- 09 Jul 13
Mick McCaughan's 1992 report from inside the controversial organisation, originally published in Hot Press Vol 16 No 22, it's republished for the first time in full on hotpress.com, July 9, 2013.
With its pickets on the homes of politicians, well-publicised confrontations with pro-choice demonstrations and extensive use in public of provocative imagery, Youth Defence is the most controversial and extreme anti-abortion group in Ireland. But what is the organistation really like - at work, rest and play? How does it function? And who are the key personalities? Mick McCaughan has been involved in Youth Defence from the very beginning, keeping his real identity as an investigative journalist hidden from those around him. Now, with the abortion referendum almost upon us, he blows his cover and emerges to tell the true story of life inside Youth Defence.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall...
It's Saturday night, and Youth Defence are taking the night off from rescuing the Catholic unborn from the clutches of teenage murder-mums and abortion-crazy doctors.
With Bethany, the plastic foetus, tucked away for the night, the Saviours of Babies (and Babes) are ready to party until the bells beckon them to morning mass.
Inside the Piper House pub on Thomas Street, 20 crusaders are rocking out to laser karaoke and letting their hair down. Lip-synching to Bon Jovi's 'Livin' On A Prayer', Mick Haughey moves to cock-rock poses as the rest of the wild gang bumps and grinds to the groovy beat. Mary medals are clinking, everybody's drinking, and spirits, especially Holy Ones, are high..
Dressed in skintight black trousers, a fluffy black tuxedo shirt, black dinner jacket, and long, curly hair, Mick H. plays Bon Jovi better than Bon Jovi. Unlike the rock celeb, Mick's on a mission from God. This Youth Defence moves effortlessly from extolling the virtues of Metallica to virulent complaints about Vatican Two. Abortion is his pet obsession.
Mick blames all Ireland's woes on 'liberalisation', a theme on which he frequently waxes eloquent. Liberalisation is to blame for 'queers', contraception and feminists. "Life's a bitch, then you marry one," is a favoured motto.
Tonight, Mick and the mob are on home turf, kicking out the jams, as YD members are called to the mic by the two smooth-faced jocks spinning the discs. Now it's Ciara and Deirdre Hayden's turn, belting out 'I Will Survive' as the barman calls for last orders.
Two new schoolgirl recruits, Sara and Caroline are initiated uncertainly to the tune of 'Flashdance', dancing nervously, but singing with gusto - "What a feeling...I can have it all", to wild and sympathetic applause at the end.
It's a warm, cloying atmosphere, with sisters Niamh and Fionnula Nic Mathuna dispensing goodwill on all sides, smiling, singing and welcoming everyone aboard. Drinking is moderate to steady during the evening, until everyone abandons seats to form a weaving, unsteady people-train to the uplifting rhythm of 'La Bamba', as a nearby drunk struggles to join in.
Fran the Unsteady is a local, who has watched the young revellers grow tipsy as he grew sozzled, and now he wants in on some of the brotherly vibes going down. He shuffles along, dancing at the edges of the karaoke kids, pint in hand, wooly blue cap perched preposterously on his balding head.
The kids welcome the novelty until National Anthem time, when a male and female representative of Youth Defence are ushered to the front of the crowd, to lead the final respectful, arms-at-sides singalong - another bonding process for the emerging youth activists.
After an evening of US and British chart-toppers, the national anthem triggers an upsurge of nationalism, as an impromptu seisún begins. A cracking, raucous version of 'Come Out Ye Black & Tans' gets the ball rolling, Seani O'Domhnaill leading the way. Then comes 'Moses Had A Son'; an evangelical hokey-cokey, with excited members tapping heads, legs, knees and feet in rhythm, as each verse finishes with a resounding, "Give thanks to the Lord."
Not to be outdone, committee member Jody launches into a vigorous rugby chant, 'Uggy, Uggy, Uggy' with the inevitable response, 'Oi, Oi, Oi!'.
