Shaping the world through travel

Rory O’Neill, aka Irish drag queen icon Panti Bliss

Rory O’Neill, aka Irish drag queen icon Panti Bliss

Representatives of the pub, restaurant, and hotel trades will come before the Oireachtas Tourism Committee this week to outline the effects of the pandemic on their industries.

It is one year since all hospitality businesses in Ireland had to close due to the pandemic. The Pantibar owner Rory O’Neill has felt first-hand the devastating effects of the lockdown restrictions on the Irish tourism sector.

“The discussion was presented as a problem that had to be fixed and the solution was to close us. Once that decision was made and all the bars and venues were closed, it felt like they thought the problem was fixed and everyone moved on. But that fix had a massive, huge impact on us.”

Speaking with the Irish broadcaster Fergal O’Keeffe on the Travel Tales with Fergal podcast this week, Mr O’Neill, also known as Panti Bliss, talks about the effects of that lockdown on the hospitality and tourism industries. “It turns out our industry was utterly disposable. People in those industries are expected to take on a much larger burden than the rest of the population.

“We actually closed before we had to on Paddy’s Day last year. I always try to be clear that I’m not arguing against the restrictions. I understand why we are closed. But I feel that the huge sacrifice we have been asked to make on behalf of everybody has been ignored to some extent or most certainly under-appreciated.”

Recently speaking on television, Rory said: "I read this thing that I just can't get out of my head that 70 per cent of the population have saved money during the pandemic. I live in a parallel universe because everybody I know who works in the entertainment industry, we've all lost everything.”

Referring to that now viral TV appearance on the podcast, Rory said: “I was saying it because it was annoying me that it was not being discussed much. I had assumed everyone knew about it, but it turns out that everybody didn’t know about it. I knew that people knew about it technically, but they didn’t feel it.

“My attitude is that the other 70 per cent of the population, however long it takes, should have to take some financial pain to support the 30 per cent who have had to give everything up.”

Rory tells Fergal that he is most looking forward to going onto a packed dance floor when this all ends. “One of the big things in the pandemic that got lost is the concept of communal joy. We haven’t experienced that in a year. Every culture, every country in every time period has found time for communal joy like going to gigs, music, the cinema, weddings and parties, and all of that has been taken from us. I don’t think that is a small thing, but a really big thing that we didn’t really appreciate until it was taken from us.”

He talks on the podcast about the five trips and places that shaped and influenced him the most. He shares great stories of spending teenage summers in the south of France. He would spend the first half working on a maize farm in the Basque region, and then he would hitch-hike down through France to Montpellier and work on the beach selling ice creams, before ending the summer in Cannes.

He spent college summers living in London with his older brother. He had just come out as gay and this was his first experience of big city life, clubbing and drag with the backdrop of the Aids epidemic overtaking the gay community at the time.

He talks about an epic trip after college over land to Tokyo in 1990 just as the Soviet Union collapsed and the Iron Curtain was beginning to crumple. He talks of the magic of taking the Trans-Siberian Express train from Moscow through Siberia and Mongolia to China just before the communist east opened up the west.

He talks about spending four years in Tokyo where he learned his trade as a drag queen, and his many trips to Sydney for the Mardi Gras there.

Rory O'Neill became a cultural lighting rod during the successful 2015 marriage equality referendum when he became famous all over the world as an Irish gay icon. He talks of the responsibility of that role and how he now often represents Ireland on Government Irish Aid trips abroad.

This episode really shines a light on why travel is so important, especially for an island country like Ireland. Travel opens our country to the world and fresh ideas of how a modern society can be run are brought back by travellers, making our people and country a better and much more fun place to live.

Fergal O’Keeffe is the host of Ireland’s No 1 travel podcast Travel Tales with Fergal, which is a weekly interview series listened to in more than 70 countries and available on all podcast platforms. 

The Travel Tales with Fergal podcast is available all podcast platforms and people can follow all his updates on @traveltaleswithfergal on Instagram and @FergalTravel on Twitter.


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