Posts Tagged ‘Rose of Tralee’


Most of the impressions we garner in the course of a day fade quickly from our memories. Lady Memory is very selective. But certain impressions, no matter how mundane, stay with us for decades. Such was the case with one of the most ordinary of physical objects, which I encountered in southwest Ireland in a not-so-ordinary setting.

It was the summer of 1998, and I had come to the town of Tralee (pron. truh-LEE; pop. 23, 691) in Co. Kerry to lecture and teach at the Kerry International Summer School. Although I devoted much of the week to honing my public lecture and teaching my class in Modern Irish Poetry, I also found time to explore the town of Tralee (Ir. Tra-li), whose name means “strand (beach) of the (River) Lee.” Well supplied with shops, restaurants, old-fashioned hotels, and hospitable pubs, Tralee has the feel of an insular but welcoming country town, nestled into the Vale of Tralee at the northern end of the Dingle Peninsula.

If Tralee is known to the wider world, it is largely because of a song. “The Rose of Tralee,” a 19th-century ballad well suited to the swelling tones of John McCormick and other Irish tenors, extols the beauty and virtue of Mary, a local girl known to her community as 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 shining / That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee. According to the most recent research, these lyrics were written by the Tralee poet William Pembroke Mulchinock (1820-1864) in praise of one Mary O’Connor, a poor girl in service to his family. Set to a melody by Charles William Glover, the song eventually became widely popular in Ireland and abroad.

In keeping with the fame of Mulchinock’s ballad, the town of Tralee has hosted, since 1959, an international beauty contest, drawing contestants from countries far and wide. In the early days of the competition, a local resident told me, the contestants were required to be certified virgins, but that cumbersome requirement was soon set aside. As my informant wryly explained, that stricture had “vastly reduced the pool of eligible applicants.” Likewise, a provision excluding unmarried mothers was eventually laid to rest. Now any unmarried woman between the ages of 18-30 who can claim Irish heritage can vie to become the next Rose of Tralee.

A memorial depicting Mary O’Connor, the original Rose, and her smitten poet-admirer stands at the center of Tralee’s Town Park and Rose Garden, one of the largest urban parks in Ireland. Spanning thirty-five acres, this green oasis includes more than 1,000 mature trees, five kilometers of pathways, and a Rose Garden with over 6,000 well-tended roses. Strolling through its precincts one summer afternoon, I had no need to stop to smell the roses.  On the contrary, their scent, as well as their extraordinary volume and variety, threatened to overload my senses, even as their collective presence soothed my itinerant mind.

RFK lifesize

Near the center of the park, I did stop to inspect a bronze memorial plaque mounted on a rough stone slab. Created by Laura O’Sullivan, this modest monument honors Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (1890-1995), wife of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., and mother of JFK. Beneath the lady’s rather fierce profile, cast in low relief, an inscription reads: I find it interesting to reflect on what has made my life, even with it’s [sic] moments of pain, an essentially happy one. I have come to the conclusion that the most important element in human life is faith.

Perhaps Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy’s words were echoing in my mind as I walked out of the park and into a courtyard behind St. John’s Church, an imposing Gothic edifice and the town’s spiritual center. There, on the plain back wall of the church, I saw a common outdoor faucet, of the sort to which garden hoses are normally attached. But above it, etched in white on dark gray stone, a small sign read: Holy Water.

holy water on tap 2

This improbable anomaly stopped me in my tracks. It also prompted many questions. Where did this holy water come from? From the town’s water mains? A sacred well? Was it regularly blessed by the parish priest? And why on earth was it on tap?

Beyond those practical and ontological questions, there was the more personal question of what if anything I, a foreigner and a non-Catholic, should do. Turn on the faucet and have a taste? Cleanse my hands and face and, presumably, my mortal soul? Bow and be on my way?

As often happens when faced with such quandaries, I did nothing. But several months later, as I recalled the experience, I composed a poem, aptly titled “Holy Water.” After detailing the situation in which the narrator finds himself, the poem concludes with these lines:

All it would have taken was a turn,

A counter-clockwise motion of the hand.

What was it stopped me? Say it was a sense

Of something tangible behind my shoulder,

By which I mean no priest or risen ghost,

Much less a stern protector of the State,

But something I’d brought with me to Tralee,

A figment of a once and future longing.

Would that it might sustain me or be gone.

Would that I might pass and leave no trace.

William Wordsworth famously described the content of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” More recently, W.H. Auden defined the art as “the clear expression of mixed feelings.” Both of these pronouncements have a bearing on my poem, though exactly what emotion I was recalling, I couldn’t say. Nor would I claim that much of anything was clarified. But what the poem does do is exemplify a truth that Zen teachings often underscore: that what philosophers call the transcendent and what Zen calls the absolute dimension of our experience resides nowhere else but in our daily encounters with the world’s most ordinary things. In this respect, all water is holy water.


Photos: Tralee Town Park and Rose Garden; Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy; St. John’s Church, Tralee.

Ben Howard, Firewood and Ashes: New & Selected Poems (Salmon Poetry, 2015).

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