The 28th of May 2021 was a normal Friday. I dropped off the recycling on my way to do some repair work for a family friend. Leaving the recycle centre I noticed that I had forgotten some stuff for the job so I turned back northwards to pick these up at my parent’s home. It was then that I first noticed something rather disturbing parked on the side of the road. Driving past I collected what was missing then turned back southwards heading for Bray, a route taking me once more past the Shanganagh recycling centre and the nearby cemetery. They were still there. I shouldn’t, I’ll be late for work, They’re just not worth it, my non-confrontational angel told me. But the devil on my left shoulder whispered: If you don’t confront them, who will? The decision was made. I couldn’t drive by without at least attempting to welcome them to my neighbourhood in my own sweet manner.
A small crowd had gathered behind the sign on the side of the road by a children’s playground. Maybe eight souls in all, they milled around on the path near a giant portable road sign mounted on a trailer towed behind a station wagon with ‘W’ (Waterford) plates. The electric road sign displayed a statistic in giant yellow electronic letters to the passing traffic. The sign displayed a number (around 1500) the recent death toll in “Europe”, no not a death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic, but rather Europeans killed by “The Vaccine”. Or so the sign said.
Pulling over I parked in front of their station wagon taking care to leave just enough space for them to get out. Wishful thinking on my part as it turned out. Grabbing my keys I sprang out of my little car guns blazing. Why hold back? I told myself. I imagined the scene in the Blues Brothers where Jake Blues revs up the Ford police car before plowing into Chicago Nazis. Having recently received one arm full of the BioNTech/Pfizer mRNA vaccine, not only was I still alive, I was primed for battle.
My initial instinct was divide and conquer. My interjection would spark a debate from which I thought I might discern (from the crowd’s reactions) whom among them were anti-vaxxers and who might join me on the side of logic, science, reality, sanity, whatever… Bad tactics again I’m afraid, it was soon clear that I was alone. They were all anti-vaxxers. It seemed nobody else had stopped to talk.
“Which one of you people is responsible for this sign?” I began (robustly, I thought) signalling to the giant portable electric road sign on the trailer beside me. Haphazardly I directed this first question to a sexagenarian hippy dude at the centre of the group, estimating, incorrectly as it turned out, that he might be more communicative than the others. Hippy dude slunk away without a word, his back to the fence by the children’s playground. This left me with the rest of his troop who proved less shy. Rather than answer my question, they asked why I wished to know (albeit using a slightly less polite vocabulary). I had prepared for that question too, I indicated that they had parked next to a cemetery, and that, as far as I was aware, there were many victims of this pandemic buried here, including my own mum. None, I argued (again without any statistic to hand) had died from “The Vaccine”. This was a small fib as my mum had recently died of COVID but she was just down the road in Deansgrange. Emotions were high and I readily admit that my language also tended toward the profane, but this was no time to hold back, indeed I was also there to provoke a reaction and I was late for work. In Ireland you never know what anonymous group you’re up against till you rattle their cage. The tribe circled their caravans in on themselves in a defensive formation against my apparent disdain for their statistic.
In for a penny in for a pound, I thought.
The only female member of their troop circled like a caged tiger sizing me up. Was it to be fight or flight? Finally her disdain of my probing questions drove her into action. I guessed she was maybe in her early forties, which would place her as the second youngest of the troop whose median age I had estimated at slightly closer to seventy, whoever she was, and this was not apparent as nobody introduced themselves, nor did they carry placards with an organizational name, their anonymity did not imply timidity nor passive acceptance of criticism. She was girding herself for war and, indeed, would prove to be the most combative of her group, giving as good as she got.
To win her argument Ms. Forties took a curious tack. Rather than argue against my assertions that vaccines might be a part of a solution to this global pandemic — even one that had killed my own mother — she argued my right to interrogate her on her soil. It seemed the garish propaganda on the trailer sign was intended for “Irish people” and she found my accent suspicious calling me out on my ‘non-native’ pronunciation of certain local place names. Curiously this even included the name of the adjoining village where I had just picked up tools (where I had lived for about 15 years), apparently my mispronunciation of “Shankill” was a giveaway to her, revealing that I must be lying, an imposter even. I was branded an agente provocateur, an outsider! Barely human I might even be CIA or a Russian spy. Whomever I was, I smacked of foreign and as such, she argued, I had no rights to question her or any of her anonymous cult so my arguments were null-and-void.
When I told her I was born in the Coombe hospital in Dublin 8 she scoffed again, questioning my citizenship. Wait I thought, I have an ace in my wallet. Pulling it out I pointed my Irish driver’s license toward her, the address less than a Kilometre away. Incredulous to the last she asked me my family name, which, I had supposed, she had just read off my license. Maybe she believed that in the heat of things I would be unlikely to remember my fake name, thus proving her right. Unfortunately for her I knew who I was too.
Possibly the strangest logic behind this interrogation tactic was that it implied that those guilty of being ‘foreign’ somehow could not opine on a statistic from ‘Europe’ even for imported vaccines in a global pandemic. Not here in Ireland anyway where the anti-vaxx argument was reserved for Irish nationals only.
