The Pale moon was shining

ah yes....the 45th's hard to believe that the Rose of Tralee Festival has been attracting crowds for 45 years. When five local business people met for a pint in Roger Hoarty's Pub in Castle Street in 1959 to discuss an idea for improving the local Tralee Carnival, they had no idea the impact their decision would make. The five met to talk over new ideas for increasing entertainment to complement the 2-Day Race Meeting and Carnival, which had met with success over the previous two years. The emphasis was on ways to “keep people in town overnight”.

By the time their five pints were empty two major decisions had been made. The Carnival Queen Contest would become the Rose of Tralee Contest, which would be based on the world famous song. Irish girls would be sought from across Ireland, with additional heats held as far away as London, Birmingham, New York and Dublin. Second, the name of the Festival became the Festival of Tralee.
One of the five, Dan Nolan, was supremo of the Kerryman newspaper, which gave the Rose of Tralee Festival press coverage from the beginning within weeks of this first meeting. Dan negotiated the change of the name to the Festival of Kerry - to emphasise the expansion of the the Festival.

Back in Ireland, things were happening fast. The committee was expanded, street entertainment was planned, decorative lighting was made, and a Rose was chosen to represent Tralee. Roses were selected in London, Birmingham and Dublin.

The revamped Festival was a great success in 1959 on a budget of only £750! Anne O'Sullivan from Dublin was honoured as the first Rose of Tralee, and with her Tralee family connections brought a new spark to the Festival. The race crowd increased and many tourists stayed the night. As luck would have it, two businessmen from Guinness were in town and enjoyed the Festival so much they pursued sponsorship of future events.

Following this inspirational beginning, in 1960 Guinness became an official commercial sponsor and The Kerry Festival that year was an unqualified success - from dancing in the street to the arrival of the first parades.

There were more contestants for the Rose contest than in ‘59 and Teresa Kenny of Chicago was selected as the second Rose of Tralee.

With the unexpected explosion of interest and development in the Festival, the committee found they needed an office. A space was selected in Castle Street with a part-time typist, Helen Brassil, and general secretary, George Rice.

The balance of the decade saw many Kerry exiles attending the Festival from across Ireland and abroad. Joe Landers from Boston is said to have come “home” to Tralee with a group of others orgininating from the area, which started a trend that extended to other entries and still continues today.

As the Festival continued to overwhelm attendees throughout the 1960's more emphasis was placed on entertainment. Fossetts Circus were invited to Tralee to coincide with the Festival and music moved into the streets, at night, and in the Town Park. These were the year new musicians made their mark in Ireland and around the world. The Wolfe Tones first made it big by playing at the Rose Festival when an American TV crew were filming in Tralee. The band has regularly appeared the Festival since.

Another early act, The Harmonichords, were three lads from Dublin who sang each night in Tralee and returned to work in Dublin each day - a five hour trip each way. Today the Bachelors are international stars of the cabaret circuit. And the Millstreet Pipe Band is the only act to appear every year at the Festival since they played their first tunes in 1959.

The Committee realised that all the hard work being put into the Festival needed to be recognised. They got together and set up an award to be given for exemplary service each year, The Golden Rose, bestowed annually during the Festival, was first awarded to Dan Nolan, Founding President. The award goes to those associated with sponsors but whose personal contribution exceeds the usual high level of input from sponsoring companies and members of the Tralee Committee.

In 1966, with continued press coverage and tourist interest, the Festival formed a limited company, The Festival of Kerry Ltd.

The company has the responsibility of running the Rose of Tralee Festival and maintaining its high standards from year to year, as well as managing the budget.

Continuing the success of the decade, new international centres opened rapidly. When the first Rose from New Zealand was named in 1966, major attention was gained.

Being the first time they had won a major international contest, New Zealand went wild, attaining much attention for the Festival.

Then, in 1967, Anne Foley of Birmingham brought the title back to the UK. This year, contest rules were revised to include any young woman of Irish birth or ancestry. Prior to this the Rose had to have a parent of grandparent born in Ireland. The decision was indicative of the importance if contribution which continues today. The small-town festival had reached staggering heights. The demonstration of support and interest of businesses was shown by the enthusiasm and rivalry that surrounded the Decorative Float Contest. Floats were decorated in roses in such gaiety as to rival New Orleans and Rio. The 1970's brought with it women's liberation and the first lady president of the Festival, Margaret Dwyer.

Although protests were heard in the beginning, her male colleagues were the first to admit that she proved to be a “fine president” by the end of her term. The decade also brought a change of image. A more professional approach was needed to attract more sponsorship - necessary for continued growth and development.

First item on the new agenda: a larger venue. The Ashe Memorial Theatre only held 700 people.
In 1974, the Festival Dome was purchased - a huge marquee-type building that could seat 2,400. The new facility allowed for more involvement. The Gaeltacht authorities became interested, bringing a major craft exhibition; the National Folk Theatre (Siamsa Tire) was established; and the involvement of local Irish cultural organisations resulted in traditional Irish music, song and dance.

The Rose Ball, known by some as “Dress Dance in a Tent”, added a unique touch during these years. The Band of An Garda Siochana came to Tralee and won the hearts of those attending the Festival. US Military bands brought a new look to the parades. Irish Army Bands completed the musical picture of the Big Band Sound.

After 20 years, the Rose of Tralee Festival had finally attained the stature of a major world event. Television had arrived, and the live telecast topped the ratings annually. Sponsorship had grown to the point where most major companies in Ireland were involved in one way or another.

Festival '79, the 20th Birthday Party had broken all records, including the largest deficit ever - £24,000 over the £170,000 budget. This started 1980 on a sour note and only frantic fund raising made the 1980 Festival possible.

In the 1980's, Dixieland Jazz, the Glen Miller Big Band Sound, street ceilis, old time variety ballads, Caribbean stell music, soft rock and massed pipe and drum were added to the mix of sounds. Music remained a key emphasis and with the changing music worldwide, variety was the name of the game.
The attitude of the community held positive and was evident by sponsorship through various activities.

Whether contributions were made by hard work, donations, specialist advice, or subscriptions, the enthusiasm of Tralee and other citizens was hard to beat. The 50 organisers continue to like what they do and are conscious of the responsibility. The sentiment which those in the town seem to evoke is “our Town is yours to enjoy for a week, but treat her gently, for we love her.”

So what of the future of the Festival of Kerry and the Rose of Tralee?

Continued growth is evident, and plans were mooted to replace the Dome with a multi-functional Complex which will include 6,000 seating theatre, a festival club to accommodate 30,000, a suite of offices, and broadcasting facilities for the entire southwest of Ireland and is planned on a site near to where Willie Mulchinock and Mary O'Connor viewed the pale moon rising.

It is amazing what the ideas and courage of a small group of people can bring about. Five business people change a small town carnival into a worldwide event. Memories of whirling gaiety over the years are brought back by the 40th Anniversary Festival - ”the thrill of the City of London Girl Pipers on the Opening Afternoon, Teddy Fossett, Ringmaster of Fossett's Circus and Zoo, as he opens another show; the wide eyed gaze of thousands of children; crowds, lights, tears of the Rose of Tralee as she is introduced to the cheering throngs in Denny Street, the one who asks what's new and realises that everything is and yet nothing as it is unchanging in its magic”.

Courtesy of the Imokilly People
August 2003