Thursday 29 September 2016

Panti's people

For decades, Mary, the Mother of God, was the female figurehead of Ireland, before whom everyone was expected to bow and scrape and beg for forgiveness. In 21st Century Irish society, 'national treasure' Panti Bliss has assumed an alarmingly similar role, with the full blessing of the self-styled guardians of the nation's intellect. Brendan O'Neill says it's time to stop treating us like a moronic mass, and cut the apron strings . . .

Published 26/10/2015 | 02:30

Panti at the same-sex marriage celebrations back in May at Dublin Castle. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Panti at the same-sex marriage celebrations back in May at Dublin Castle. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Rory O'Neill is better known as his alter ego, Panti Bliss. Photo: VIP
'Part Princess Diana, part Lily Savage'. Panti with Gerry Adams at Dublin Castle at the same-sex marriage celebrations in May. Photo: Getty.ie

One's a woman, the other is a man. One is the demure Mother of God, the other is the camp mammy of the Dublin gay scene. One appears rarely, a couple of times a century, perhaps, and always has her hair covered and a pale, dreamy smock reaching right down to her holy ankles. The other appears frequently - on TV, in the papers, in clubs, and now in cinemas - in a big, barmy blonde wig and outfits that are half 1950s-lady-who-lunches and half come-to-bed-right-now. Oh, and one's a virgin, and the other - well, not so much.

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But look again. Think again. These two ladies from different millennia, from different sides of the moral tracks, share something striking in common. No, not the clobber, or the morality, or the holiness, but the way both have been transformed into Good Women who might redeem rotten, sinful Ireland.

Where the Mother of God was, for decades, the female figurehead of Ireland, before whom everyone from peasant to politician was expected to bow and scrape and beg for forgiveness, in the 21st Century, Panti Bliss (aka Rory O'Neill) plays an alarmingly similar role.

It is now her likeness, her icon, that the Irish are expected to smile or even weep before. It's now Panti rather than Mary who appears around the country - in the apparition of drag rather than as an apparition from heaven - and who instructs the populace on how to be moral and decent and righteous.

It's the great irony of the new, post-referendum, super-gay-friendly Ireland, and of Panti's own rise from performer in poky drag clubs to, in her words, "NATIONAL FUCKING TREASURE". This is all presented to us as 'Ireland turning a corner', with Panti gushed over by a writer for The Irish Times as the wise harbinger of a "new sort of Ireland"; but this new Ireland looks, sounds and feels to me a lot like the old one, only with Pantiolatry taking the place of Mariolatry as the national moral glue. Different Mother Ireland, same grating maternalism.

Panti's fame has grown exponentially over the past year-and-a-half, reaching a global crescendo during the gay-marriage referendum in May. It's now been copperfastened in celluloid. She's the star of her own documentary, The Queen of Ireland. That title works as both a reference to Panti's day job as drag queen and also as a spectacularly immodest nod to her transformation into a borderline monarchical mother of the nation: the People's Panti - part Princess Diana, part Lily Savage.

The movie, which has, of course, been gushed over by RTE and other self-styled guardians of the Irish intellect, confirms that Panti has become the patron saint of PC, the closest thing Dublin 4 has to a religious icon. This most cut-off section of Irish society is, no doubt, sniffy about the old women of the west and elsewhere, who still bend their creaking knees before plastic statues of the Virgin Mother, yet they can barely control their emotions in the presence of Panti.

The movie presents Panti as prophet, or perhaps prophetess, of the New Ireland. We're told of her humble origins - "I'm from a small town in Co Mayo" (Ballinrobe) - and then treated to shot after shot of her new status as opener of Ireland's eyes. Politicians line up to feel her hem or, in Gerry Adams's embarrassing case, take a selfie with her. You half expect this weirdly religious-feeling documentary to announce that Panti was born in a stable in Mayo before dyeing (her hair) for our sins and dragging Ireland by the scruff of its red neck into the 21st Century.

The Irish commentariat has turned Panti into a moral untouchable, treating every word that falls from her mouth as gay gospel. When she delivered her Noble Call speech at the Abbey in February last year, in which she laid into homophobia, the chattering classes had a Damascene conversion to this drag queen's wise words. Fintan O'Toole described her 10-minute speech as "the most eloquent Irish speech since Daniel O'Connell was in his prime". A writer for the Irish Examiner said Panti's call confirmed her status as the saintly cleaner-up of Irish public life; you'd think she was a bit like Christ driving those money-making toerags out of the temple.

