A very Panti Christmas: Rory O’Neill makes merry with family, Roses and a good film

Surely nobody deserves Christmas more than Rory O’Neill, the man behind Panti Bliss, this country’s undisputed Woman of the Year

Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

Read all our Christmas content at irishtimes.com/itschristmas

Surely nobody deserves Christmas more than Rory O’Neill, the man behind Panti Bliss, this country’s undisputed Woman of the Year.

Ever since February, 2014, when Panti’s Noble Call rang out from the stage of the Abbey Theatre, Ireland has rallied behind a character who, as her Mayo-born alter-ego has it, is “a larger than life clown type character . . . but not actually as scary as a real clown”.

It would be impossible to overstate the role this outsized character played in last May’s historic ‘Yes’ vote in the same-sex marriage referendum. And yet, in person and unfrocked, O’Neill is a quiet, unassuming chap, with lovely manners and beautifully rounded vowels.

While many, including this parish’s Fintan O’Toole, rightly attended to the eloquence of Panti’s celebrated 2014 Call, we should not overlook O’Neill’s brave admission that he is “painfully middle class”. In Hiberno-English, that’s what we call “coming out”.

“It’s all relative, isn’t it?” laughs O’Neill. “Even though my dad was a vet in a small town in Mayo, and most of his clients were scraping together a living from two sheep on the side of a mountain, and there certainly wasn’t much money in it, and he worked 365 days a year including Christmas day, the town still considered the vet and the doctor and the priest and the bank manager to be slightly different.”

Those who wish to relive the giddy highs of last May, when an entire nation took to the streets to celebrate, would do well to check out Conor Horgan’s stirring new documentary portrait, The Queen of Ireland. With Panti as our guide, the film deftly weaves social, personal and political history into a shape so pleasing that it has received the best reviews of the year. It might easily be subtitled ‘How a Republic Curtseyed Before Its New Monarch’.

But while the rest of us are settling down to enjoy the film on DVD, Rory will be back in his native Mayo enjoying a very traditional Christmas, replete with rival hostesses.

“Christmas was always in our parents’ house,” he says. “And then over the years my three sisters decided – without really vocalising it – that it was getting too much for my mother. So we started going to their houses.

“They enjoyed doing it. They complained. But they really do like it. And that was great. But it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t how I remembered Christmas growing up. So two years ago I said: ‘This is lovely but it doesn’t feel like a proper Christmas’. And of course it turned out that my mother actually wanted to do Christmas. So now Christmas is back at my mother’s house.”

Most Irish families will recognise Team O’Neill’s festive drill: “In the morning when the cooking is getting to the stage that it needs to be left alone, the neighbours come to us or we go to them and there are a few gins. And that might last an hour. Or two and a half hours. And then we go back and do presents and then lunch. After that it used to be all about sitting around and watching whatever is on telly. But these days, there’s a lot of going for walks and that sort of stuff. I don’t. I’m happy to sit there and watch Harry Potter.”

Is he a Roses or Quality Street person?

“Oh Roses. I mean, they all taste the same now, just as they keep getting slightly smaller.”

Which sweets are last to go?

“In our house the raspberry ones sit at the bottom of the tin. But I have a friend who tells me that in their house the raspberry ones are the first ones to go. It’s the nut ones that get left behind. That’s just weird, I think. Mind you, the orange creme is the second last one to go in our house. But I actually like those.”

Panti Bliss, meanwhile, was born in Tokyo, as one half of CandiPanti, a drag act Rory formed with the American artist Angelo Pitillo. Japanese Christmases, as Rory recalls, do not see the neighbours knocking in for gin and tonics.

“Christmas is weird in Japan,” says Rory. “It reminds me of how Halloween in America used to look to us, in the days when we just had bobbing for apples and brack. It’s totally artificial; it has no connection to their culture at all. They all go to work. But then they all go to Kentucky Fried Chicken. It dates back to some ad from the ’70s or ’80s or something and it became a thing.”

Did he miss Irish Christmases over there?

“No. Because my friends and I would have our own Christmas. The only time I’ve really missed out was one time when I was stuck in Dublin for work. And you know how it is. You don’t want to intrude on other people’s Christmases even when you’re asked. And I thought: ‘I’ll be fine. It’s just one day’. But I was living in a crappy little flat at the time and from the moment I woke up it was so grim.”

Does he remember his Santa Claus requests growing up?

“I do remember that for years I asked for a gorilla suit. I couldn’t tell you why. But I was obsessed with getting a gorilla suit. It was on the Santy list every year. I never did get one. But I’ve never been much of a wanter. Even now when I have money in my pocket I think: but there’s nothing I really want.”

The Queen of Ireland is available on DVD

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