She marched away, I stood my ground.
Then their youngest member approached me. He was angry, I saw this on his face. In fact, I saw him stroking his own indignance even as he approached me. He was seventeen, he began. This young man had puffed himself up in a somewhat forceful manner, something alien to his being. Seventeen did not wish to speak of the dead from the vaccine. No this kid had another bone to pick. He got personal, beginning by telling me of his anger at the virus, though I suspect his anger was directed more toward government lock-downs or even vaccines. The virus, he said, had made his life a misery. He was missing out, his life was on hold and his education compromised. He had a 97.5% chance of survival even if he did contract COVID-19 he told me triumphantly.
Yet another suspiciously exact statistic, like the 1500+ European dead on the trailer sign. The bodies were piling up; lies, damned lies and statistics! Seventeen had no interest in whether or not he might get the disease, nor it seemed, was he interested in whether he might transmit it to anybody else, even to one of his nearby sect-members who, I had already surmised, might not be quite so bulletproof. No! This was all about him, he was the victim! I took the wind out of his sails by agreeing that he would probably survive COVID and might even be asymptomatic. I guess I hoped that maybe he might care that the same virus passing through his body might kill an older person or someone with compromised health. No such luck!
Finally a member of the cult with whom I had exchanged a few words earlier, intervened playing good cop to their bad cops. To calm me down he tried to convince me that (maybe) I was wrong to ‘believe’ I had been personally affected by the disease. Yes really! This guy actually had the rock hard steel balls to directly question whether I could be sure that my mother had died of COVID-19? Maybe I should think outside the box was his argument. In his mid to late sixties, this preacher type was tall, well dressed, and more than a little overweight.
Preacher guy had the air of a US southern baptist. Maybe it was the office-blue shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows, though his accent was more neutral than any real southern baptist, unless you call Waterford southern? Preacher guy pitched me with something called the Nuremberg Code, a health and safety rule, the result of Nazi experiments on human beings during WWII. His explanation incorporated the curious details of the lone online researcher. Seems the Nurenburg Code had been undercut by the emergency certification of “The Vaccine” and for this reason 1500 ‘Europeans’ had died in some dreaded conspiracy.
When I argued that there was more than one vaccine, maybe 8 to 13 so far albeit only four had been so far recognised by EU authorities, preacher man countered that they were “all the same”. Somehow, for him the Nuremburg code was more relevant than my mother’s death in a senior’s home. It seemed I had the look of one who could be converted. He asked me, twice actually, to give him my email where he assured me he would send me more information. Another online Evangelical Christian recruitment technique.
Having had enough of the roadside drama, I breezed away to work before I had to speak with another nerd. But facts are important! What had I truly learned from my first encounter with these strange people?
First they seemed to be a somewhat close-knit group of strangers. They were defensive, anonymous (paranoid even) possessing some traits I had never seen before in Ireland. The group did however share many parallels with groups I had met in rural parts of the USA, Southern Mexico and some parts of Central and South America like Honduras, Brazil and Peru. These fiercely nationalist green-jersey Q-Anon propeller-head mystics were also similar to the religious fans of Bolsonaro and Trump. I even allowed my prejudice to speculate a taste for both Country AND Western music. What I clearly discerned was the direct influence from anti-socialist right-wing religious groups. In the US this is found in the Tea Party who support the more extreme US Republican factions under the corporate sponsorship of extreme right-wing donors such as the surviving Koch brother and other conservative anti-taxation linchpins. Many of these weirdos are anti-vaxxers too.
What I can say for sure is that these people were all white, probably all Irish (with at least some of them extremely proud of their nationality) and they did not like foreigners. They were neither very poor nor very rich. The station wagon used to tow the sign-trailer was an older model from the noughties, but the road-sign probably did not come cheap so they had some funds. They were mostly (if not all) extremely religious. I mean wacko religious, definitely Christians, these evangelisers, albeit in this case on an anti-vaccine platform, wore heavy crosses round their necks. I mean big ones! Large enough so that I could make out the grisly agony of the wriggling Christ on them. Not dissimilar to extreme Tridentine Catholics, or the followers of the secretive Opus Dei sect, these people were, most probably, members of a reformist evangelical protestant cult. Their station-wagon had a large colourful Jesus-sticker in the front window.
Counteracting the power of local national public media seemed to be their aim, they mentioned RTE and BBC with special disdain. Both, it seems, were gateway drugs to “Socialism” as one of the more gruff members muttered to me unable to hide his utter disgust at the word. Avoiding eye contact he sat into the station wagon. Though he was not interested in debate, as a socialist myself, I argued that Fine Gael and the Tory Conservative parties were very much less than socialist but to no avail. What was especially curious to me is that this group protested imported vaccines in a global pandemic using statistics on dead Europeans yet they were ultra-nationalist, so much so that nobody else could express an opinion without an Irish accent.
All these were only first impressions. I can only wonder if somebody else out there might have come across these people. Maybe we should know more about them? Maybe it is time more Irish residents stopped to engage our anti-vaxxers?