"Killer heels with a killer message", he wrote, describing Panti as "the most eloquent political figure of post-bailout Ireland". Where our knackered, cynical politicians deploy "empty rhetoric" about "creating a new Ireland", Panti actually does it, said the Examiner's excitable scribbler. She's the voice for "everyone who feels shut out". Just as Mother Teresa was referred to as "a special voice of the poor", Panti is apparently mother to the "shut out".

This has long been the fantasy of the middle classes. They long for one good moral person, a Great White Hope, a secular saviour, to shake up the nation and transform people's mushy minds and hearts.

To this end, Panti has been referred to as "an avatar for the new Ireland" - an avatar, lest we forget, being a "manifestation of a deity, an incarnate divine teacher". In the past, drag queens called themselves Divine for a joke (in the case of the late, great Harris Glenn Milstead); today, they're thought of as almost divinely inspired deliverers of a new way of thinking, a new way of politicking, a new way of approaching life.

Nik Quaife, an arts publicist who arranged for Panti to perform in New York in August, describes her as a "mother figure" to the Irish, who has helped Ireland to "leave decades of intolerance and religious righteousness behind". The organiser of the Sydney Mardi Gras in February, at which Panti made an apparition, says Panti is the spirit of "the new Ireland, the modern Ireland". She is "the future of Ireland", gushes Sinn Fein's LGBT spokesperson.

So without the benefit of anything resembling an election, Panti is bounding around the world, speaking for all of Ireland, for you, whether you like it or not. That's because she's been anointed by commentating cliques as the avatar of post-Catholic Ireland; she's been beatified as the guardian of the "Irish values of equality and acceptance", in the words of the Examiner. Of course, she can speak for you and your nation, regardless of whether you ever voted for her - she's the Queen of Ireland, and queens don't have to be elected by the little people.

Online, the worship of Panti frequently slips into explicitly religious territory. "Keep on educating us all," cries one commenter on the YouTube video of Panti's Noble Call. "There is a God, and he has blessed us with drag queen angels like this," says another. "I was so close to the goddess that is Panti Bliss," says a tweeter who almost met the sainted one.

The sometimes embarrassing bowing before Panti - Stephen Fry said, if he had to, he would "swim across the Irish Sea" in order to present Panti with her People of the Year Award last December - is actually out of proportion to her achievements.

Consider the thing that made her globally famous: her Noble Call at the Abbey. The finest Irish speech since O'Connell? Come on. The most striking thing about Panti's call is that it confirmed that emotionalism has taken the place of substance in political activism.

The recurring line in Panti's speech was, "That feels oppressive". She described everything from 500-word newspaper columns that say things she doesn't like, to the "nice TV-presenter lady" who doesn't support gay marriage as "feeling oppressive". The speech was far from an expose of any real, physical oppression of gays in 21st-Century Ireland, and merely gave us an insight into how one person - Panti Bliss - feels when she reads the papers or watches TV.

She feels oppressed. That doesn't mean she is oppressed. Her self-esteem feels rattled by articles and arguments she disagrees with. To which the only legitimate response is: tough. That's the price one pays for living in a free-speaking, free-thinking society: you encounter words that rile you and will make you feel bad.

Where O'Connell spoke brilliantly against the real, terrible oppression of Catholics, and later, great orators like Jim Larkin spoke brilliantly against the real, terrible repression of workers, Panti told us how she feels upon reading or seeing disagreeable ideas and images. It showed that the self has replaced the collective as the central focus of political activism, and that the word 'oppression' has been emptied of all meaning - if reading an offensive (to her, and a perhaps great many others) "500-word opinion written by a nice, middle-class woman" is oppressive, then I'm oppressed every day of my life.

To put Panti in the pantheon of great Irish speakers and warriors is mad, confirming how knee-jerk the canonisation of her has been.

