'Gays should abstain from sex - like all unmarried couples'
To live a full Christian life, sex is for pleasure, bonding and children - but it is very difficult to go without, Breda O'Brien tells Niamh Horan
Breda O'Brien is in tears - again. She is recalling a scene in her kitchen following the Panti-gate controversy.
RTE had just paid out €85,000 in damages to a group of individuals, including her, after it was claimed on live TV that they were homophobic and people were saying how they felt about it on radio.
"One of my children, who was 15 at the time, suddenly realised that they were talking about me… she said: 'Mammy, is that about us?' And I said: 'I am sorry darling but it is'.
"And she said: 'Are we safe?' and I said: 'Darling, I'm going to keep you safe - and we are safe and there is no danger and we are fine'. But that really broke my heart. That my little girl..." she stops to compose herself, "… didn't feel safe."
At that stage Breda wondered if it was all worth it, because, as she puts it: "It was having an impact on the people whom you love very much."
Over a year later and there are still days when her email is "on fire", her columns attract hundreds of "savage" comments and, online, the backlash has "turned into a giant snowball" since the advent of social media.
But Breda insists, apart from the impact it has had on her daughter, it most certainly has been worthwhile: "I don't want to let the bullies win.
"People, who have no idea who I am or what I am like, will speculate." She lists the comments: "She's a liar, she's a bitch, she's a cow, wouldn't it be great if she left the country."
One particularly troubled individual threatened to lock her in the Iona office and burn her to death. She went to the Guards.
"It was really incredibly toxic at that time. I don't want anyone to be in a closet but I felt that I was almost being forced into it. And I don't think that's fair to anybody."
That you were being forced into a closet?
"Yeah. That there are certain things you believe in that you can't say."
So who is the woman who has faced so much to become the voice for the No campaign against same-sex marriage?
Originally from Stradbally, Co Waterford, she grew up on a rural farm in a religious household.
She says she knew she would never be a nun because "I love men too much".
Instead, she enrolled in a Theology course.
At 23, she met her husband, Brendan, through voluntary work. "I always hoped and dreamed that one day I would be married."
He was a stay-at-home father, while she went out and made a living as a teacher. With one job, the family found managing finances difficult: "We were down money and struggling." It was then she got a call to write for a national newspaper and it brought the family out of the red.
The couple went on to have four children, but tragedy befell her when she suffered two miscarriages. For a time it tore her faith apart.
"I absolutely thought there was no God. If a little baby has to suffer or can't be born... that really rocked me."
She is now a patron of the Iona Institute and, in recent years, has become famous for voicing her views on same-sex marriage, whist doing the circuit of TV, radio and print.
But she says it is still very much her part-time job: "I'm only very partly in the media, I just have the [weekly] column."
On the subject of gay sex, she says: "I think that obviously sex is there for a lot of reasons. It's there for pleasure, it's there for bonding and it's there to have children and I think it is really good to keep those three purposes together."
She believes if gays want to live a Christian way of life, like all unmarried couples, they should abstain from sex: "If you can live up to this very demanding thing, I think it will make you happy [to abstain]. It will be excruciatingly difficult - I think you will need huge support, huge help, lots of very strong, loving relationships."
The benefits, she believes, would be worth it.
"Knowing that you are loved by God and that you are valued. Sometimes giving something up can lead to other kinds of happiness. You would have to be a very unselfish person to do that and I think very good people have great capacity for joy and happiness."
I later ask if she believes gay sex is natural.
"It depends on what you define as 'natural'," she says.
"To be sexually attracted to people is obviously completely natural and gay people can love as much as anyone else. But if you are looking as nature intended, I think that sex is very bound up with having children."
So where does all this fit in, in the context of her own life?
Are you going to have any more children?
Does that mean you abstain forever?
"No. Because sex is about bonding and pleasure and expressing love."
But you said it should be bound up with having children?
"I said that was one aspect of it but they don't always have to go together… I think the bonding aspect of it is really important."
So why shouldn't that be the same for gay people?
"Because I think that there is a complementarity… I really hope you report this fairly… I think there is a complementarity between men and women that.. that is, you know, it is everywhere. It is in eastern symbolism, you know the Yin and the Yang, the male and the female and there is a 'uniqueness' about that relationship."
Throughout the interview she insists that these are only her own personal views and she does not wish to impose them on anyone. On more than one occasion she stresses she does not wish to judge.
"There is a big difference between my private beliefs and what I think the State should do."
Which is where same-sex marriage comes in. When I point out that her fears - surrogacy and a breakdown of the traditional family - is already a reality without same-sex marriage and it won't change anything, she says: "Nobody lives up to the ideal - but if you say you can't have the ideal then what you get is more and more of the same.
"Like it really annoys me that the Government says 'This is reality'. There is all sorts of horrible realities. People in depression who can't pay their mortgages, kids self-harming, they are all realities but we don't say we will legislate for them. We say we will try and help and try and improve. So I think the Government has to be more ambitious than just to legislate for reality."
She is willing to face Panti in a public debate, so long as it is "respectful" and I ask her how she feels about his demand, which became a t-shirt slogan, to 'Feck off out of my life'.
"I see life as like a web. I don't see myself as a little individual. I think we all affect each other," she says.
So what did she do with the money from RTE? "Some of it I gave to charity… the rest went to pay my bills."
How much went to a good cause? "That is like asking me what I had for my breakfast."
It seems some things are simply not for public consumption.