Documentary charts the highs and lows of Ireland’s outspoken queen of drag

MoviesBy Esther McCarthy
Panti Bliss
Panti Bliss

GREAT MOVIES can sink or swim depending on the charisma of the person whose story it’s telling.

Little wonder then, that Conor Horgan’s absorbing, moving film thrives largely thanks to two fascinating alter-egos. 

The Queen of Ireland presents us with two very different personalities who made a huge impact on Irish life this summer. 

Rory O’Neill is a reserved, thoughtful and intelligent businessman who runs the gay-friendly Pantibar in Dublin’s city centre. 

His alter ego – in case you’ve been living under a rock this year  – is the flamboyant, witty and fabulous Panti Bliss. 

That Panti says: “I’m so glad I look f****ing amazing” as she totters up the cobblestones to Dublin Castle for the marriage equality referendum declaration captures the spirit the Queen of Ireland. 

It’s every bit as funny and cartoonishly colourful as Panti herself.

But Horgan and his team have moved beyond that to give us an informative history of where we’ve come as a society in terms of gay rights, and a deeply moving account of what it is like to grow up gay in Ireland. It’s a wonderful, touching film, and proof that the personal is the political.

And when Rory’s father says in the family home in Ballinrobe that he prayed to the Sacred Heart when his son was diagnosed with HIV, it’s just one of the film’s deeply emotional moments. 

The documentary charts the recent history of gay issues in Ireland, including David Norris’s fight for homosexuality to be decriminalised, the murder of Declan Flynn in Dublin’s Fairview Park and subsequent growth of the Pride movement. 

We learn that Panti started life as part of a drag show in Tokyo before she and Rory moved back to Dublin and became one of the best-loved characters in the city. 

O’Neill, we discover, set up the Alternative Miss Ireland – or as Panti calls it, ‘Gay Christmas’ – to raise funds in the fight against HIV. 

The Pantigate affair is skimmed over somewhat, perhaps because the makers are mindful of the legal implications involved. 

Not that it really matters because it is from here that the movie becomes truly affecting. Panti’s Noble Call is quoted and the film builds in the second half to a really rousing finale, as we see the referendum celebrations in Dublin and O’Neill’s return to his home town of Ballinrobe for Panti’s first show there. 

He is nervous and visibly moved by the reception he gets in the town where he felt ‘different’ growing up. It’s Ireland in microcosm, and a sign of just how far we’ve come. 

The Queen of Ireland (15A) 4/5 STARS