Indeed, far from being liberatory, there was a censorious component to Panti's Noble Call. To describe newspaper columns and TV shows as "oppressive" is to elide arguments with actions; to suggest that folks should tone down their rhetoric in order not to offend the Queen of Ireland, in the name of never blaspheming against this "avatar of the new Ireland", this goddess made flesh. Yes, it was unwise of John Waters and others to sue RTE for libel after Panti dissed them on Brendan O'Connor's Saturday Night Show - but the cheering and whooping of Panti's branding of dissenting opinions on gay marriage as "oppressive" suggests that her side is far from being a champion of free speech.

But the flimsiness of Panti's politics doesn't matter when it comes to the project of turning her into a prophetess of the Irish Times's "new sort of Ireland". For all that matters is that the new elite, the post-Catholic, post-nationalist, oh-so-cosmo opinion-setters concentrated in the leafy bits of Dublin, and maybe in the really nice parts of Cork, find a new Mother Ireland, a new female figurehead through which their values - which they modestly describe as "Irish values" - might be projected on to the nation.

Ireland has, oddly, always seemed to need a national mother. In the words of Amy Mulligan of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame in the US: "Ireland is typically personified as a woman in Irish literary tradition."

From Patrick Pearse's poem Mise Eire, to Yeats's play Cathleen Ni Houlihan, to all the Virgin Mary stuff, Ireland has long been represented as both mother and female warrior; as a woman who both cares for and fights for her charges - the presumably wide-eyed children who make up the populace, who apparently need moral and spiritual guidance throughout their lives by their motherly superiors.

Sometimes Mother Ireland is secular, as in those Belfast murals still depicting her as female warrior; and other times, she is religious: the post-Famine rise of Mariolatry has been described as a "devotional revolution" that lasted from the 1850s to the 1960s.

Well, now we have another "devotional revolution". Another Mother Ireland. Only this time she isn't nationalist or religious - she/he is gay. This time she isn't even a woman; she's a self-confessed parody of a woman. If, as Nik Quaife says, Panti is a "mother figure" to Ireland, then it's all very knowing and ironic. Welcome to the age of "Mother" Ireland, with quote marks, where the new elite simultaneously mocks the Irish tradition for needing a mother figure and foists a new one upon Ireland anyway, because . . . well, because someone has to save you from your "intolerance and religious righteousness", as Quaife describes it.

Panti might be more colourful and comedic and foul-mouthed than earlier Mothers Ireland. Pantiolatry might involve standing up and laughing at the gags told by your goddess, where the Mariolatry of old involved bending one's knee and being solemnly silent before the Mother of Christ. But both have a similar streak of intolerance of dissent.

Panti and her fans fancy her as a brave outsider battling against a cold, wicked political class. Fry says she represents the "unusual and marginalised". In The Queen of Ireland, Panti says her job is to "stand on the outside, looking in, shouting abuse".

This supposed outsiderism fails to disguise how utterly establishment Panti has become, now enjoying conformist celebration across the media, in addition to the glowing approval of every politician who wants to keep his job. (For a TD to diss Panti today would be the equivalent of a 1930s TD having a pop at the Virgin Mother.)

And as with all establishment-decreed mothers of the nation, the "new sort of Ireland" allegedly midwifed by Panti, has a stiff, authoritarian side to it. Witness how demonised are those who dare to oppose gay marriage. Panti's fan club would casually assert that they are homophobes.

Even in more elevated public discourse, things got a bit silly. In the run-up to the gay-marriage referendum, a writer for The Irish Times called for the establishment of a "homophobia watchdog" to ". . . monitor the inevitable destructive rhetoric that will colour one side of the debate, without fear of legal repercussions".

So this "new sort of Ireland", ruled by a drag queen rather than a virgin, is not that different to the old Ireland.

Where the old Ireland cast out sinners, the new one is an uncomfortable place for pretty much anyone who has old-fashioned religious beliefs.

Where the old Ireland policed moral pollution, the new Ireland longs to clamp down on words that it deems psychologically traumatic or which "feel oppressive", in Panti's words.

And where old Ireland treated its people as a moronic mass requiring mothering from on high . . . well, so does the new Ireland.

Everyone is saying that the gay-marriage referendum showed that Ireland has grown up. In which case, why does this nation still require a mother? Cut the apron strings, Ireland - even if they're now attached to a fabulous sequined dress.

'The Queen of Ireland' is out now

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