Directed by Conor Horgan
Written by Phillip McMahon and Conor Horgan
82 minutes, rated PG

Of all the profound changes in Ireland in the last 20 years – a peace treaty in the north, a Celtic boom and bust, coming to terms with sexual abuse in the Catholic Church – one of the most profound was the vote on March 22, 2015 in favour of marriage equality.

Ireland became the first country in the world to choose, by popular vote, to allow same sex marriage. This, in a country where there were supposedly no ‘out’ gay men 30 years ago. David Norris, the first one to come out in the 1970’s, talks in the film about how The Irish Times used to refer to him as ‘the Irish gay man’ – like he was the only one. Norris is now a senator.

The real subject of Conor Horgan’s superb documentary is Panti Bliss, the most famous drag queen in Ireland, who’s both comedian and activist – and one of the key figures in the success of the vote for marriage equality. Rory O’Neill, who plays her, is a remarkable man – eloquent, vulnerable, tough and very funny. It takes a while to realise just how remarkable he is.

The first impression is blousy. Panti strides through cheering crowds in Dublin on May 23, 2015. This is the day after the vote, but we don’t know that yet: all we see are happy crowds and an impossibly curvy drag queen with industrial-strength eyelashes and a wig that would frighten Dolly Parton. As she takes the stage at Dublin Castle, the crowd explodes when she holds up a small card with one word on it: Equal. Panti Bliss was a poster girl for the campaign, but Rory O’Neill – out of drag – spent days going door to door, talking to people about the vote. It’s not clear how many knew they were talking to Panti Bliss, who is both notorious and controversial in the Irish media.

O’Neill grew up in Ballinrobe, a small market town in County Mayo. Old home movie footage shows a happy, spindly kid playing with his sister in the garden – an idyllic childhood, he says, until the age of 12, when he started to feel different. His parents sent him to boarding school but he was never homesick. ‘I knew I needed to be somewhere that was not Ballinrobe.’ At art school in Dublin in the 1980’s, he plunged into the underground gay scene – and it was truly subterranean at the time. Secret gay bars had frosted windows and entrances down a side alley – one reason that his own club, the Pantibar in Dublin, is on a prominent corner with huge windows and bright neon sign.

Feeling that Dublin in the 1980’s was a difficult place in which to be fabulous, O’Neill moved to Tokyo and became a drag artist. Again, there is some amazing footage of the young Panti, shot at the time. These were formative years. By the time he returned to Dublin, O’Neill was the complete package – skilled standup comedian and lip-synch queen, but also an activist, determined to reform Ireland’s attitudes to homosexuality. First came a successful campaign to decriminalise gay sex, then legislation for civil partnerships, and finally the referendum for marriage equality.

It’s hard to describe how seductive this portrait of one man is. It may be to do with the courage he displays – his determination to be comfortable in his skin, to feel like he can stand on a street corner in Dublin and not need to check himself (‘do I look too gay?’). The costumes and make-up of Panti, his alter ego, are both a refuge from,  and a proclamation to, the wider world. Panti is everything that Rory is not: indestructible, shameless, unshockable, deliriously confident, but more than anything, eloquent. Invited to speak on the stage at the Abbey Theatre, Panti gives a speech about homophobia and repression that ignites social media around the world – and incurs the wrath of conservative media pundits.

The movie’s finale – Panti Bliss, live in Ballinrobe – is powerful documentary. Not to mention extraordinarily emotional, bizarre and generous, as Panti walks to the sold out show in full drag flanked by her parents. Mrs Finn O’Neill holds the umbrella, to protect her son’s hairdo.