Locals step out for gay old time at matchmaking festival with a twist
IT'S the Lisdoonvarna matchmaking festival, but not as you know it.
All week rainbow flags have festooned the west Clare town. On Friday, coach loads of young men with extraordinary amounts of luggage arrive, as though on some exotic safari. Same-sex ceilis clatter noisily through the ballroom of the Hydro Hotel. And later that night outside one of the town's chippers, one flat-capped old-timer is overheard telling another that "he's looking forward to the Mr Panti show".
That would be Miss Pandora Bliss, Ireland's reverend mother of drag, who is presiding over the 157-year-old festival going gay and gamely slipped off her rhinestone heels for the Walls Of Limerick on Friday night. She's not sure how her act – a sean-nos version of Madonna's Like a Virgin has been rumoured – will go down this far from the pale. But everyone loves a big clown, she quipped, "and that's essentially what I am".
In fact, the tiny population of Lisdoonvarna – just 822 people in its quieter moments – has warmly embraced the modern take on an old tradition. Event director Donal Mulligan admitted he was surprised at the reception they've received.
"I have to say I was a little bit tentative at the beginning. I thought maybe it would be seen as something strange and people would keep their distance for the first year, but that's absolutely not been the case. There are Pride flags in the post office down the town. There's going to be a competition for the best decorated local business and also one for the trendiest local. They have really gotten behind the whole thing," he told the Sunday Independent.
Another surprise: aside from the window dressing and theatre of the whole event, there actually isn't that big a difference between the operation of the straight and gay matchmaking process.
Gay guys may be famously good dancers, but they also seem to intuit that stepping on someone's toes is a wonderful way to break the ice.
After the first night's ceilis there were at least 20 matches, and fourth-generation local matchmaker, 71-year-old Willie Daly, is spotted mingling through the crowds with his book. The impossibly voluptuous Bunny, all lips and quips, hosts a Blind Date-style event on Friday night and former Eurovision winner Niamh Kavanagh belts out a few hits. Romance is in the air. The guys seem relieved to be off Grindr (the ubiquitous online dating app for gay men) for a few hours. Organisers say the first civil union is only a matter of time.
If it seems incongruous to have this many gay women and men in a small Irish town, it might be because most gay Irishmen live in Dublin.
"That's me. I'm from rural Leitrim myself," Mulligan tells me. "Panti is from Mayo. Eddie [McGuinness – co-promoter of the festival] is from outside Dundalk. We all moved to Dublin.
"It's been 20 years this year since decriminalisation. We're hoping that the matchmaking festival will be a beacon for the positive change that has been happening all across the country, not just in Dublin."
Media interest in the event has been enormous. The BBC and National Geographic have sent correspondents to Lisdoonvarna, and Mulligan and McGuinness only rue that they didn't tie this year's event in with The Gathering.
Next year there will be even more planning. Before that though there is tonight's main event: a Vogue ball in which participants dance and vamp their way to believable sexual personae.
In New York the categories for such balls include 'alpha businessman' and 'American princess' but here they will have names like 'Peig Sayers realness'. It's Paris Is Burning (the 1990 documentary which featured many of Madonna's original Voguers) reworked for rural Ireland.
"Yes, exactly!" Mulligan replies.
"Lisdoonvarna is burning!"