Frank Deegan has a thing for radios.
On the day we speak on the phone, punctuated between harrowing tales of the Balkans War and quips about the future of my generation, Deegan finds himself habitually drawn back to the hum and beeps of his radio – decrypting messages from across the country.
But to him, this is for good reason.
Deegan is a founding member of the Irish Survivalists Group – a ragtag collection of self-proclaimed survivalists and preppers whose core goal is to equip members with the necessary skills to survive, whatever the circumstances. To him, these messages are the most valiant means of communication between like minded folk both around the world and nationally.
“It’s a bit early in the day for people to be up. The Italians love their radio, they blow us all out of the water here. I was talking to America yesterday for only two minutes, and then it went off. But we’re learning that kind of stuff.”
“There’s a radio blast, with CB, with Morse code. Can you hear it? That’s ham radio operations going on at 153 megahertz. And that is linked all around Ireland, it’s a repeater service. It’s privately owned, individual guys put them together and you can bounce … you can talk from a radio here from Mount Leinster to Dublin. I’ve heard a lad talking in Derry hospital. He’s in his hospital bed talking to a guy in Cork better than the phone here.”
So, with the help of these radios, the groups remain connected – come rain, wind, hospitalisation or zombie invasion.
We ran out of food and we ran out of water and all that kind of stuff. So that was my actual introduction to prepping and planning. Out of pure necessity
Born out of a requisite for emergency preparedness, survivalism burrowed into mainstream culture in the 1980s. With publications of cult classics such as How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years and Life After Doomsday, as well as the renewal of the arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States, this period highlighted for many the necessity of survival techniques and preparedness.
As the western world delved deeper into the conspiracy realm, interest in the movement only grew. From the Y2K computer bug to the 9/11 attacks, survivalism and renewed interest in it pervaded into the everyday lives of many people across the globe.
But for Deegan, this is a much more personal matter.
“I’m ex-navy”, he tells me. “In 1990 we were taking delivery of a ship from Plymouth to bring it down to what used to be Yugoslavia at the time. At that stage we were nearly there and the war broke in the Balkans. So we ended up six months on the ship. We ran out of food and we ran out of water and all that kind of stuff. So that was my actual introduction to prepping and planning. Out of pure necessity.”
“We had to improvise and beg, borrow or steal to get food and water to the five of us to survive for a while until we got our way home. It was an active warzone.”
And so the spark was lit.
From there, with a wealth of experience from his time in the navy under his belt, Deegan took to the internet in the early 2010s to show the world how to survive.
“I started off making videos on survival techniques. And one of the first guys to pick up on it was a guy called Tony McHugh.”
McHugh was like minded, outdoorsy, and just as prepared as Deegan – so following a camping trip in Cork, a friendship quickly formed between the two.
“We made a video then, and a few guys saw it and then a load of people saw it and then a load of newspapers picked up on it. The Irish Independent did an article on the two of us … So a whole heap of people wanted to come in and join so we created our survivalists group on Facebook. That took off then. I mean after a few TV interviews and stuff like there were people coming out of the woodwork.”
One of which was David O’Conaill, an ex-military prepper who had taken interest in the movement in his teenage years. Following a childhood as a devout member of the scouting movement and various tours of war zones, O’Conaill understands firsthand the need for survivalism in a modern world.
“I was a scout myself and it emcompasses all that “be prepared” mentality, and then I just kind of brought that to adulthood. As you’re going out, always have a plan and a backup plan, carrying a knife or a lighter, whatever it is.”
“I’ve been in war zones … I’ve seen what it’s like if you’re left with nothing, and I’ve seen hard times. So just make hay while the sun shines.”
And this, it seems, is the mantra of many members’ beliefs – “prior preparation prevents poor performance”.
In order to facilitate this, the group is divided into two schools of thought: survivalism and prepping.
For Deegan, erring more on the side of survivalism, the development of bushcraft skills is his prime focus. From lighting fires to foraging for food, Deegan believes in the power of “bugging out” – needing nothing to be able to survive.
I’ve seen what it’s like if you’re left with nothing, and I’ve seen hard times. So just make hay while the sun shines
To O’Conaill however, the solution is not quite so primal.
“As a prepper, I’ve been stockpiling … I have supplies here and I have been off grid. We bought a house and got solar panels and gas barrels and so I’ve done as much as I can … not relying on the system.”
