What Miss America is to this country, the Rose of Tralee is to Ireland. And for the first time in the competition's 55-year-history, a Kentuckian is a finalist for the crown.
McCarthy's Irish Bar was packed Saturday night as the Lexington Celtic Association threw a sendoff "hooley" for Claire Curran, complete with traditional Irish musicians and the McTeggart step dancers.
Curran, 23, spent four days in Ireland in May competing against more than 60 young women of Irish descent from Ireland and as far away as New Zealand and Dubai. She will soon head back. The 23 finalists will make appearances around Ireland and take part in festival activities for two weeks before this year's Rose is chosen during two televised broadcasts from Tralee's Festival Dome, Aug. 18-19.
"For us, this is huge," said Liza Hendley Betz, a Dublin native who owns Failte, The Irish Shop. "As a kid in Ireland, watching the Rose of Tralee on television was a family tradition. Now to think that our Kentucky Rose could win it all."
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The Rose of Tralee began in 1959 as a local pageant in County Kerry, taking its name from a 19th century love ballad. It soon went national, and in 1967 opened to young women of Irish descent everywhere.
Ireland has fewer than 4.6 million people — only about 255,000 more than Kentucky. But for two centuries, Ireland's biggest export has been people.
More than 10 percent of Kentucky residents are of Irish descent. Early Irish stone masons built many of Central Kentucky's iconic limestone fences. The horse industry has lured hundreds of recent immigrants, who say Central Kentucky reminds them of home because of its lush green meadows and stone fences.
Betz estimates the area has at least 300 "off the boat" Irish, as she calls them. Irish comfort food for expatriates is a big draw for her imports shop. It shares an old red-and-green building on South Upper Street with McCarthy's, where the bartenders know how to properly pour a pint of Guinness.
Betz and other Irish immigrants started a Kentucky Rose organizing committee, called a centre, in 2012. It joined a dozen other U.S. centres, as well as eight in Britain, four in Canada, two in continental Europe, seven in Australia and New Zealand and four in the Middle East. All 32 Irish counties have them.
"The first year, we had our event on St. Patrick's Day out in the mud at CentrePointe," Betz said. "It was almost comical, so we said we need to get serious about this."
Curran was chosen from among eight contestants March 22 at the second annual Rose Ball at Saints Peter and Paul School. Betz said she is thrilled that a Kentucky girl made the finals this quickly.
The Rose of Tralee International Festival says it is not a beauty pageant. There is no swimsuit competition, and while contestants perform, their talent is not judged. The winner is selected based on her personality and ability to be a "confident, hardworking, intelligent role model" and goodwill ambassador.
Carole Whalen, who went to the preliminaries in Portlaoise, Ireland, thinks Curran impressed the judges with her wit and humor. During her talent performance, she dramatically unrolled a long scroll to read a funny poem she had written.
Curran said she was born in California, grew up in Frankfort and graduated from Murray State University. She works for the Kentucky Revenue Cabinet where, she said, "I'm one of those people in the division of sales and use tax who writes letters that make people's day all over the Commonwealth." Her hobby is acting.
"Being Irish has always been an important part of our family," she said. "If my grandparents were still alive they would be beside themselves about this."
Lexington's Irish community raised several thousand dollars to help pay for Curran's festival expenses.
"There's so many Irish here, we try to help each other out," said one of her sponsors, Pat Costello, an owner of the Thoroughbred firm Paramount Sales. "We grew up at home with the Rose of Tralee as a huge contest."