When people think of Lisdoovarna match-making festival, lovelorn farmers and traditional music usually come to mind.
The festival kicks off at the end of August every year, and sets the Co Clare village alight with fun and music. This year, however, the festival kicks off in a way it never has before, with an official weekend-long lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) match-making offshoot festival, called the Outing.
Dónal Mulligan and Eddie McGuinness have organised previous events for Dublin’s LGBT community, and it’s not the first time they have blended elements of trad with gay culture. Mulligan also worked on the Poorhouse club night in Panti Bar, Dublin, a mix of contemporary and traditional Irish cultures for the gay community. They felt 2013 was the right time for a new take on Lisdoonvarna.
Mulligan emphasises that Lisdoonvarna's traditions will still be at the core of the Outing. Entertainment will include Eurovision winner Niamh Kavanagh, DJ Conor Behan, a tea dance and céilí, and the drag queen Panti.
“Part of what we’re doing is to try and keep the traditional elements and just add to them. We’re not by any means coming in and wiping the whole 157 years of Lisdoonvarna history,” he said.
“The whole idea is that we’re taking elements of it that we know are going to work, so there’s céilí dancing, there’s a tea dance and all those traditional things, and then we’re heaping on top of that drag queens and crazy performance nutters from the UK. It’s not changing things too much.”
Although happily partnered and not looking for a match himself, part-time farmer John James Hickey from Tipperary will be going to the Clare town this weekend, where he will be joined by a number of his friends. Hickey (29), who is gay and currently half of “Mr August” for the Irish Farmer Calendar 2013, is “looking forward to it immensely”.
Hickey describes is as "a fantastic addition to the mid-west's regional calendar of LGBT events. It will, of course, be followed by Limerick LGBTQ Pride the following weekend."
More than match-making
He points out that there's more to the festival than just finding a partner; it also appeals to people such as himself who are in relationships. "Lisdoonvarna has a long tradition with match-making over the years. However, great friendships are formed as well. I'm sure that there will be some new friendships formed and old ones reimagined.
“The west of Ireland has a wonderful way of letting you reconnect to the world and what is important in life.”
Hickey, who balances a farming job with his work as incoming chairman for next year’s International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival and co-ordinator for Limerick’s Gay Games 2018 bid, has been to the village before and is expecting a “wonderfully warm welcome that the people of Clare extend to everybody year on year”.
“I think it is going to be a wonderfully typical Lisdoonvarna. All of the performers are fantastic at what they do, and add an element of surprise, which will only add to the typical Lisdoonvarna festival.”
'They can get really rowdy'
Panti, the drag queen played by Rory O'Neill, will front the festival. Speaking in character, Panti says she is well accustomed to bringing drag to small-town Ireland, and has high hopes for Lisdoonvarna. "I know what west of Ireland festivals are like, so I have no illusions of daisies and roses, and also, they can get really rowdy," she says.
“I’ve been to every town up and down this country, but I haven’t been to Lisdoonvarna before, so that’s going to be beautiful. I think people in small towns don’t get drag queens, but everybody loves a big clown and essentially that’s what I am.”
“It’s the thing that most people are talking about, actually. People are really excited specifically about the drag queens coming to town,” says Mulligan.
Might the remote location put people off? “The country gays are more used to having to travel to do things,” says Panti. “They think nothing of hopping in a car and driving 100 miles for something. Whereas Dublin gays can be so lazy.”
Mulligan says they have arranged buses to encourage “the Dublin gays” to attend.
The festival will be supporting BelongTo, a charity aiming to reduce homophobic bullying and build a more inclusive society for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people in Ireland. The organisation will be present at the festival.
Festival-goers will also get the chance to explore the surrounding areas, such as the Cliffs of Moher cruise, Doolin and Aillwee caves and walks around the Burren, with reductions for some excursions through the website.
Tickets for the festival (theouting.ie), which is running this weekend are still available and are priced from €199 per person for the event and accommodation. A video of Dónal Mulligan and Panti speaking about the festival is available on irishtimes.com