LONG before Panti Bliss gained the moniker ‘Queen of Ireland’, Danny La Rue held the title as Ireland’s first famous queen of the stage.
The Cork star entered the drag world in a trail-blazing fashion, dressing as a woman in entertainment shows during his time in the Navy. He would go on to become one of the most celebrated drag artists in the world.
During the 1960s and 1970s, La Rue, born in Cork city in 1927, was one of the highest-paid performers on British television and was awarded an OBE in 2002.
Cork’s long association with drag and its history is celebrated in a new documentary, Dragging Up The Past. It uses a mix of archival footage and interviews to showcase Cork’s colourful drag community. Candy Warhol, Fabula Di Beaumarchais, Kitty Cartier, Twiggy Moondust, Letycha Le’Synn, Mia Gold, Nettles, Liam Bee, Dakota Mode, and Will A. Blige are just some of those who we will see on camera. Ireland’s youngest drag queen, Karma O’Hara, who is 15, also features.
Initially to be screened last April, the documentary was hit by lockdown restrictions, but rather than let it rest, the filmmakers took the opportunity to film more interviews.
The updated documentary, which will screen online on February 12, began as a much smaller project in 2018. Dragging Up The Past: Cork Drag Timeline was created as a collaboration between MTU Cork LGBT Society and the Gay Project for Culture Night 2018.
Konrad Im works with the Gay Project and has been involved with Dragging Up The Past since its inception. He is also the film’s project coordinator.
“We were inspired by the work Orla Egan was doing in Cork LGBT Archive. We decided to document the history of drag in Cork. We hosted an exhibition with live performances,” he said.
In 2019, the project developed further when the group received funding from Chambers, Cork’s late-night LGBT venue, to turn the exhibition into a series of pop-up exhibitions. These were displayed at several locations around the city and Galway. Im and his colleagues realised there was a much bigger opportunity to take the idea even further.
“We found out there was funding available from the MTU Arts Office to work on an artistic project. We came up with the idea of making a documentary to record the history drag in Cork,” he said.
Im says while La Rue put Cork on the drag map, much of the county’s LGBT+ history has been erased and he says it is vital for younger members of the community to know the history.
“We noticed that there’s a lack of intergenerational knowledge being passed down about our history within the LGBT community. We wanted to make sure that our drag history was recorded to be there for people to look back at. We captured the history of the scene so that others can learn from their experiences, to know what it was like to do drag when it wasn’t as accepted or safe to do so.
“TV shows like Ru Paul’s Drag Race make it much easier for people to step into drag, but it wasn’t always like that.
"A lot of LGBTI+ history has been erased from history in Ireland. We want to make sure that never happens again.”
The documentary was filmed by Robin Guiton, a former CIT Digital Media student who has worked with the LGBT+ community before through Pride and recording promotional videos of Chambers club nights.
Im has a long association with the drag community. He has worked as a costume designer for several queens and counts many as his closest friends. As project coordinator, he was responsible for liaising with the drag queens, working out the scheduling, and helping out during the interviews.
“It was one of those projects where everyone was involved in lots of different areas because it is something that is so important to us all.”
One of the interviewees is Aaron Nation, who goes by the drag name Letycha Le’Synn.
Nation was uncertain about entering the drag world, but soon found it was something he loved dearly.
“I created Letycha Le’Synn about eight years ago. I was in Chambers with Konrad [Im] and a few others. It was close to Pride. We were having a chat and decided it would be amazing if one of our friends went to Pride in drag, and they all looked at me and asked me to do it, and I said no. I said I wasn’t interested, but through perseverance, they got me to do it, and I enjoyed it.”
Nation’s apprehension had nothing to do with drag itself.
“I am quite a large person. So generally larger people are very self-conscious, and I was apprehensive about that. Putting yourself into that persona when you are self-conscious is a big step, but I did it, and in time I got more and more confident,” he explained.
Nation says he did drag for charity gigs for the first two years, he began to enjoy it and took the step to become a professional performer when Chambers asked him to appear at a new club night.
“I said, sure, why not? I entered four drag competitions. I won a big one in Dublin and then performing became a regular thing.”
Nation was performing in Chambers three nights a week pre-lockdown.
He agrees with Im that it is vital that the documentary shows both seasoned queens and younger performers and also credits RuPaul for bringing drag to the mainstream.
“It’s become mainstream because of RuPaul and the whole phenomenon has become so accepted and so diverse. Many younger generations don’t realise there have been queens around for a long time. The youngest is just 15, and then some seasoned queens who were performing long before I started.
“It is great to show we have such a long legacy and a long history within it because the younger audience thinks that drag was created within the last five years.”
Nation says Letycha is regal and expensive and says he loves nothing more than spending hours putting on her make up and getting dressed.
“Lockdown has been hard. Part of drag is the illusion. It has been easy for some queens to transition to performing on Zoom, but Letycha is a regal queen. It doesn’t seem right for her to perform from my kitchen or my sitting room!” he said.
He hopes the documentary will help those outside of the community realise how strong it is in Cork.
“People don’t realise the extent of the drag scene in Cork. Dublin has become a hot-spot, but we have such a rich scene here. I hope it opens people’s eyes to the artistic people we have and the creative people. I’m hoping that people see what is available to them on their doorstep. There are many queens in Cork. They are so diverse. We have feminine, hyperfeminine, androgyny, every style and type you can think of, we have them.” After the premiere screening, on February 12, several panels and Q&A sessions will take place involving the filmmakers and leading queens — Fabula Di Beaumarchais, Kitty Cartier, Letycha Le’Synn, and Mia Gold, as well as Candy Warhol.
There will also be two special guests, Panti Bliss and Danny La Rue’s long-time assistant, make-up artist and close friend, Richard Guy Mawbey.
The screening is free, but the organisers are accepting donations which will go towards the Gay Project.
“If people are in a position to donate, we would appreciate it. The Gay Project does great work for the LGBT+ community, so we would like to be able to support them if we can.”
The event will be livestreamed on the night the 12th February at 7pm. Tickets can be booked on www.eventbrite.ie/e/134815415537.
More info can be found on www.facebook.com/lgbtmtucork . All donations will go to www.gayproject.ie.