For years it was Cathleen Ni Houlihan, the haughty heroine created by W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, who was the exemplar of the Irish people, Ireland personified – but now I’d argue it’s a six foot three (in heels) drag queen called Panti Bliss.
The drag alter ego of Ballinrobe born Rory O’Neill, 47, Panti was at the forefront of the successful national campaign last year that saw Ireland become the first country in the world to legalize same sex marriage by a popular vote.
Just like Yeats and Gregory’s heroine, Panti also has “the walk of a queen,” but this queen isn’t asking our young people to give up their lives for Ireland.
Instead, by living openly and fearlessly, she’s been inspiring our LGBT sons and daughters to have the courage to do likewise for at least two decades, in a nation that deeply values their lives and contributions and took a national vote to say so.
And as Ireland’s unlikely social revolution (led by impassioned gay and straight young people) made headlines around the world, Panti has indisputably become its revolutionary figurehead, the male and female face of an era of great change.
She’s idolized around the world now, but increasingly she’s won a host of unlikely admirers nearer to home too.
There is talk, serious talk, about a potential run for the Irish presidency, a prospect that makes her howl with laughter but that seasoned campaigners believe has legs.
O’Neill understands where they’re coming from, but he resists their siren call.
“I suppose you would get two people for the price of one,” she laughs. “People mention a presidential run half jokingly to me and yet there was a time when our political parties were coming to me but I had no interest,” he tells IrishCentral.
“I jokingly have said I would be quite good with the Irish presidency because I make a decent speech and Panti poses pretty well for pictures.”
This is an understatement. Noted journalist Fintan O’Toole described Panti’s noble call speech in the Abbey Theatre, where she advocated for marriage equality to a cheering crowd, “the most eloquent Irish speech since Daniel O'Connell was in his prime.”
People who accidentally embody the zeitgeist (as O’Neill’s drag persona unarguably does) can be the last to interpret what their contribution means, but O’Neill is not in the least hoodwinked. There may well be statues erected in his honor one day in Dublin, but for now he wants to keep his counsel and maintain his critical distance – or does he?
“My life is an open book. All of the worst things I’ve ever done are all out there. There are no skeletons left in my closet,” he says.
Doesn’t that make him a stronger candidate? He smiles and says nothing. As several of Ireland’s most prominent conservative commentators discovered, you’d be a fool to underestimate this drag queen.
Questions about his future intentions lead him to reflect on how and why he got into drag in the first place.
“I liked that it was underground and transgressive and fun and discombobulating,” he explains. “Now I find myself in this weird position that Panti is actually Establishment in Ireland. That’s something I’m still adjusting and navigating through. Can I still be transgressive and be on the cover of silly magazines, you know?”
Meanwhile the Republic has made history with the Marriage Referendum and something has changed utterly for everyone – gay and straight – he says.
“Because we did it by referendum it changed how the gay community at home feel about themselves, because they are absolutely sure that Irish society is fine with them in a way that they weren’t before the referendum. They’re very confident and sure of their place now and you see that in the smallest ways with people holding hands in the street that you just didn’t see before.”
“It also changed how straight Irish people see themselves,” he adds. “They all realized that actually we are a forward-thinking, modern society who deeply value fairness.”
“It also transformed how the rest of the world sees us too. Most places still had this 1950’s 'The Quiet Man' view and thought there were bishops going around hitting everyone with a crosier still. That hasn’t been true in quite a while. The referendum announced that to rest of the world. It said 'Catch up. It’s not the place you think it is.'”
Do people in Ireland understand how famous he’s actually become? Has the celebrity ever gone to his head?
“You just adjust. I was forty something when it happened. I knew exactly who I was already. I travel a lot now and when I go to places like Sarajevo it’s incredible how our Irish story is inspiring to them. It’s difficult and dangerous to be gay there and then I come along and I tell them about Ireland. They’re where we were 30 years ago, but then Panti comes along and shows them dramatic change is possible. Our story in Ireland is making them courageous.”
Just like Ni Houlihan over a hundred years ago, Panti has helped inspire Ireland’s LGBT citizens to achieve their own independence. If she/he ever decides to cash in on that effort, the results could be equally unstoppable.
Don’t bet against her, you’ll lose.
Here is the trailer for The Queen of Ireland documentary about Panti, which she recently in town to introduce at the New York premiere (the film hasn't been released in the US yet):