I returned on Sunday from a spring break weekend in the real capital of Ireland – Cork. The outskirts of Cork in the town of Midleton to be more precise. I was a man on a mission. My mission – which I had chosen to accept – was to visit my Irish twin to see a show by the queen of Ireland herself – Panti Bliss – in the world renowned Ballymaloe cookery school.
Firstly some explanations. I don’t actually have a twin. I am an Irish twin however. This nomenclature applies to those siblings who are born twelve months apart. My sister was born in May. I was born in May the following year. Hence we are Irish twins. This is a fairly regular occurrence in the homeland.
Some months ago she purchased tickets to see Panti and asked if I’d be interested in attending. Well the answer was an obvious yes. So on Friday I skipped out of work early and boarded the 4pm train to Kent Station to Cork.
There was a match on that evening so when we visited several hostelries in the town of Midleton, our evening’s entertainment was pre-selected. I made valiant efforts to fit into this heterosexual world by scratching myself, spitting and roaring ‘Oh come on’ randomly at the television in a futile attempt to appear like I knew what was happening in the game of foot.
The following day saw us up and active quite early. We toddled over to the Saturday farmers’ market in town. Midleton is a fairly small town located a few miles from Cork City. Famed for its old distillery – it is the home of Jameson Whiskey – each Saturday there is a market selling local produce. The famed restaurant and cookery school Ballymaloe is located in the environs of the town. It had a stall selling its produce at this market.
The Ballymaloe business is a multi-generational affair – it started with Myrtle, before being taken over by her daughter in law Darina Allen. The current public face of the company is Rachel Allen – Darina’s daughter in law. Their empire also consists of cookery books, TV shows and relish. Oh the Ballymaloe relish – it makes a sandwich zing. Darina is still hale and hearty. She’s retired from the television these days, but she still sells kombucha at the Midleton market on a Saturday morning. I bought a bottle simply to interact with a cooking legend. Apparently kombucha is good for your inners.
After a quick detour into Midleton Books – where I purchased ‘Days without end’ by Sebastian Barry – we drove out the coast to Ardnahinch beach.
En route we stopped in Cloyne village – the home of legendary Cork hurler Christy Ring. A statue to commemorate him lies outside the sports field. Apparently he is related to another Cork hurling legend Donal Og Cusack – the first GAA player to come out of the closet at the height of his sporting career. His autobiography ‘Come What May’ was released in 2009. I have never been a fan of hurling but for some reason I was gifted this book that Christmas by my mother. Probably because we are both nancy-boys. It was an interesting book, and as a result of reading it I am quite the expert on the details of Cork league hurling.
The weather was glorious – feeling more like the start of summer than a March day. At Ardnahinch we strolled along the coast to Garryvoe . After calling into the hotel for a toasted chicken sandwich we headed over to the Roche’s Point lighthouse. Located in Cork Harbour – the word’s second largest natural inland harbour after Sydney – this a place just at the mouth of the sea, where famed detective Jessica Fletcher owns a home. Of course Jessica is a fictional character from the TV show ‘Murder, She Wrote’. The actress that played her – Angela Lansbury – has apparently lived in this part of the world since the 1970s. It was stunningly beautiful. The unrealistic daydream of living a simple coastal life returned with a vengeance.
After supper we donned our glad-rags for the Panti extravaganza in the Ballymaloe Grainstore. Part of the Allen Empire the Grainstore is a large venue used for weddings and concerts.
The ‘High heels in low places’ show written by and starring Panti has been touring worldwide for three years, and is coming to a close in the Abbey Theatre next month. Panti has been Ireland’s most famous drag queen for over twenty years (Shirley Temple Bar might beg to differ regarding this description, seeing as she used to do the Telly Bingo). Three years ago Panti’s alter-ego Rory O’Neill appeared out of drag on a Saturday night TV talk show, and name-checked some homophobic bigots on air. The homophobes threw a hissy fit and sued the station and O’Neill for defamation. Their feelings had been hurt. Despite their bigotry they didn’t want to be referred to as homophobes. Panti then went on stage at the Abbey Theatre and gave a legendary speech about homophobia in Ireland and its toxic, corrosive effect on the entire society – and on gay people in particular. He became an international star and the emblem of Ireland’s marriage equality referendum which happened the following year.
The performance is a one man (woman?) show about his life – his observations about Ireland and homophobia from his position on the fringes. He really is a spectacular public speaker. Hilariously funny with a rapier sharp wit, he takes no prisoners with his observations. While the audience can be the objects of his biting tongue – at one point my fashion mistake of wearing a striped jumper was referenced to my horror and delight – they are never objects of scorn. He is equally harsh on himself, and how he sometimes feels stifled by his position as a HIV positive, cross-dressing ‘national fucking treasure’.
I’ve see Panti on countless occasions through the years – he’s been a working drag queen my entire gay life. He’s always been the best in the business – hilarious, entertaining, intelligent and thought provoking. He has a cruel tongue but is clearly not a cruel person as he doesn’t belittle those weaker or more vulnerable than he is. This was the first time I’d seen him since Panti-gate. I was massively impressed by his command of the stage and hoe he held the audience’s attention. He kept us spellbound for the duration of the show.
Now that this show is drawing to a close I’m very curious to see where his career goes from here. I have every confidence in him – despite how it must be a bit irritating being a ‘national fucking treasure.’