Saturday 19 October 2019

'He never touched me - I was a mouthy, independent kid, and abusers are wary of the type': Panti Bliss on his boarding schools experience

Panti-Bliss aka Rory O’Neill. Photo: Iain White / Fennell Photography
Panti-Bliss aka Rory O’Neill. Photo: Iain White / Fennell Photography
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Rory O'Neill, famous for his drag queen persona Panti Bliss, boarded at Gormanston College in Meath during the 1980s. The all-boys school was founded by the Franciscan order.

"In boarding school it was a case of survival of the fittest," he tells Review. "For me, personally, it quite suited me. I was an independent kid and I was never homesick.

"I got on well with the bad boys and I got on well with the swots. There was nothing to mark me out. I wasn't ginger-haired or buck-toothed or fat.

"There were other boys who should never have been there, because they were bullied horribly every day of their lives. They had a miserable time."

Rory was at Gormanston during the time of Father Ronald Bennett. The priest acted as bursar of the school and was later sentenced to jail for indecently assaulting boys at the school.

"He was abusing boys and we all knew about it. The idea that nobody knew about it is bullshit. We talked about it and made jokes about it. You think it's part and parcel of what happens.

"He never touched me. I was a mouthy, independent kid, and abusers are probably wary of the type who would tell anybody.

"Because Fr Ronald was the bursar, you had to go to him if you ever needed money. The other bizarre thing about it is that he was the guy in charge of sex education. Twice a year in first year and twice a year in second year, every student had to go to his office for a private sex talk."

O'Neill says the school broadened his horizons after he came from his home in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo.

"I have no regrets about it and I think my parents made the right decision. It suited my temperament. You need to be a social personality to get on at boarding school. If you are a quiet loner, it is probably not good for you.

"You need to have social skills, and at that age - 12 or 13 - a lot of kids don't have them. Sometimes I wonder if it made me too independent. People sometimes say that about me.

"Gormanston wasn't a horror show. A modern kid might find the conditions spartan, but to me they were fine.

"There were plenty of nice people working there and Franciscans are relatively civil.

"Most of them were decent people. They weren't cruel to us, but having to look after 500 boys in an enclosed space is an almost impossible task."

At the time, Rory was not openly gay, and says he was very slow understanding his sexuality.

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