SHE'S the Bible-reading politician whose conservative views on sex have set the country talking. But there's more to Michelle Mulherin than meets the eye -- and many who know her say she is a bundle of contradictions.
A prim and proper politician by day, the trained solicitor also has a wilder side and is not afraid to play the vamp, showing off her perfect figure with some revealing outfits at social events.
At a charity bikers event last summer, for example, she sent more than a few heads spinning when she turned up looking like Sandy from 'Grease' wearing sunglasses and six-inch heels -- a million miles away from the sober business suits she sports in the Dail.
A strapless number worn at the Mayo Dublin Association dinner earlier this year also set pulses racing.
And while the Mayo TD is devoutly religious, she is also a big fan of 'Father Ted', the comedy that got most of its gags from lampooning the Catholic Church.
She herself admits her life was once very different and that she was on a very different road of self-gratification before she found religion.
Most of the country hadn't heard of Ms Mulherin -- one of four Fine Gael TDs elected in Taoiseach Enda Kenny's constituency last year -- until her comments during a Dail debate on abortion last week.
She grabbed headlines when she described fornication -- consensual sex between an unmarried couple -- as the biggest cause of unwanted pregnancy.
This was quickly followed up with an appearance on RTE's 'Saturday Night Show', where she defended her remarks.
Since making the comments, Ms Mulherin has been inundated with calls and messages from people both praising her and protesting against what she had to say.
A lot of the flack is coming from young people who voted for her in the general election, not knowing her religious views.
But the 41-year-old UCD law graduate, who speaks French, German and Swahili, insists she's just a normal woman who was saved from a life of "very deep cynicism" by embracing religious faith.
"When I went to college I was very cynical, particularly relating to the church. I was very cynical in general about life and it was getting worse. I moved back home and I had a job, house and my car and I thought 'Is this it?' I was just left with a very empty feeling.
"I was generally disillusioned with life and was leaning towards, I suppose, a life of self-gratification," she recalls.
However, through friends, including Danson Kole, a devout born-again Christian from Kenya, Michelle began attending a Bible-study group which she says "opened my mind and my attitudes".
The TD became close to Mr Kole -- who she affectionately calls Dan -- in the late 1990s while studying law in Dublin.
After completing her studies, the pair moved back to Ballina where he worked in the local arts centre and the local newspaper, the 'Western People'.
Ms Mulherin has since travelled to his home in Kenya, a visit she describes as "enriching".
In the wake of her fornication comments, her friendship with Mr Kole raised eyebrows when it emerged he has a son with a former teenage girlfriend.
While Ms Mulherin admits that her relationship with Mr Kole is not conventional, the pair have enjoyed a very close friendship since 1997 -- something she stresses they have always been open about.
"I don't talk about my personal life but I have no secrets. In relation to my relationship with Dan, that is no secret," she said.
"Dan worked on my election campaign and with local organisations. He is very well known in the town. The Taoiseach knows him. The idea that he is a secret or there is something seedy about this is completely wrong. He has never been a secret," she stressed.
Mr Kole has since moved back to Kenya, and while Michelle refuses to discuss the status of their relationship, she does stress: "He's still a very good friend of mine."
She admits that she has been "taken aback" by the reaction to her now infamous fornication comment but believes it was important to start the debate on attitudes to sex in this country.
"I'm glad to live in a country where I can explain myself and speak about things I feel passionately about. Let's not be afraid to speak about things. I could have done the fashionable thing and said nothing about this.
"I think people got caught up in one emotive word and not the points I was making. I'm not judging, I'm totally aware of all my own failings," she said.
However, her comments have caused controversy in her home town of Ballina. Young voters, in particular, are incensed at her remarks, which may yet damage her re-election chances.
A family friend of the Mulherins said she was shocked by the comments. "I think she made a bit of a fool of herself. I was surprised by the position she's got herself in, I wouldn't have expected it from her. Fornication went out with the Bible. It's a ridiculous word to be using. I wouldn't vote for her now," she said.
Maria (35), a canvasser who worked on Ms Mulherin election campaign, said the comments had changed her opinion of the politician completely.
"I voted for her, I even canvassed for her. For a young woman to come out with this stuff is crazy. As a woman, I feel totally let down by her. Going on Brendan O'Connor's show made it totally worse. Dara Calleary (a Fianna Fail TD) is her opposition and I'm a Fine Gael woman but I'd vote for him before her."
Members of the legal community in Ballina, who would have dealt with the politician while she was working as a solicitor in the town, said they were surprised by the comments.
"Everyone is talking about it in the office. I wouldn't be surprised if it hits her chances next time around. She was very naive, I really wouldn't have expected it from her," said one.
"It has offended a lot of younger people in the town but then there are a lot of religious types in the area that would probably support her.
"She is an intelligent woman when you are dealing with her from a work point of view. She was always very capable and nice to deal with, but this was unexpected," said another legal source.
But the Mayo TD is determined to weather the storm and won't be apologising for her religious stance.
"There is a certain liberal element in the press that would like to shut me up. Not everyone -- I would like to acknowledge that some sections of the press have been fair. But there are others who want to pigeon-hole me or shut me up.
"I agree with the separation of church and State but for me as an individual I cannot separate my religious side. I don't think my being elected requires me to," she added.