Rory O’Neill: The Bliss of Dublin

On any day of the year, Rory O’Neill, also known as Dr Panti Bliss, our beloved Queen of Ireland, is an iconic drag queen and gay rights activist.

On the eve of the Pride Parade, the celebration of equality, diversity and all that the LGBT community has achieved throughout the year, Rory is an extra special figure. Niamh Bushnell, Dublin Commissioner for Startups, talks with him about his love of Dublin, the change our Fair City has seen and its creative future.

You headlined the Dublin Makes Me events at South by Southwest (SXSW). Did you feel comfortable with the theme of celebrating Dublin, not being a Dubliner?
The event sounded a little bit naughty and fun, and I feel very indebted to Dublin. I don’t think there are many other places I can be who I am. Dublin not only made me, it also saved me. In the 80s, I didn’t necessarily feel there was a place for someone like me, I felt stifled by the Irishness. I left Ireland as soon as I had my piece of paper from college. Everybody did that. When I came back in the mid-90s, Dublin had become much more outward looking. It was much more cosmopolitan and modern. I threw myself into Dublin and suddenly realised, “God, I love this place.” For the first time other people stayed because there were opportunities here.

What was it like before you left?
There were only a few accepted ways to be an Irish guy.  If you didn’t fit a certain mould, your Irishness was called into question. As a gay person, I felt it very keenly. That all changed in the 90s. You could be queer, rub glitter on your face and still be just as Irish as Bono is.

What were the things that aided the change?
We had money to do things for the first time. We began to travel. The internet happened. Young people were exposed to the rest of the world in a way that they hadn’t been before. Homosexuality was decriminalised in Ireland in 1993, which sounds shocking, but it was enhanced and sped by the internet. In a very short period, Dublin went from being a stagnant city on the edge of Europe to an open and vibrant city that looked outward to the rest of the world and took influences in from it. I love Dublin. I loved it when it was dirty and depressed in the 80s, but I love it so much more now. There’s a sense that you can do anything you want in Dublin now.

Dublin has become a creative city that allows people to make things happen.
Irish people have always been creative. There were the local traditional arts, playing fiddle in the pub, but the rest were the preserve of the middle class. That changed when young people started to see the rest of the world. There were lots of leftover spaces available to do creative, naughty things on the cheap. That allowed young people to be creative on their terms. There was enough money around to make things viable, to do an exhibition and not worry about survival. But we also hung onto a lot of the good things from before.

Tell me about them.
We kept the casual attitude to meeting people. Irish people like to talk, and everybody knows everybody. We never put barriers to meeting and interacting with people.

At the panel at SXSW, we talked how Dublin is unique because of the community spirit. That seems to be what you’re touching on again.
It’s almost an intangible quality that’s sometimes hard to explain, but people are very open here to have a chat with you. I have lived in quite a few cities, and I travel a lot. I think Dublin is the only city I’ve ever been to where you can walk up to the prime minister on the street, call him by his first name and expect to get into a conversation. That’s the Irish way of being. There’s no standing on ceremony.

We get over ourselves very quickly.
Yes. Thinking too much of yourself is the ultimate sin. That levels the playing ground and allows people and ideas to flow.

Are we hard workers as well as creative workers?
The Irish people certainly know the value of putting their heads down and getting on with it. They have never been afraid of hard work. We are on this island out on the edge of the world. Until 20 or 30 years ago, that did isolate us. That meant we had to work twice as hard. We’ve hung onto that attitude to work.

How do all these things tie into the journey that led to the fantastic success of the referendum?
The reason the referendum passed was that the community is very important in Ireland.  The referendum didn’t pass because people were persuaded by the esoteric arguments about fairness and equality. That played a huge role, but what it came down to at the voting booth was the thought: “Do I want to vote against Joe down the road or Marion the hairdresser?” There’s not a single person in Ireland who doesn’t know the local gay. That’s what won the referendum.

Do you think so?
I think people thought, “I know Joe. Why would I want to stop him from being happy?”. People, both famous and not, told their personal stories, which had a massive impact.

As the votes were coming into Dublin Castle, you were the person on the stage. How did that all happen?
By accident. I’m a well-known person in the gay community for many years, and I have never been shy about campaigning. Panti had become a symbol for change, but that happened accidentally. Two years before the referendum, I had gotten into a spot of bother when I allegedly described some people as homophobic on a television show. Those people sued me and RTE.

You made that wonderful speech in the Abbey Theater after.
It became this massive furore for months on end. It sparked off a deep conversation in Ireland, about how the country treats its LGBT citizens, how we feel about them and what homophobia is. When the referendum campaign came along, we’d already dealt with some of the basic issues.

Do you think the referendum has made us more diverse and tolerant, which feeds off creativity?
Ireland has become a much more diverse place, but even more than that, it has become much more open to diversity. I think the marriage referendum is evidence of that. Young people want to be in such a place where things are open, creative and diverse. What also helps creativity is how easy Dublin is to live in. People aren’t spending hours a day commuting. People aren’t constantly rushing. There’s that feeling about Dublin that you can just wander in. That easiness allows a creative space to develop.

What excites you about Dublin’s creative future?
In Ireland, we’ve always venerated the word above the picture. Bridges in Dublin are all named after writers. I always felt that visual culture took a back seat. Now I see the resurgence of Irish visual creativity in film, photography, painting, architecture and graphic design. That is super exciting to me. Irish visual artists are much more confident about their work now. In the 80s, unless you were in rock music or maybe the theatre, Irish people weren’t confident. As Ireland opened up to the world, we saw that we were as capable as anybody else. We lost our inferiority complex. A young Irish person now thinks that they can do anything whereas I don’t think young Irish people in the 1970s felt that. The world has changed.

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