town's impressive street lighting put up especially each year for the Festival was first introduced in the early sixties. Pieces were brought from the Blackpool Illuminations, which gives an idea of the extent and impact of the display. The streets of Tralee were bathed in coloured windmills, lighted clowns, floral arrangements and rockets all surplus to Blackpool requirements and restored by ESB electricians.

The ESB was the first company to install extensive lighting and moving parts on a float (others involved a cable trailing from the car in front to run a few spotlights). One of the most spectacular floats ever built was an ESB helicopter with flashing lights and revolving rotor blades with Roses sitting in the cabin. 

Decorative floats for the parade were introduced in 1967. The first float incorporated a background based on a scallop shell, until a couple of days before the festival somebody realised that the design was very similar to a global oil company's logo and the float had to be changed. Initially floats were floral and countless hours were spent decorating them with hundreds of thousands of artificial flowers.

The streets have always reverberated with entertainers, music and big name live rock bands, including Westlife, Gabrielle, James Brown, Inxs, James Last and Phil Coulter, but began with folk groups, American school choirs and pop bands. In the early sixties a group from Dublin, The Harmonichords, played on the streets for an all-in fee of IR£5. They enjoyed themselves so much they returned from Dublin the following night for another fiver. They later became known as The Bachelors.

The Tavern in Tralee was a popular pub in the early sixties for ballad groups. A Canadian TV Crew were in Killarney and came to Tralee to film some of the Festival. Directed to The Tavern, they filmed the group performing and their subsequent programme was shown across Canada. The fledgling ballad group? The Wolfe Tones.

The Gala International Rose Ball was introduced in the seventies, as was the involvement of Irish Cultural Organisations including Siamsa Tire, the band of An Garda Siochana and US military bands.

Telefís Éireann first broadcast Rose Selection live in 1967 from a stage outside the Ashe Memorial Hall. Compere for TV was the late Joe Lynch (Dinny from RTE TV soap Glenroe). The show also featured a major parade of entertainers in front of the stage.

Rose Selection has been compered by Kevin Hilton, Joe Lynch, Terry Wogan, Brendan O'Reilly (RTÉ sports), Michael Twomey ('Cha & Miah'), Gay Byrne, Kathleen Watkins, Derek Davis, Marty Whelan, Ryan Tubridy and Ray D'Arcy.

The first time a Taoiseach officially opened the festival was in 1986 when Charles Haughey TD departed from the traditional ministerial speech and recited a poem composed especially for the occasion. President Mary McAleese attended a Gala Dinner in Tralee's Earl of Desmond Hotel to celebrate the 40th festival. 

The only Centre to have won the title in successive years is London, in 2010 (Clare Kambamettu) and 2009 (Charmaine Kenny). The closest runner up is New York which won in 1974 (Maggie Flaherty) and 1976 (Marie Soden). Dublin has won the contest more often than any other Centre - 5 times - beginning with Alice O'Sullivan in 1959, Ciara O'Sullivan (1962), Cathy Quinn (1969), Sinead Boyle (1989) and Orla Tobin (2003).

Two gentlemen who were Escorts have attained a measure of fame outside their Festival roles. Former Dublin Lord Mayor Royston Brady and Bull Island's Alan Shortt were both Escorts. Alan Shortt got his first break as a comedian when Gay Byrne brought him on stage during Rose Selection to tell a few jokes. 

There is an actual rose named The Rose of Tralee. Sam McGredy was an internationally renowned Portadown rose grower who became involved with the Festival in the 1960s. He bred and registered the Rose of Tralee rose and presented rose bushes to Tralee, which still grow in the Town Park.

Since 1959 the Festival has grown, incorporating centres from all over the world and is firmly established on everyone's events calendar. RTÉ's live coverage of the Rose selection has helped install the Festival in the national psyche, and it has remained their top rating show for many years, with up to a million people tuning in every year for the result. 



The Rose of Tralee 

By William Pembroke Mulchinock

The pale moon was rising above the green mountains,
The sun was declining beneath the blue sea,
When I strayed with my love by the pure crystal fountain,
That stands in the beautiful Vale of Tralee.

She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer,
Yet 'twas not her beauty alone that won me.
Oh no, 'twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning
That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.

The cool shades of evening their mantle were spreading,
And Mary all smiling was listening to me.
The moon through the valley her pale rays was shedding,
When I won the heart of the Rose of Tralee.

She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer,
Yet 'twas not her beauty alone that won me.
Oh no, 'twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning
That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.

In the far fields of India 'mid war's dreadful thunders,
Her voice was solace and comfort to me.
But the chill hand of death has now rent us asunder,
I'm lonely tonight for the Rose of Tralee.

