David Monaghan sits down with Conor Horgan to discuss his upcoming documentary about drag queen activist Panti Bliss, The Queen of Ireland.
Conor Horgan is the director of the moment. The man behind the woman of the biggest LGBT documentary to come out of Ireland this year, he has no doubt found himself inundated with interview requests and press junkets. Tapping away on his phone he breaks intermittently to apologise. “Sorry,” he says. “This week has been manic.” No doubt. One cannot make a documentary about the country’s most outspoken drag queen and the biggest social revolution we have experienced in the 21st century without experiencing some attention.
The Queen of Ireland maps the journey of Rory O’Neill from his childhood in the market town of Ballinrobe, County Mayo, to his accidental activism as Dublin’s charismatic Panti Bliss. Filmed over a number of years, it captures notable events in O’Neill’s life such as the infamous ‘Pantigate’ fiasco, as well as the viral sensation that was the Noble Call at the Abbey Theatre, where Panti Bliss made a rousing speech about the RTÉ controversy. The speech went viral on YouTube, amassing over seven hundred thousand views. And finally, he captures the historic marriage referendum in May 2015, which saw the Irish people vote overwhelmingly in favour of same-sex marriage. “I always knew that interesting things would happen,” says Horgan. “We had no idea how interesting or what things indeed, but we started filming because I knew Rory and I knew Panti and I knew that we had this really interesting central character who’s very politically astute, extremely articulate, and wildly entertaining… Then when the actual story arrived, it arrived in spades,” he laughs.
“And another thing about Rory is that Panti is always camera-ready. Panti is always very sassy and very quick and very smart and very funny. There’s such a disparity between them as characters.” So at what point does this disparity become noticeable? “All of the front of house stuff happens through Panti, and Rory is really quite shy. If they were both exactly the same kind of character, just one wore a dress and the other one didn’t, I don’t think it would have been interesting.”
Production on this film began immediately after Horgan’s last feature film had been released, and was born of a meeting between him and his producer, Katie Holly. “She knew I knew Rory. I’ve known Rory since the mid-90s, when I started doing pictures of Panti for the Alternative Miss Ireland posters.” The Alternative Miss Ireland was an annual drag queen beauty pageant organised to raise funds for Irish AIDS charities. The very last one, held in 2012, is depicted in the film. “Rory, when we first approached him, said he’d been approached a number of times before but he never really felt like it, but he trusted me enough to say yes. I knew it was a big deal for him, not least because he comes from a small country town… He has a horror about being seen to have notions about oneself, which is a very Irish thing.”
The film ends, rather surprisingly, with Rory returning to do a show as Panti in his native Ballinrobe. Why was this ending chosen over the more obvious passing of marriage equality? “It was our decision [to do that]. When we first approached Rory, he said, ‘you’re not going to ask me to walk down the street in Ballinrobe wearing a dress, right?’ It was quite a big deal for him to agree to that… The film is about the intersection between the personal and the political, so you have a political climax, which is May 23rd, but then the personal. As Rory actually says himself in the film, the personal always trumps the political.”
In the film, O’Neill describes the secrecy that came with being gay in Dublin in the 1980s. As they danced in underground nightclubs, straight people went about their everyday lives, totally oblivious to what was happening. Gay people had to hide away and there are huge gaps in Irish LGBTQ+ history as a result. By featuring footage and interviews from this time, does Conor hope to fill this gap? “Basically, almost everything of that, that exists, is in the film. All a minute and a half of it. RTÉ would have gone in there with a camera crew maybe twice. We looked elsewhere to see what else there was, and there really wasn’t anything else. Does it fill a gap? I suppose any documentary, especially when it’s about, ultimately, how a country is changing is going to become part of the historical record of that country.”
The passing of marriage equality on May 23rd marked a significant turning point in Ireland. With overwhelming support for the ‘yes’ campaign, it signified to many that the country had finally moved on from a repressive past, 22 years after homosexuality had been decriminalised in Irish law. “I think the entire country was gobsmacked by just how big a deal this was,” Horgan says. “Everybody I knew had this emotional investment and really felt it when the thing went through, because it was about the country becoming a better place for everybody.” Conor had the privilege of being at the centre of events. “There was nowhere else in the world I would have rather been for that day, other than chasing Panti around with a camera.”
The Queen of Ireland is the director’s second feature film, following One Hundred Mornings in 2009. A post-apocalyptic drama filmed in the Wicklow Mountains, it details the breakdown of society and the loneliness that would ensue from such an event. “Of all the lies we tell ourselves,” he says, “the greatest is that there’s any world worth living in that involves the breakdown of society. A lot of people, especially younger people, just go, ‘well great, it’ll be like Spring Break forever, except with guns, and we can do whatever the hell we want and go tearing around the place and shoot people and all bets will be off,’ and it wouldn’t be like that. It would be boring, and cold, and lonely, and scary, and I just wanted to make a realistic film saying, ‘is this what you want?’”One Hundred Mornings won an IFTA for Best Cinematography and a Special Jury Award at the 2010 Slamdance Film Festival.
So what can we expect to see next from the filmmaker? “Nothing. I’m retiring now, that’s it,” he laughs, before his phone starts buzzing once more. “No, I’m working on a science-fiction love story with another writer called Pierce Ryan and we’re having a lot of fun doing that, so that might very well be my next film.” Quite a departure from following a drag queen around Ireland.
The marriage referendum created reverberations all over the world, as did the story of Panti Bliss and her noble call. This film captures that story and acts as a time capsule for this unique period in Irish history, and it is thanks to director Conor Horgan that it is on record. Whether he is detailing the breakdown of society, or following a man in drag, he undoubtedly has interesting things to say about the changing social landscape in Ireland.
The Queen of Ireland is in theatres now.