We do not want contraception, abortion, divorce, homosexuality, secular schools or any of the trappings of an uninspiring secular Ireland.
So summed up the politics of Una Bean Mhic Mhathuna in a letter to The Irish Times in May 1976.
Una*, along with her friend and fellow campaigner Mena Cribben, is another colourful character in the world of reactionary Irish politics. She has been a dominant figure for over forty years having been a founding member of Mna na hEireann (c. 1972 – late 1970s) and the Irish Housewives Union (c. 1980 – early 1990s) as well as being active with the Council for Family Rights (1980s), Anti-Abortion Campaign (1983), No Divorce Campaign (1996/97), Friends of Youth Defence (1990s) and Coir (2000s).
Una grew up in Gurranabraher in Cork where her brother Larry White, a leading local activist with Saorise Eire (offshoot of Saor Eire), was shot dead by the Official IRA in 1975.
Una’s mother Mary was also a devout Catholic:
She married Seamus, a renowned folk singer from West Clare who has worked with Conradh na Gaeligle and Comhaltas Ceoltori Eireann, in the late 1960s.
Along with Aine Ni Mhurchu, she set up Mna na hEireann in 1972 to help in the fight against “the legalisation of contraception, abortion and divorce.” In an interview with Irish Times journalist Mary Leland the following year, Una proclaimed that:
a handful of women in Dublin … claim to be speaking for the majority of women in Ireland we believe that it’s not a majority opinion at all. The same number of women are always involved, and some of them, the most vociferous are foreigners.
Una also spoke fondly of “when Ireland was truly Ireland when we had our own language, culture and religion (and when) we were a moral nation”.
She told the journalist that “abortion and contraception, as far we’re concerned, are one and the same” and went on to say:
We don’t believe that anyone makes the conscious decision to to use artificial contraception; they do it under the pressure from propaganda. If they were to make a conscious decision they would have to know all the aspects of whatever method they were using and therefore they would be making a conscious decision to kill a child. And that’s murder.
Here’s an example of the kind of letter the group were sending to the papers in this period. Note the term “international vested interests”.
In April 1974, Mna na hEireann distributed leaflets outside Catholic Churches in Cork which proclaimed that “Ireland could easily support 40 million people and that the Billings method of Birth Control was 100% sure and safe”. It transpired that some local parish priests had given the group permission to distribute the leaflets and put up posters.
In April 1975, the group had to be “curbed” after making an intervention at a conference entitled “Women’s Role in Irish Society” planned by the Cork Federation of Women’s Organisations. Christina Murphy, Woman’s Editor of The Irish Times, summed up the group’s politics as being against “obscenity, contraception, abortion, ‘so called’ women’s liberation, masturbation and mothers working outside the home”. Una and others called Women’s Lib activists “fornicators”, “dirty sluts”, “tarts” and “filthy bastards who should never get married”.
In February 1976 at a Speakers Club discussion in University College Cork, Mna na hEireann made an intervention in which they accused the Catholic Church of “encouraging permissiveness by not preaching against fornication anymore”. Una stated during the debate that she was “not surprised that the call for abortion came from Trinity College where contraceptives were freely available and (where) students were pressurised into having sex by the family planners”.
On RTE’s programme ‘Corkabout’ that same month Una admitted that she believed that “the primary function of women is childbearing”.
In January 1982, Una along with another mother and close friend Mena Cribben were refused an injuction in the High Court when they sought to restrain the Department of Education from questioning their children or canvasing their opinions without the consent of the parents.
In October of that year, Una was in the headlines again when she was involved in disrupting a meeting organised by the pro-choice Northside Anti-Amendment Group outside the Black Sheep pub in Coolock, Dublin. The meeting was supposed to be held inside the pub but the management canceled at the last minute after pressure from pro-life individuals. Twenty people heckled, sang, shouted and generally disrupted the meeting which was attended by eighty other people.
In May 1986, Una and her husband Seamus failed in the High Court to have the Divorce referendum postponed on the grounds that it would interfere with a case that they began two years ago alleging that various law weakened the family. Their case failed again in February 1988.
In February 1992, Youth Defence was founded in Una’s family home by her daughter Niamh and a number of other young pro-life activists.
Una and her husband appealed the High Court decision, regarding the supposed discrimination towards married mothers relating to tax and welfare, in July 1994 but were dismissed by the Supreme Court.
Una is probably best known for her classic one-liner in July 1996 at the referendum count of the Divorce referendum. During the heated post-voting atmosphere, she shouted at the victorious campaigners: “G’way ye wife-swapping sodomites“. It was caught on camera but I don’t believe it has made it onto Youtube yet.
In November 1997 Una along with Peter Scully of Family and Life accompanied to court the parents of a 13 year old rape victim who was in the care of the Eastern Health Board. Their appearance in the case came at the same time that the Father of the victim changed his mind and told the court he did not believe an abortion was the right decision for his daughter.
Una spoke in 2007 at the inaugural meeting of the West Cork branch of the Parents For Children (PFC) Campaign. She was described in Youth Defence’s magazine, Solas, as a “family rights campaigner”.
In September 2009, it was revealed that she was involved in the Coir campaign for a ‘No’ vote on the Lisbon Treaty.
“We do not want contraception, abortion, divorce, homosexuality, secular schools or any of the trappings of an uninspiring secular Ireland” wrote Una and others in 1976.
Well contraception, divorce, homosexuality are now legal and we’re slowly seeing the Church’s grip on our education system loosen.
So, it looks like the fight to keep Abortion illegal will be the next battle they’ll lose. Let’s just give it a generation or two.
*Various versions of her name that have come up in the papers include: Una Mhic Mathuna, Una Bean Ui Mathuna, Bn. Mhic Mhathúna Una Bean Mhic Mhathuna and Bean Una Mhic Mhathuna.