She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer,
Yet 'twas not her beauty alone that won me.
Oh no, 'twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning
That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee 

Listen to Tralee's own Mark Leen singing his version of The Rose of Tralee




The Story of the Rose of Tralee Mary O'Connor lived in the middle of Tralee town, in Brogue Lane, which took its name from the broguemakers (or shoemakers) who lived and worked there. Mary lived in a thatched cabin with her parents, sisters Brigid and Ellen and younger brother Willie. Her father was a broguemaker, and her mother worked as a dairymaid. Mary was very beautiful; she had long dark hair and soft, shining eyes. 

Her status as the daughter of a broguemaker and dairymaid meant Mary was destined for work as a maid or house-help. When she was 17 she secured employment as a kitchen maid for the Mulchinock household in Tralee.

The Mulchinocks were a wealthy family of merchants who owned a wool and linen draper's shop on the site of what is now Heaton's department store in Tralee. 

Michael Mulchinock had married Margaret McCann and they lived in the grand Mulchinock house, West Villa. The family owned a considerable amount of land around the house and the neighbourhood, as well as property in town. They had servants, coachmen, gardeners and farmhands.

Michael died of a fever in 1828, so Margaret Mulchinock was head of the household when Mary O'Connor started working in the kitchens of West Villa. Also living in the house were Margaret's sons William Pembroke, Edward, Henry and her married daughter Maria.

Mary O'Connor was delighted to be given employment at West Villa, and soon Margaret's daughter, Maria, seeing that Mary was intelligent and kind to her children asked her to be maid to her daughters Anne and Margaret.

Margaret Mulchinock's sons had grown to be young men and William was becoming a dreamer. In the eyes of his family he was good-for-nothing, and even worse: a poet. 

In November 1840 Henry, William's younger brother, died. William was inconsolable as he was closer to William than his more practical brother Edward. He wrote a poem about his feelings:

For him of the fair young brow I weep,
Who takes in the churchyard now his sleep;
For he was the star above sun-bright,
That tinged with the light of love my night.

It wasn't long before William met his sister's new nursemaid. As soon as he saw Mary he was transfixed by her eyes, her grace, her long dark hair and delicate skin. 

Mary and William began to meet each other every day by the well in the grounds of West Villa, that looked out over the sea and mountains. Sometimes they walked down Lover's Lane or up to Clahane to dance.

One night beneath the pale, silvery moon William asked Mary to marry him. However, William's family disapproved of him seeing Mary, the broguemaker's daughter who lived in a small peasant house in the middle of town. Whilst Mary loved William, she knew that their union could never be, as it would force him to turn his back on his family and he would begin to regret the day he'd ever met her. She declined his offer of marriage.

William refused to give up. He wrote a song for Mary to try and convince her otherwise.

The pale moon was rising above the green mountains,
The sun was declining beneath the blue sea,
When I strayed with my love by the pure crystal fountain,
That stands in the beautiful Vale of Tralee.

She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer,
Yet 'twas not her beauty alone that won me.
Oh no, 'twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning
That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.

But Mary still refused to marry him.

The next evening, after attending a political rally in town, William went to visit Mary at West Villa and gave her a ring which he placed on her finger. Suddenly the door burst open and a friend of William's rushed in to inform him that William had been accused of the murder of a man at the rally. Two men had got into a fight and as leader of one of the rebel groups challenging the upcoming election, William had been held responsible. William's friend informed him there was a warrant out for his arrest and a reward of 100 gold sovereigns for finding him. He was told to make for Barrow Harbour and get on a wine ship that was leaving that night. William kissed Mary goodbye and told her he would return soon. 

William made his way to India where he worked as a war correspondent. Here he met an officer from Limerick who asked William what had bought him to India. When William told him the officer said he would use his influence to get William returned to Ireland, and to Tralee, a free man.

So in 1849, some six years after leaving Tralee, William returned. He stopped off at The Kings Arms in Rock Street for a drink before planning to visit Mary in nearby Brogue Lane. The landlord began to draw the curtains to mark the passing of a funeral coming down the street. On enquiring who the funeral was for, William was told it was for a local girl from Brogue Lane, a lovely and fair young woman named Mary O'Connor - the Rose of Tralee.

William was devastated and his heart broken. There was nothing left for him but to visit Mary's grave on the outskirts of town. The famine was at its height in Ireland at this time and most of the country's eight million inhabitants were trying to survive on a diet of potatoes alone. 

William never got over Mary's death, and despite marrying and having children with an old flame he refused to forget her.

William moved with his family to New York in 1849 but returned alone six years later to Tralee and lived the rest of his life in Ashe Street. He died in 1864 at the age of 44 and at his request was buried at the graveyard in Clogherbrien next to his true love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.

You can visit Mary O'Connor's grave at the graveyard in Clogherbrien by taking the Fenit road out of Tralee and the graveyard is on the right hand side.