The Rose of Tralee festival is held every August in Tralee to choose a young woman to be crowned the Rose. The winner is the woman deemed to best match the attributes “lovely and fair” relayed in the song. She is selected based on her personality and should be a good role model for the festival and ambassador for Ireland during her travels around the world. It is not a beauty pageant, and the participants are not judged on their appearance but on their personality and suitability to serve as ambassadors for the festival. The festival bills itself as a celebration of the “aspirations, ambitions, intellect, social responsibility, and Irish heritage” of modern young women.
The festival has its origins in the local Carnival Queen, once an annual town event, fallen by the wayside due to post-war emigration. In 1957, the Race Week Carnival is resurrected in Tralee and it features a Carnival Queen. The idea for the Rose of Tralee International Festival comes when a group of local business people meet in Harty’s bar in Tralee to come up with ideas to bring more tourists to the town during the horse racing meeting and to encourage expats back to their native Tralee. Led by Dan Nolan, then Managing Director of The Kerryman newspaper, they hit on the idea of the Rose of Tralee Festival. The event starts in 1959 on a budget of just £750.
The founders of the organisation are Billy Clifford, an accountant with the Rank Organisation, who is one of the first recipients of the Golden Rose award, Dan Nolan, involved with the Tralee Races, Jo Hussey, a shopkeeper in Tralee, and Ted Keane, Sr., a local restaurateur.
Originally, only women from Tralee are eligible to take part. In the early 1960s it is extended to include any women from Kerry and, in 1967, it is further extended to include any women of Irish birth or ancestry. In 2004 Regional Finals are introduced to offer more people an opportunity to participate in the Rose of Tralee International Festival. It is held every year until 2015 in Portlaoise, County Laois, on the June Bank Holiday weekend. In 2014 it is announced that the 2015 Regional Finals will be the last, in favour of a revamped selection process held in Tralee.