The Queen of Ireland

THE QUEEN OF IRELAND.  Ireland, 2015.  Starring Rory O’Neill/ Panti Bliss. Directed by Conor Horgan. 82 minutes.  Rated PG (Coarse language and sexual references).

Not a reference to Elizabeth II and her role in Northern Ireland. Rather, this is a story from the Irish Republic, and the Queen of Ireland is Panti Bliss, a drag queen who story is told and how he was influential in the Irish referendum of 2015 for marriage equality.

In fact, this film has two aims. Firstly, it tells the story of Rory O’Neill, from County Mayo, a gay boy growing up in the 1970s who felt out of place, acted out some of his confusion, and became a celebrated drag queen. Secondly, it tells something the story of the Irish referendum and the significance of Panti Bliss in the buildup to the vote.

In order to appreciate this rather cheerful film, a realisation of the background of legislation about homosexuality and Ireland is necessary, the last of the European Union countries to decriminalise homosexual activity. This gives the context to Rory O’Neill and his growing up, his time at boarding school and his being considered something of a sissy, his decision to go to art school and his interest in design, especially his drawings of women and clothes, his becoming involved in the underground gay culture of Dublin (literally, as he explains, gay clubs in basements with hetero clubs upstairs), his becoming involved in drag performances, spending time in Japan where he found a partner and name, Panti Bliss, and found that he enjoyed performing, jokes, ribald humour, songs, provocative performance.

Much of the film is straight to camera interview with Rory O’Neill, looking something like a cousin of Graham Norton whereas Panti Bliss looks like a very tall Amy Poehler. Significantly, Rory O’Neill explains that Panti Bliss is a clown, a tall female cartoon, basically an entertainer, and provocative because she is a court jester and the role of the jester in the past was to be humorous an ironic challenge. This certainly makes sense of her presence and performances.

A number of her friends, writers and producers also comment on the gay culture, relationships, clubs and entertainment.

With the referendum of 2015, Panti Bliss obviously took a stance for the Yes vote for marriage equality. Going on television and interviewed about the issues, national Irish television was sued because of what Panti Bliss said and they offered an apology. Panti Bliss followed this with a performance at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, making a significant speech, a Noble Appeal, about the issues, understanding, compassion – which was filmed, appeared on YouTube, received endorsements from people like Stephen Fry, Martina Navratilova, Graham Norton and was the subject of many hits, comments in the media, comments in the parliament.

Both Rory O’Neill and Panti Bliss participated in the campaign, Panti Bliss doing performances, encouraging street demonstrations, while Rory O’Neill much more quietly did a great deal of doorknocking and handing out of pamphlets.

While the film has a great deal of footage of the day of the referendum vote and the winning by the Yes campaign, and Panti Bliss going out to meet so many people, congratulations, dancing in the streets, plenty of photos, the film actually ends with Rory O’Neill going home to County Mayo, with the strong support of his mother and father and sister, and realising that 40 years earlier he had fled the town, now he was returning to do a Panti Bliss performance for relatives and friends – rather rapturously received.

Rory O’Neill says that tolerance is only a basis and that understanding is more important, that those who voted No, may come to understand the LBGTI community better and that the bad consequences they anticipated did not come about.

(It is very interesting to note that in this film from the once-Catholic country Ireland there is no mention of the Catholic Church at all, nothing about their heritage, nothing about the life of the church, nothing about the abuse cases, nothing about advice for the referendum, just the impression that Ireland is now a Catholic Church-free zone – although one old man does mention genially a picture of the Sacred Heart in prayer.)

Transmission films                                    Released September 8th

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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