Sarah Griffin sat down with Conor Horgan to discuss The Queen of Ireland.
The Queen of Ireland has been an unmitigated success on its opening weekend, but sitting down with director Conor Horgan in the whirlwind days preceding its release, there was still a sense of anxiousness. A film that represents the culmination of over five years of hard work and dedication, it carries a hugely personal weight for both Conor and his subject, Rory O’Neill.
Knowing the timeline, I wondered how Conor envisaged the documentary structurally when he began filming, not knowing the narrative arc he would eventually be gifted. “Rory is very interesting and is very politically astute and engaged, so I knew that at the very least there would be more than just a portrait of a fabulous drag queen. There was a political engagement level to it. But none of us involved had any idea how big a part that would end up being. We were just hanging on for dear life and filming as much as we could.”
With the increased visibility of Panti Bliss, there was a chance of over-exposure, but The Queen of Ireland manages to bring a wealth of unseen footage to the screen. “I suppose people think that they’re very familiar with every aspect of the story. Panti’s been on the Late Late, on the Saturday Night Show, but seeing Panti behind the scenes is, I think, very interesting to people. And I think even more so seeing Rory behind the scenes because Rory is an unknown quantity.”
Rory has enjoyed a certain amount of personal privacy up to this point, but allowed Conor and his crew open access to his life. As Conor puts it, “the honesty, and the willingness to engage on that level is what makes it a film.” For those watching, whether the lifestyle is alien to you or not, it’s also what makes it so relatable – the personal aspect. “I had to write the director’s statement as part of the funding document and the first line of my document was ‘I identify with Panti Bliss.’”
Delving deep into Rory’s life, his parents are brought to the forefront at Panti’s homecoming gig back in Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo. Conor clearly feels at home with the O’Neills, having spent so much time with them. In fact, Rory’s sister Edel even suggested that Rory leave for the Ballinrobe show from his parents’ house with them alongside him. “‘I’ll tell you what’, she says to us, ‘it’ll make great television.’ And she’s right! And actually it’s one of my favourite moments in the film. There’s a vulnerability to Rory at that point that’s just really affecting. And I’ve a lot of admiration for him, because, at that moment, you’re not thinking that the country as a whole has given its approval to ‘the gays’, it’s still the little town that he came from.”
The general tone of the film reflects this familiarity in a way that doesn’t feel invasive, engaging with Rory’s life without being voyeuristic. Rory has said before that his one ‘talent’, the only one he will admit to, is his ability to find people to collaborate with who are good at what they do. He therefore works with people that he trusts, and it is evident throughout the movie that he trusted Conor completely. “I knew that I was in a privileged position,” Conor says, “and I did not want to abuse that trust in any way. And not just with the film, but because Rory deserved better than that.”
Conor also has that knack for collaborations, and among his many supportive crew members he particularly praises Mick Mahon, his editor: “he is just terrific, and he put his heart and his soul into it. I’m there beside him at the front of the engine room, and it’s like watching a fighter pilot in action. He’s physically wrestling the material into shape.” For any feature the editing is a crucial structural device, but even more so with a documentary, as Conor acknowledges, “Even with the best will in the world, you are finding your actual story in the editing room. I always think that any kind of film editing process is in some ways a creative argument between the director and the editor, and the material wins.”
The narrative structure was, of course, cemented by Pantigate, the 2014 debacle of libel suits that brought Rory into the national consciousness. It’s a tumultuous time to look back upon for Conor, watching it unfold for Rory in real time. “He was always giving out to me, you know, around the Pantigate thing because he knew that on one level I was thrilled that all of this stuff was happening. Well, I was thrilled on two levels, and I said it to him. I was thrilled for the film, but I was also thrilled for the country, because I knew that this would be a good thing ultimately. I think everybody did.”
It certainly seems, from an outside point of view, that Pantigate gave Rory the opportunity to build a stage, and to speak from it on his own terms. This initially took the form of the now world-famous ‘Noble Call’ in the Abbey Theatre. “That speech in some ways crystallised some of the great things about Panti, with Rory behind Panti, which is grace under pressure, incredible articulateness, and underlying that, an awful lot of heart, because that was a vulnerable thing to do. Panti, and Rory, has described Panti many times as a suit of armour. Panti is always front of house, camera-ready, able and available give a quip, but that was Panti and Rory interchangeably and that’s the power of that. That’s why the speech has such far-reaching effect. Fintan O’Toole, who is not given to exaggeration, said that it was one of the greatest speeches given in this country since Daniel O’Connell, and I would agree.”
The response was immediate, taken up by advocates, both celebrity and otherwise, around the world. Panti became a byword for a discussion about societal homophobia and the possibilities for change in the future. The necessary conversations therefore began over a year before the referendum for Marriage Equality, despite Rory’s humble protestations about his role in the movement. But it isn’t exactly politics that occupies Rory’s mind when he decides to speak out about injustice. “Rory has no political ambition,” Conor points out, “which is the reason that he can do what he does. But he does have a very strong sense of what’s right, which is also the reason he does what he does. And the fact that this, until relatively recently, benighted country under the cosh of the Catholic Church and a lot of other things just like it, has taken this giant drag queen to its heart is just fucking wonderful. If he was just a great drag queen then maybe it wouldn’t have happened. Panti’s a great drag queen who’s also just really, really smart, really able to formulate and deliver compelling arguments for equality.”
Indeed Panti can articulate, but the film isn’t just a showcase for the undoubted talents of this consummate performer, it shows the maturing of a country in a very personal manner. “In a way, we had the big political end,” Conor continues, “but the personal, as Rory says in the film, always trumps the political. It’s one of the reasons the Marriage Equality referendum was passed, because people realised that it was about actual people’s lives, not just a technical, political or intellectual argument.”
There’s no denying that the ‘Yes’ vote is a climax in the film; the excitement that filled the country sweeping even the camera crew along in its infectious joy. “There is a shot of me in the film outside PantiBar on Capel Street after the official result is being announced, and I’ve got a huge beaming smile on my face, and Kate McCullough, [cinematographer], has a huge smile, and Aoife Kelly [assistant producer]. We’re all incredibly emotional, because you can’t not be, because this is real stuff and it matters. And you know, we all voted, we all took part in this, and to see how well it turned out is just massively emotional. It doesn’t stop you doing your job. It just makes it a very, very good day in work.”
Still, where The Queen of Ireland shines most is in small moments, those wonderfully private times where we watch Panti walk down the street of Ballinrobe, flanked by family, or listen to Rory talk candidly about his life off stage. In the end, this documentary is a very personal testament to a public figure who happened to play a crucial role in our country’s evolution. “Sure you couldn’t make it up,” Conor acknowledges, “and if you did, nobody would believe you.”
The Queen of Ireland is currently in cinemas