Róisín Ingle on ... Panti Bliss and ‘The Queen of Ireland’

Not fitting in is no crime but it can often feel like the darkest and most lonely of places

Watching Conor Horgan's movie The Queen of Ireland – which by the way should be compulsory viewing for the entire nation, put on the Leaving Cert curriculum and beamed from lamp-posts at pedestrian crossings on a loop – is an emotional rollercoaster not just for wusses like me but even for more hardy types.

As you know, it tells the life story of Rory O'Neill from Ballinrobe, Co Mayo who grew up to become the giant cartoon woman and Irish drag queen Panti Bliss. It also tells the tale of the global Pantigate phenomenon, the equal marriage referendum, the yes vote and a country coming of age right in front of our eyes. RTÉ won't need to compile a Reeling in the Years for 2015. It can just show The Queen of Ireland because forget the rugby or any gruesome court case, the most important and edifying parts of 2015 are there.

I should point out that O’Neill’s Mum and Dad, as loyal and loving as they are hilarious and wisecracking, steal the show several times. It is worth watching for them alone. But as I snorted, cackled and wept through the movie one thing struck me more than anything else: how very grateful we should all be to Ireland’s vibrant band of misfits, to all our fishes out of water and to all the people up and down the country who feel they don’t Fit In. I mean misfit as a compliment, by the way. I’m reclaiming the word in a positive sense.

O’Neill mentions his misfittery a few times during the film. He talks about reaching puberty and knowing that the market town of Ballinrobe was not going to embrace the man he was quickly discovering he was.


He speaks of not feeling part of the town, of Not Fitting In. When he was sent to boarding school, he recalls many other boys being desperately homesick for their home place. But he was not. Even then, O’Neill possessed the self awareness to know that getting out of Ballinrobe and into a boarding school was the best thing for him at that point in his life. For a young gay man, a small Irish town in the early 1980s was no place to be.

Not Fitting In is not a crime but it can often feel like the darkest and most lonely place in the world. You might be a woman in yet another meeting with 10 men, trying not to think about how the decisions made at that meeting will inevitably be skewed by the gender imbalance. You might be a recipient of direct provision, on €19.10 a week, walking past the window of Brown Thomas. You could be a woman boarding a flight for a London clinic pregnant but not wanting to be. You might be a person going through gender reassignment surgery. You could be anyone.

Not Fitting In to social or legal frameworks can be isolating and even depressing but it can also be the most motivating force known to humankind. As we’ve seen this year, Not Fitting In can be a kind of superpower.

Because by Not Fitting In you are floating against the tide, you are ahead of the curve, you are an agent for change, you are kicking against the pricks. You are Lydia Foy and you are Rory O’Neill and you are every Irish person who has pointed out the worst in us in order to make it better when the far easier thing would have been to say “carry on, nothing to see here”.

As I watched The Queen of Ireland, I began to realise how important it is that we give thanks for the people who didn't Fit In back in the day and to those who feel they don't Fit In now. They are the ones who instigate change. They are the ones who refuse to maintain the status quo. They are the ones who speak up against injustice and contribute to the maturity of a nation.

Those who do Fit In sit back and watch, sometimes feeling detached, sometimes confused. And sometimes they cheerlead and join in and help out with all the heavy lifting that goes towards making our society a better place in which to live and work. Fitting In isn’t a crime either. We can’t all be misfits, unfortunately.

We should be endlessly grateful to them though. My overwhelming feeling after watching The Queen of Ireland was that we should all get down on our knees every single day and give thanks and praise for the likes of Rory O'Neill. Go and see the film. You will definitely laugh, you just might cry and you will leave the cinema feeling better than you ever did about this little country of ours. 'The Queen of Ireland' is on general release roisin@irishtimes.com Róisín Ingle's book Public Displays of Emotion is available at irishtimes.com/irishtimesbooks priced €14.99