Throats loosened, it's time for the Youth Defence anthem, 'Give us a Y, give us an O,' all the way around to the full-blooded Youth Defence roar. Smiles all round, backs are being slapped, as everyone looks forward to Deirdre's free gaff, available thanks to her parents' weekend visit to Knock.
Now though, the barman wants us out, so it's time to give Niamh her due. Starting slowly, the humming gains speed, as we chant Niamh's surname to the tune of Gary Glitter's 'Rock'n'Roll Part 2'. 'Mac-Ma-Hoo-na, Hey, Mac-Ma-Hoo-Na, Mac Mahoona Hey hey, Mac, Mac Mahoona, Mac Ma-hoona Hey hey...'
Voices are reduced to a whisper over the same rhythm, as we eye each other up, smiling conspiratorially, holding the hushed tone - until eventually exploding in a rousing finale. Niamh blushes, basking in the attention, while feigning disinterest, queen of the YD scene...
The Piper House revellers jokingly direct Nazi salutes as the Mac Mhathuna anthem reaches a deafening crescendo. Suddenly a hush falls on the entire group, apart from drunken Fran, who wants to sing 'American Pie' to the audience. Niamh twists her face into seanchaí position, summoning up the injustices of 700 years, momentarily setting aside the unborn.
"Once upon a time there was Irish ways and Irish laws," she begins, as the crowd listen with respect. She closes her eyes, lost in the moment, as the others quietly join in the song. Mick Haughey closes the evening with a loud "Tiocfaidh ár lá."
Outside in the lashing rain, it's every born child for themselves, as Niamh runs about, whooping loudly, protecting her beer cans from a joking pursuer. She disappears into a taxi with other committee members, while others less fortunate start the lengthy walk to Drumcondra.
There, inside a pleasant, semi-D home, people lounge around the sitting room watching TV, while Roisin and Maria make cheese sandwiches in the kitchen.
Wandering upstairs, a two-foot high plaster Virgin-and-child greets me. The figure is surrounded by pink flowers, while the child has a big blue ball over its private parts. I am seized with the sudden temptation to hurl the statue out the window, trying to imagine the parents' reaction to the disintegrated virgin on their return from Knock. Inside one of the bedrooms, a poster of The Doors hangs opposite another bald, religious statement, "I trust in thee O Lord".
Downstairs, some dancing has begun. The atmosphere reminds me of those birthday parties you have at 11 years of age; people are running after one another, playing tricks, eating sandwiches. Only the odd nip of brandy indicates that there's an older crowd here.
In the sitting room, one couple kiss each other on the couch. This is all strictly within the guidelines of Vatican Two no doubt, so even a little pre-marital fondling is out of the question.
"Isn't this much more fun than just being in an 'oul pub?", asks Fionnula Nic Mhathuna, who seems to have forgotten that we have just spent half the night there. "Yeah, you have to be mental to join Youth Defence!," says Jody McDonagh, with a wide grin. "You have to go for it," adds someone else, as quietness descends in the kitchen.
Jerry Sheehan comes under the spotlight. He was seen emerging from the Pro-Life Campaign (PLC) office, where he went in search of a telephone number. This is considered suspect activity since the parting of the ways between PLC and YD over the issue of the latter's militancy. For this indiscretion he is cross-examined for an hour in the kitchen.
Shortly afterwards, to restore our high spirits, Sean O'Domhnaill offers up an accapella version of 'Ghost Riders In The Sky', which shifts to "Tiocfaidh ár lá, sing up the Ra-aa. Sam missiles sailin' through the sky." Our silence is taken as approval so he tries out another O'Domhnaill favourite, "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall….. oohh ahh up the ra."
Contraception Devalues The Act...
"Allowing a woman to have an abortion does not unrape the woman," says Mick Haughey as he and other YD missionaries speed westward out of Dublin, to take the message to the people of Longford.
In the car, discussion turns to Niamh's refusal to debate at UCD the previous night, because she was prevented from showing a video about abortion. Maxine Brady had been there to argue the opposing point of view.
