Lise Hand: What Panti did was go to war for anyone who has ever been shamed, just for being different
Published 05/02/2014 | 02:30
IT'S a peculiarity of this island, hanging down as it is with exquisite wordsmiths of prose and poetry, that we produce so few gifted orators.
How often in our recent history has the nation paused in unison, swept away by an outpouring of passionate eloquence from someone taking a stand against injustice or inequality, or giving voice to the disadvantaged or dispossessed?
Certainly such speeches are scarce in the highest of public forums, the Dail. The only outstanding example of soaring rhetoric in that chamber in recent history was the extraordinary jeremiad against clerical sex abuse, delivered by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the wake of the publication of the Cloyne Report in July 2011.
No doubt this significant address which drew a fierce line in the sand between the church and the State will be debated in schools in years to come.
Well so too should another speech – that delivered by drag artist Rory O'Neill aka Panti Bliss in the Abbey Theatre as a response to the furore over his remarks on homophobia on RTE which saw the national broadcaster pay out a large five-figure sum to the Iona Institute and others.
Let's leave aside the fight itself for the moment – in fact, in the context of the speech, it's irrelevant. For what Panti Bliss delivered on the stage of our national theatre was a powerful, passionate, witty denunciation of oppression.
In full drag, he hoisted two beautifully-manicured fingers at the notion that to be 'different' to the norms dictated by society is to be wrong, to be marginalised, to be mocked. He spoke about how it was easier to conform, to wince at overly-camp friends drawing attention to themselves, to accept that 'blending in' was the recipe for a quiet, hassle-free life.
It was a speech about shame. And God knows that's something of a speciality among the Irish, so quick to point fingers at those who don't conform, those who fall by the wayside, those who fail, defeated by life or circumstances.
How many Irish people have died of shame? Almost exactly 30 years ago, 15-year-old schoolgirl Anne Lovett died in childbirth, alone in a grotto in Granard where she sought comfort or redemption from her shame.
Last autumn, it was revealed that Ireland ranks the fourth highest in the EU in terms of deaths by suicide among young people. How many of them died with a sense of shame, because they were bullied for being somehow 'different' or vulnerable, finally overcome by a sense of failure? How many breadwinners have died by their own hand during the recession, shamed by their inability to put bread on the family table anymore?
And this is why the speech by Panti Bliss matters. It vividly described what it's like to be gay in Ireland, but really was about so much more than that, it was about prejudice and fear.
What a pity there are so few speeches like it. What a pity that not one of our political leaders has the bottle to take such a stand (certainly no national address by the Taoiseach has come anywhere close.) What a pity nobody in power has railed with similar fluency and forcefulness against the greed which brought this country to its knees and vowed to protect the citizens from such injustice, fear and shame from ever knocking on our doors again.
But that's not what our politicians do. And so, when memories of pallid political speeches full of prevarications and equivocations have long faded, there'll still be the vivid image of Rory O'Neill in full drag battle-dress, going to war on behalf of anyone who has ever felt diminished for being different.