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Justine McCarthy: Young people are the new frontier in the hatred wars

The weaponising of children and young people certainly did not start last weekend when rival fans jeered Shamrock Rovers manager Stephen Bradley about his sick son, but it is reaching new lows

When did children become fair game in the hatred wars? Was it in March this year when some players on the Republic of Ireland under-15 boys football team were abused on social media for not being sufficiently pink-skinned and red-haired for the liking of subscribers to the barmy theory of the Great Replacement?

The weaponising of children certainly did not start last weekend when two or three Cork City fans jeered rival manager Stephen Bradley about his seriously ill nine-year-old son after his team, Shamrock Rovers, lost a match. How can some hearts be so hardened that their companion brains think it is acceptable to taunt a father because his child is sick? After Bradley deplored the chants during media interviews, Cork City football club said it would ban the chanters for life from its home ground at Turner’s Cross and a podcast by three of the club’s supporters, called The Other Three Amigos, launched a fundraiser for two children’s healthcare charities.

No such gesture of atonement has been made by Gemma O’Doherty for the torment she has caused parents of young people who have died. The far-right conspiracist, who seems to think that even the clouds in the sky are out to get us, harvested photographs of 42 young people from sources including their death notices and plastered them on the front page of a propaganda free sheet she produces, linking their tragic demise to Covid-19 vaccines. Her thesis was patently false. One of the 42 people she featured had drowned accidentally in a swimming pool. Another had suffered a fatal head injury during a camogie match. Yet another had died even before the vaccines became available.

Edel Campbell from Kingscourt in Co Cavan has lodged a case in the High Court seeking an order directing O’Doherty to remove the photograph of her son, Diego Gilsenan, from the montage, which was still displayed on O’Doherty’s website and social media this week. Diego was 18 when he died by suicide in August 2021. The solicitors’ firm representing his bereft mother said she had no choice but to sue O’Doherty after pleading with her in vain over several months to take her child’s picture down off the websites.


Last December, Campbell said in a RTÉ interview that O’Doherty had “ripped the heart clear out of me”. That same month, O’Doherty – a former features and travel writer at the Irish Independent when I worked there in 1990s and into the 2000s, and who styles herself as “a multi-award-winning journalist” – posted the following contemptible diatribe. “Just because you’re the parent of a dead person doesn’t give you the right to tell lies, stalk and slander another. We understand some of the vaccinated cannot face what they’ve done to themselves and their children but please don’t blame those who tried to save you.”

Diego was the eldest of four children. In this internet age, it is impossible to protect his siblings, who are aged 10, 11 and 13, from the knowledge that O’Doherty is using his image for her propaganda, compounding the trauma of having lost their big brother. In response to his mother’s issuance of legal proceedings, O’Doherty, who has court convictions for breaching Covid-19 regulations by leaving her home in Dublin and travelling to Cork in December 2020 for an anti-lockdown protest and, separately, for resisting arrest and threatening and abusive behaviour to gardaí, crowed that she has put her assets beyond reach. “I am untouchable. I’m not going near any court,” the one time aspiring president of Ireland said in a video posted last Friday. “I have secured my assets in such a way that the only people [sic] who will be losing money will be Edel Campbell.”

Perhaps if journalists had done what we are required to do ... a public debate about torment by publication would have arisen before now and Ireland would have enacted legislation criminalising it

This is not the first time O’Doherty has used images of young people to further her agenda. In 2019, she tweeted a photograph of 32 ethnically-diverse schoolchildren, 11 of whom were white, in Longford, claiming that “Irish people are becoming an ethnic minority”. That same year, she targeted a mixed-race family living in Co Meath who featured in an advertisement for the Lidl supermarket chain. “Kidding no one!” she said. “Resist the Great Replacement wherever you can by giving this kip a wide berth. #ShopIrish #BuyIrish.” Consequently, the Brazilian-born man, his Irish fiancee and their 22-month-old child packed up and left Ireland.

O’Doherty depicts herself as something of a children’s champion, largely because of a campaign she ran about the disappearance of Mary Boyle, aged six, from the vicinity of her Co Donegal home in 1977, and articles she wrote about the sexual abuse of students by John McClean, a former teacher and rugby coach, at Terenure College. Given the insights she surely gleaned during those investigations, her heartless treatment of other young people and their parents is all the more shocking.

How utterly devastating it must be for Edel Campbell to have to resort to a court of law to reclaim the truth about her departed firstborn. She has been left with no choice. As her solicitor has pointed out, there is no law prohibiting grotesque publication on Ireland’s statute books.

When O’Doherty started her conspiracies crusades, journalists debated whether or not to report on her conduct. There was some justifiable trepidation that she would gain undue prominence from media exposure, but, frankly, there was also a seam of sympathy for the former journalist at the outset. Some former colleagues benignly deemed she had lost her way.

Perhaps if journalists had done what we are required to do and reported the news instead of filtering it in the misguided belief that it was for the common good, a public debate about torment by publication would have arisen before now and, just maybe, Ireland would have enacted legislation criminalising it.

As a journalist, as a parent, and as someone who was once a child, I am sorry that I did not argue hard enough to expose the sort of behaviour that is now driving a grieving mother reluctantly into court in an effort to protect her surviving children.