At UCD, a loyal YD member had shouted at Maxine. "You don't have the confidence to keep a husband", John had heckled in some sort of bizarre reference to her single parenthood. What do they make of Maxine Brady?
"Slut," says Tom. "Whore," adds Mick. "Mental case" is the kindest response of all, from Esme, the driver, three of whose children are in Youth Defence.
Mick Haughey has the solution for difficult occasions like the UCD debate. "You just go up to the abortionists, and say listen, when your mother gave birth, she had a huge shite - the baby died and the shite lived."
Tom is studying the latest Trinity College Student guide book, which contains information on safe sex. Tom is disturbed by the information in the guide. "It's disgusting," he says, as the guide is passed around the car. "It's promoting homosexuality."
"Shouldn't be allowed," says Mick Haughey, blaming 'that fag Norris'. "Queers should all be shoved off the side of a cliff."
"It's a perversion of nature," says Esme, who comes across as a liberal in this company. Talk turns to sex. "The Hare Krishnas have the right attitude to sex," says Tom. "They sleep with each other only for procreation purposes, then they sleep apart other times. It helps control the urges."
"The Masons are running the country now, attempting to break down the family," Tom adds, suddenly switching back. There's 47,000 of them in Ireland, he explains, all initiated on bended knee, wearing an apron, tapped on the head with a stick. "Satan is busy," he says. "Satan has decided to concentrate on Ireland."
Tom claims that there's an upsurge in Satan-related activity, like black masses, quoting from the Book of Revelations for an explanation.
"The church will be persecuted from within," he says, "But the church will never be destroyed."
He suggests and exorcism of the Dáil, where Satan is particularly busy right now, a suggestion heartily endorsed by the group. "I know a priest who would do it, " he says.
As the drive goes on, Tom gets more comfortable with the group, opening up about his past. "Mum wouldn't let us run with the gangs in the area. We got beaten up every time we left the house," he says of himself and his brother Padraig, a major YD strategist.
Tom's loyalty to Youth Defence is steadfast. "I don't care if they put me in jail," he says, "I'll convert the prisoners." Tom is a soldier of God, prepared to take orders, and die on the frontline if necessary…
Today's battle strategy is to set up a stall in a provincial town and catch the schoolkids on the way home, always a good source of petition signatures. There's supposed to be more women than men on these outreach trips, but the organisation is testosterone-heavy, so we're stuck with mainly males.
Sometimes though, YD satellites encounter technical difficulties and turn their missile fire against the mother ship. In Longford only three people show up, half an hour behind schedule: one middle-aged woman with two kids under 12 years of age.
The proposed chairperson of the local YD affiliate, Mr James Reynolds, breezes in announcing that he is in favour of abandoning democracy, bringing in selective internment and resurrecting the death penalty.
Reynolds and Tom Purcell talk about Mussolini, recalling the dictator with fondness, while Franco is criticised for allowing "commies and socialists" into his government towards the end.
Reynolds is a priestly-looking individual, who suggests that all public representatives should be vetted for 'pro-life' credentials, while a Supreme National Council should replace the Dáil. Worse is to come. On Shannonside Radio, he defends pickets on the homes of public representatives. Nuala Fennell of Fine Gael should count herself lucky to get off so lightly, he said. "In Spain before 1975, herself and Nora Owen would have been put up against a wall and shot".
Worried glances are exchanged between the travelling contingent, aware of the potential damage should the word get out on this loose cannon. Still, the overall thrust of his argument is fine with Tom and Mick, who share his views on Jews: Tom says they are responsible for the world's evils. Mick Haughey lauds the Muslim approach to contraception.
"Contraception devalues the act," says Tom. No-one challenges him on what exactly he knows about 'the act', or if he's ever got closer to doing it than reading the Trinity Student Guide.
On the way out, John Reynolds declines to hold on to the graphic pictures. "Anywhere else, but not in my home town," he says, "people wouldn't accept it." As a parting memory, JR grins and says that the electric chair is 'painless', "Why do people hate the Catholic Church so much?" asks Esme on the way back to Dublin.
