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Panti Bliss and Tara Flynn take on modern Ireland

Panti Bliss in 'If These Wigs Could Talk'. Photo by Ruth Medjber

The Abbey has chosen two pieces from very different liberal activists in juxtaposition on the Peacock stage: Haunted with Tara Flynn at 7pm and If These Wigs Could Talk with Panti Bliss at 9.15pm.

They are planned to be seen in tandem, with the availability of food “bits” in the intervening hour-long interval. They are featured in co-production with Thisispopbaby.

The late Danny La Rue, a Corkman, was Ireland’s first famous drag act, and made a point of appearing in immaculate male evening dress at the end of his show, a butch finish to the act. Underneath the feather boa, Danny was a fella, was the message.

Miss Panti Bliss, aka Rory O’Neill, has gone a step further.

Feeling so excluded from Irish society in his art school student days in Dublin, the young O’Neill took to the spangles as Miss Panti. Panti was hurting, and saw no reason to hide it.

And whether it was as Panti or Rory she/he ran as far as possible from Ireland’s suffocatingly small, insular, religious-ridden and cruelly homophobic society, landing in the freedom of Tokyo. Panti could, and did, have fun.

The gal has balls, in every sense of the word

Now Panti, who threw down the gauntlet against still-existing homophobia only a few years ago with a speech from the Abbey stage, revels in the role of national treasure.

She uses it to fuse her identity. If These Wigs Could Talk is visibly Panti, but the voice is that of Rory, talking about life as a gay man in a society where it’s now possible (a lot of the time) for minorities to come out of the shadows and at least demand their rights as human beings and citizens.

The comic stories with which the show is sprinkled are the experiences of Rory, delivered by Panti – including carrying a giant dildo through security at a Harry Potter preview in London, surrounded by shrieking gangs of tweenies, and passing off a near stranger as a life partner in a different but equally glamorous setting at an ambassadorial event in Vienna.

And then the tone changes. Panti (by the way, the lighting needs adjusting as you can see where her padding begins and ends, which kind of spoils the glamorous illusion) reveals Rory’s soul-searching during lockdown, unable to use his alter ego to spread the campaigning message for which Panti is now famous.

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The gal has balls, in every sense of the word. And the battle isn’t over, she reminds us. “They” are still there, plotting to turn the clock back.

And Panti’s message is clear: “Tell them to go f***k themselves.”

Tara Flynn in 'Haunted'. Photo by Ruth Medjber

Towards the end of Haunted, in her summing up of what is a confessional memoir of unremitting trauma, Flynn remarks that she is lucky enough to have someone (a husband) who is prepared to “live with a husk”. It’s a horrifying image.

And it follows an account of activism in the run-up to the referendum on the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

Flynn recounts becoming a pivotal advocate due to recounting publicly her own experience of abortion.

She became the target of overwhelming hatred, mostly expressed online, nastiness which she follows with troubled, obsessive dedication. And she resented, and still resents, being told she should just switch off her phone. They were still there, she explains.

The account inter-cuts with memories of a childhood of being serially put in her place by a blunt-spoken father, who thought her singing sounded like a crow – and on the Christmas Eve she was nine, announced he had shot Santa Claus.

Flynn expected to get back to “normal” life after the referendum result, but couldn’t shake off the legacy of what had happened during the campaign.

Flynn takes a long view of the feminist fight, right back to stories of the legendary Biddy Early, tried for witchcraft in Co Clare, her history transmitted via a seanchaí (in the crouching form of a sheela-na-gig).

That, and finding that she is more her father’s daughter in her bolshiness than she ever realised, helps.

“The sun always comes out; but sometimes not enough to warm your bones.” But she’s getting there, she hopes.

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