Filmmaker Conor Horgan began making a documentary about performer Rory O’Neill – perhaps better known as his drag persona Panti Bliss – in 2010. The film follows O’Neill as he looks back over his life, as the furore surrounding his 2014 appearance on the ‘Saturday Night Show’ takes off, and through the campaign for a yes vote in the Marriage Equality referendum earlier this year.
There is little doubt that Rory O’Neill/Panti Bliss is one of Ireland’s most gifted, outspoken and vibrant performers, but the story that emerges throughout The Queen of Ireland is of a young gay man from a small town, trying to find a place he feels at home in an Ireland where homosexuality has not yet been decriminalised. O’Neill is frank and funny throughout the entire film, as well as being wonderfully self aware of his self appointed role; “My job as a drag queen is to commentate from the fringes, to stand on the outside looking in shouting abuse”.
The film charts O’Neill’s life from his childhood through his time at art college, his move to Tokyo and how it felt to come back to Ireland when being gay was no longer a crime – homosexuality was officially decriminalised in Ireland in 1993. In telling his own personal story, O’Neill charts modern history in Ireland, and the changes that the country has gone through in the past 20-30 years. Yes, the film is told through O’Neill’s life, but it could easily be told through the eyes of any young gay person growing up in Ireland, and this is what makes the film so special, and so relatable.
The second half of The Queen of Ireland focuses on the Pantigate affair and the fallout from this. Although there is a moment where those unaware of what actually happened could be confused, it is clear that the filmmakers found themselves in a bind, and could not be seen to repeat the statements made by O’Neill on the Saturday Night Show without opening themselves up to legal action. This does mean that the event is not fully explained, but the fact that this led to Panti accidentally becoming, in her words, a ‘National F***ing Treasure’ and the accidental face of the Marriage Equality Campaign means that it lends some context to the film.
The film is filled with faces from O’Neill’s life; his parents, sister and friend Niall Sweeney appear, as well as LGBT Rights Activist Tonie Walsh, actor and screenwriter Mark O’Halloran, journalist Una Mulally and fellow drag queen Declan Buckley, also known as Shirley Temple Bar. These people not only give an insight into O’Neill as a person, but also into life in Ireland as gay people, and just what a yes vote in the Marriage Equality Referendum could mean for Ireland and Irish people.
In all, The Queen of Ireland is not only the captivating story of a hilarious and honest performer, but it is also the story of Ireland over the past number of years. O’Neill is frank, hilarious and engaging at the centre of the film, but the thing that makes The Queen of Ireland truly special is the feeling that while this is the story of Panti, it is also the story of everyone who lives in Ireland, and the change we brought about when we galvanised behind, as O’Neill puts it, a man in a dress who has no fear of saying the unsayable. The Queen of Ireland has a couple of wobbles here and there, but is, on the whole, a moving, engaging and honest piece of work.