When the Marriage Equality referendum passed in May of 2015, Ireland’s dearest drag queen Panti Bliss took her place on the podium at Dublin Castle.

Standing alongside Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams and Minister for Justice Francis Fitzgerald, she addressed the emotional crowd. Rory O’Neill’s alter ego, Panti, who had always been in the peripheral vision of the Irish people, was now front and centre having played a hugely important role in the Yes campaign.

Today, Panti performs all over the world but is based in Dublin, even making her own mark on the cityscape. At dusk, the gloriously cartoonish PANTIBAR sign glows red and beacon-like on Capel Street, beyond it the Liffey ripples, the dome of City Hall pale green in the distance.

I don’t think Dubliners accept anyone as a Dubliner unless they were born here

But is Panti a Dubliner?

Rory O’Neill isn’t so sure, “I don’t think Dubliners accept anyone as a Dubliner unless they were born here. I think like so many things in my life I think of myself as somewhere hovering in the middle there. In one way I feel very much like I’m from Mayo, my family is in Mayo…”

But Dublin is “absolutely home”, somewhere that has always offered a different view of life, be it on visits as a boy to see his granny in Dolphin’s Barn, or getting the train to Dublin en route to boarding school in Gormanstown. O’Neill’s best school friend was from Blackrock so “that’s where I would be first sneaking having a drink somewhere and all that. Dublin did sort of represent a freedom.”

After school, O’Neill moved to Dublin to study art in NCAD. He first performed in drag in his graduation show. Dublin in the mid-eighties was however a difficult place to be fabulous. O’Neill discovered the underground gay scene, but it wasn’t enough.

“Dublin was pretty depressing, I think for everybody at the time,” he laughs, “It was grey and nobody was working.”

It was particularly colourless for O’Neill. “I was reading I-D and The Face magazine and reading about club kids and the weirdness and the boys with eyeliner and funny haircuts, and I’d take my face out of The Face and look around and it was rockers in paisley shirts with long hair…”

Conversation with O’Neill is punctuated with wicked little asides and hearty laughs. “So even though I had a great time as a college student, at the same time I thought, I’m getting out of Dublin.”

After college, Rory left Ireland for Tokyo where his Panti persona made her debut. He stayed five years.

“I adored Tokyo and had the best time of my life…but you’re always the foreigner there especially if you’re a big white guy…” When close friends moved on, it was time to go. Paris next, he thought. But when he came home to visit Ireland in 1995, things were different.

“It was the beginning of the Celtic Tiger. When I came back, club culture had arrived. The Kitchen and the POD had opened in Dublin. The city was changing. There were cranes everywhere. They were building the Luas. There was a sense of possibility about Dublin. There were young people coming here from other places.”

In a newly vibrant city, the club nights and performances that O’Neill wanted to organise were suddenly possible. And there was another “much more boring” factor to his staying. Having been diagnosed as HIV positive, in terms of medical care, “everything was easy and covered here for that…it definitely played a part…”

Before Panti was a full time job, O’Neill lived many different lives: a puppeteer, a facepainter, a waiter in Elephant and Castle “when it was the first and only restaurant in Temple Bar”. He sold jeans in McCullough’s on Suffolk Street, “the epicentre of cool Dublin.”

Nineties Dublin, he says, was a freer place, because of club culture. “I have friends from those days when I was in my twenties and going out raving, that I would never have met in any other circumstances.” Before then, “someone like me who wanted to dress up and be stupid was just put down as weird and odd – but when rave culture and club culture arrived here, that was looked on as an asset, being weird and putting glitter on your arse. Big blokey straight guy truck drivers just thought ‘oh my God, these weird gays are actually fun…’

I was just doing my thing, and sometimes my thing has bigger effects than I anticipate

Having witnessed first-hand as Dublin became “more open and accepting and proud to be more open”, O’Neill says he has a long-standing “faith in the Irish psyche. We’ve a lot of our own problems but one thing that we’re actually generally pretty good at is fairness. Fairness is highly valued here…maybe because of our history. I think that saves us from some of the worst excesses…”

For years, Panti has been a prominent figure in Dublin’s gay community, often leading the LGBTQ Pride Parade and emceeing Alternative Miss Ireland. So did she feel a certain responsibility to be at the fore of the Marriage Equality campaign?