As we draw closer to the capital, Mick and Tom engage in a lively debate on the most effective means of knifing someone to death, prompted by talk on Vietnam movies: You go up to someone, lift their chin slightly, then stick a dagger right through to the brain.
"I hate it when the Americans get killed in the films," says Mick. "I love it when they kill all the Japs."
Roisin, who has been quiet for most of the journey, argues the toss for the Japs, to no avail. "They should kill them all," insists Mick, selfless defender of the unborn.
The Media And The Message
The venue is Newman College, Dublin. The event is a high-tech media management course run by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), designed to educate anti-abortionists in how to get their message across via the newspapers, the airwaves and public speaking. It'll run over three weekends.
Over a dozen members of Youth Defence are in attendance as a well-dressed man hands a plastic foetus to the students to caress. Lesson One: Getting to know your Plastic Foetus.
The MC Paul Tully has flown in for the weekend from England to help groom the crusaders. After the plastic foetus has been passed around, he hands out a highly detailed and expensive information pack with a 12-part slide show, essays on foetology, newspaper articles and discussion documents on everything from what the foetus feels like to a breakdown of the type of premises where abortion operations are performed.
After a slide show on the 'First Days of Life', all the students are allotted two slides to talk over. Tully comments on the speaker's stance - feet should be firmly planted on the floor, body turned slightly to facilitate reference to the slide screen.
John Smeaton, an active anti-choice agitator for 26 years, 19 of which has been with the SPUC organization, addresses the audience. "Repeatedly hammer home the baby's humanity," he urges. Smeaton is giving us a step-by-step guide on how to approach public speaking engagements.
"Set the stage", "Grasp the nettle" and "Spike the guns", are among his catchphrases as he recommends that those he describes as "abortionists" should be tackled with arguments of compassion for women and the 'handicapped'.
Students are advised to take arguments to the extreme, asking their audiences if abortion should be extended to "babies that cry at night", or to the elderly.
On the second weekend the veteran SPUC campaigner Phyllis Bowman takes the stage. "Our first mistake was to sound reasonable," says Ms Bowman of SPUC's British campaign. "Once you have said that the child in the womb is less important that the mother, you're heading for abortion on demand."
The battle against abortion is described in apocalyptic terms, with Ireland the last frontier of anti-choice civilisation. "Pro-lifers regard Ireland as the launch pad to fight back," she says.
Bowman describes the Irish media as a "disaster", but advises Youth Defence to target rural publications, since "today's provincial journalist is tomorrow's national journalists".
"It's learning how to use people," she explains. She advises activists to "get a hold of a handicapped person," to soften the image.
Esme Caulfield, one of the Friends of YD, describes how RTÉ turned the volume up on Niamh to make her "sound hysterical". "Your job is to hijack programmes," says Ms Bowman.
And when it's all over, fully versed on the science of PR, YD prepare to take the country by storm. "You're going to be fighting against abortion for the rest of your lives," Phyllis Bowman concludes.
What a prospect.
Our Iron Lady & The Holy Family
It is the day of the collapse of the coalition government and a General Election this way comes, but Niamh Nic Mhathuna looks astonished when she's asked if she might not pursue a particular course of action.
"What? Me go for politics? I don't want to go up for elections", she states firmly. "I want to get married and have 13 kids."
48 hours later, Niamh announces that she will stand in Dublin North Central. Keeping Ireland free of abortionists is dirty work, but someone's got to do it.
The 21-year-old founder member of, and chief spokesperson for Youth Defence, Niamh Nic Mhathuna was first exposed to the issue of abortion around the time of the 1983 referendum when the 'pro-life' activist Joe Scheidler stayed at her family's house.
"I wasn't meant to see the photographs," she says of Scheidler's graphic aborted foetus shots. "I could see all the little eyes and little hands. Me and my sister, my brother and his friend, we were all roaring crying. We'd never seen anything like it."
One of nine kids, ranging in age from eight to 22, Niamh was groomed for stardom by her parents, who boast 30 years' of anti-divorce experience thrown in for good measure. All but the youngest two children in the family are involved in Youth Defence.