O’Neill says the referendum was simply something he believed in. “It’s just that because I did have a kind of a profile, my contribution would be more obvious.”

But then came Panti’s ‘Noble Call’ speech, and all was changed utterly. After O’Neill appeared on a late night RTE chat show to discuss the referendum, his words prompted a law suit. ‘Pantigate’ was born, and ‘Team Panti’ t-shirts and bumper stickers appeared everywhere.

Panti appeared on the stage of the Abbey Theatre and made an eloquent speech on acceptance and equality. One commentator compared her to Daniel O’Connell. “I was just writing a speech because I was annoyed and I had an opportunity to be annoyed in public,” he says, reflecting on that time. “For it to go viral was a total shock to me.”

Panti's Noble Call at the Abbey Theatre

Stephen Fry showed his support, Graham Norton, Madonna. The Pet Shop Boys remixed Panti’s words on a track. “There was a lot of stuff going on at the time, the legal stuff… So I never really had time to take it in.” He thinks back to the day he “got a little phone call, ‘Hi, this is Neil Tennant.’ When I think about that now I think, God, that is pretty cool.”

I got into drag because it was anti-establishment and discombobulating and transgressive and punk, you know, two fingers up to everyone’s expectations of how you should behave and dress. I still feel that way about drag too.

Nevertheless, he balks at the idea of being an Irish hero.

“I was just doing my thing, and sometimes my thing has bigger effects than I anticipate… The reason I made those speeches and get annoyed about things is because I want to make my life easier. People think I’m some sort of selfless saint who does all these things only for other people, but I’m one of the people I’m doing it for.”

Having appeared as the eloquent Panti on the BBC and Channel 4 news, one wonders if O’Neill has done something to change the perception of ‘Holy Catholic Ireland’ on an international scale.

“I don’t think that me appearing on Channel 4 news in a dress is really going to change a huge amount. The world’s perception of Ireland has been lagging behind what Ireland is for quite a while, and that annoys Irish people.”

But if he didn’t change things, the marriage referendum did, “that gets said to me all the time when I’m abroad: ‘Ireland, of all places’.

These days, O’Neill has noticed that gay couples looked more comfortable being openly affectionate on Dublin’s streets. “I thought that very little would change afterwards. I thought if it was ‘Yes’ that everything would be exactly the same except gay people could get married. But actually I think it was much more powerful than that because we did it by referendum.

It changed how the gay community feel about themselves in Ireland because, maybe uniquely in the world, Irish LGBT people, we know exactly how the rest of the country feels about us. We can quantify it.

Before the referendum, I hoped and guessed that most Irish people were cool with the gays, but I didn’t know that.” And it changed Irish people’s overall perception of themselves, “It did say to the world, we’re a modern forward-thinking nation.”

So how does O’Neill feel about the great evolution of Panti Bliss? “It’s hilarious,” he says. “I got into drag because it was anti-establishment and discombobulating and transgressive and punk, you know, two fingers up to everyone’s expectations of how you should behave and dress. I still feel that way about drag too.

So to end up in a weird way being a kind of establishment figure, is just absolutely nuts.” But this progression suits O’Neill just fine. “I think it says something bizarre but kind of nice about Ireland, that that was even possible. I’m 48, and the kind of things I want to do have changed,” he says.

“My ambitions are to keep doing my writing and my theatre shows. The other thing of course is, some of the things that I want to say to people are kind of difficult subjects and I wouldn’t be able to do that as effectively if I was the crazy looking underground character that I was twenty years ago. Now Panti is very unthreatening looking. She looks like that biology teacher that substituted that time, or she looks like your solicitor’s wife.”

And what of the people who ask if Panti would ever run for President?

“I’m actually really bad at that kind of politics,” O’Neill says, quite serious now. “Photocopying machines and meetings. I hate meetings more than anything else in the world. So no, I’d rather be Twink than Mary Robinson.”

Catherine Conroy is a Dublin writer, regularly contributing to The Irish Times, and dabbling in fiction in The Dublin Review. Her novel continues to wait patiently in a drawer.

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