The youngest Mac Mathuna has an "altar fetish" right now, according to Niamh. "She runs around with holy medals and pictures," she says, giving a throaty laugh before she moves on to serious topics, like the upcoming election.
"If you're going to put up anybody, you have to put them up in the inner city," she continues. "Bertie Ahern is in the inner city and they all hate him. He's trying to build a clinic for homosexuals who have AIDS in the middle of flats where children are. They didn't like that, I tell ye, they're all cursing him."
Niamh's decision to stand for election brings the most formidable anti-abortion campaigner of the Mac Mathuna family out of the shadows and into the forefront of the campaign.
In truth, Niamh's mother Una, has long been the power behind the button, her public role as a 'Friend of Youth Defence' belied by her beagle-eyed presence at meetings. Usually in the company of her husband, ever ready to swoop on any sign of weakness in the youngsters' resolve, her advice is regularly offered whether solicited or not.
For her daughter's election campaign, The Mammy takes centre stage however, addressing the inaugural strategy meeting, briefing canvassers on election tactics, co-ordinating transport arrangements, and in tandem with her husband, composing the election leaflet. Still, the youth themselves do occasionally get a word in edgeways.
Peter Scully suggests that canvassers "create a scare" among the elderly, by suggesting that Charlie McCreevy's social welfare cuts will eventually reduce their pensions. Scully also counsels a neat dress code for canvassers: "If someone turned up on my doorstep in a tracksuit, I wouldn't give them my vote," he says, even though many of Niamh's constituents are 'trackies'.
Scully also advises canvassers to hold out familiar election carrots, like playground and school facilities. To Youth Defence, however, all these are side issues, the priority being a ticket to the Dáil and - the real gold - another referendum.
"We're pro-life, that's why we're doing this," Niamh tells one Youth Defender who is worried that the abortion issue might be shelved. "Once we're in the Dáil, we won't shut up until we get another referendum."
More that anyone else, Niamh inspires the rank-and-file, prods the uncertain into action and generally binds people together. She speaks in a squeaky but tender voice, challenging the listener with emotive rhetoric. Behind the sensitive mask though, is a woman of steel (and behind her, a mother of iron), ready and willing to use virtually any means necessary to keep abortion out of Ireland.
As the matriarch of Youth Defence, Niamh is less Joan of Arc than a nascent Margaret Thatcher with a religious bent.
Niamh bounces into weekly meetings in a flurry of excitement, ready to surmount any and every obstacle that stands between her and an abortion-free Ireland. When the cops refuse permission for the organisation to set up on O'Connell island, for example, she endorses a proposal to retake the island.
"Is anyone willing to risk arrest?" she asks. Everybody raises their hand in unison. The Iron Lady smiles. If that fails, Niamh promises a picket on the home of the Garda Commissioner.
The comparative extremism of Youth Defence, its penchant for militancy, is what separates it from the longer-established anti-abortion groups like SPUC. Indeed, at one particular meeting SPUC are vilified by their juniors for what appears to be the cardinal sin of acknowledging that 4,000 Irish women do travel annually to Britain for abortions.
"Let them prove it!" shouts virginally-pure Public Relations Officer Peter Scully, followed by an almost hyperventilating Una Mac Mathuna - The Mammy - who rises to breathe fire and brimstone all over her ostensible soulmates.
"I would be suspicious of any group that used those figures in its publicity," she declares, her voice rising. "I tell you this, and it's with 20 years of experience, it's good advice, don't ignore it. Let's face it, SPUC has not kept abortion out of England."
Peter Scully returns to the fray. "SPUC won't distribute Operation Rescue literature in England, they don't block clinics," he asserts, suggesting that SPUC are 'soft' on the substantive issue. Niamh's sister Fionnula says that she was over in London visiting Operation Rescue, and that someone there said she'd never met an Irish girl outside a clinic in her life.
"If the figures are what they claim, then we'd all know someone who had an abortion," says Esme, the mother of four youth defenders, by way of conclusion.