“As regards to the bushcraft and survival side of it, I’m not too much into it. I go to the camps and have a few beers and I set up a tent and I’m saying: ‘Lads, I’m living in luxury here, I’ve a blow-up bed and a sleeping bag. I’m happy out’.”
“But some of the boys would string up a hammock and they’re like: ‘This is me, I’m done’. Credit to you – but there’s two different sides of the spectrum.”
So what are they waiting for, precisely? Zombie attacks? Nuclear warfare? An alien invasion?
“People don’t have a clue what’s out there”, laughs Deegan. “To be honest with you, there’s supervolcanoes in America, teetering on … they’re way overdue to explode. Yellowstone [in Wyoming] is a massive supervolcano that’ll do more damage than an asteroid.”
“Then you have Apophis, that’s just one. If you listen to any of the guys from the Scientific Committee and NASA, whatever. Anytime today, tomorrow, in 10 minutes, we could be hit by a meteorite we haven’t seen that comes out of the sun’s direction.”
He continues: “You have earthquakes, you have volcanoes and tornadoes or hurricanes. Because we live in an extremely stable country, the only thing that is really going to upset us is a pandemic and maybe an EMP [electromagnetic pulse] from Russia or China for England. We’d get the arse end of that. That’s all the stuff that we look at, where I’d say you wouldn’t think about that at all would you?”
Anytime today, tomorrow, in 10 minutes, we could be hit by a meteorite we haven’t seen that comes out of the sun’s direction
And frankly, he’s right. Throughout my conversations with O’Conaill and Deegan, this rings true – most of these conjured scenarios have never even entered my realm of thought.
But what happens when they do?
“You can let your life be ruined by this stuff” O’Donaill concedes. “It can consume you. You can spend a lot of money on this.”
O’Conaill agrees. “It is a kind of a rabbit hole, once you get into it you can go down several different options. You can get really paranoid and really into it. Building bunkers and NBC [nuclear, biological and chemical] filtration systems and all this kind of stuff. Or, you could have a fella that’s just kind of got a cupboard with a couple of tins of beans and rice and pasta and that’s him done, he’s happy as well.”
So, for a group peppered across all ends of the survivalism spectrum, what is the uniting force?
“It’s more of a social club than anything. Comradeship. You know, you’re all in this together you have the same ideology, the same thoughts. I mean, I’ve got some great friends out of it, some really good friends and again, you’re building up that trust alliance that if something does happen, I trust them and they trust me and I can help them out”, muses O’Conaill.
“Friendship was the biggest thing and the sense of camaraderie and knowing that there were other like-minded people out there. They come from all walks of life: there’s solicitors or doctors, there’s guards. Obviously there’s ex-military or serving military.”
Though travel restrictions and public meetups may have hindered the survivalists’ ability to congregate in large groups for most of the past year, members have managed to continue to communicate online through Deegan’s Facebook group.
“Some of the boys are showing how to forage and stuff, which is really interesting. If someone knows how to grow tomatoes then they’re helping out on that. With solar panels, there’s electricians who will show you what will work better for you or how to work out battery packs and that kind of stuff. And again, there’s peer reviews, so going, ‘what do you think of this lads, what did you think of that?’”
It’s more of a social club than anything. Comradeship. You know, you’re all in this together you have the same ideology, the same thoughts
And while many social groups and clubs saw their slow demise in numbers as a result of the pandemic, the Irish Survivalists Group saw an influx of interest.
Coming in around 2,500 members before the pandemic, the group’s page now boasts over 2,800 members – along with a palpable air of validation.
“I never thought a pandemic would do as much damage, but we were always aware of pandemics”, reveals Deegan.
“Are we smug? Well, a bit of smugness about it when they turn around and say, ‘oh, you’re a prepper are you? Oh very good, okay, now we believe you.’”
For O’Conaill too, there seems to be a greater awareness amongst the general public – the “zombies”, as the group so affectionately has dubbed them – that prepping, to a certain degree, is now seen as a logical thing to do.
“The big thing for me would be the validation … a lot of my friends came to me afterwards going: ‘How do I get into it? How do I start?’”
“It’s nice to see that most people have taken it a bit more seriously, that the likes of these prepper groups have exploded in numbers and it’s more mainstream, a bit more accepted by society.”
Though neither hold much hope for the future of the zombie population.
Despite a newfound proclivity for toilet-roll hoarding, both Deegan and O’Connail remain unconvinced that many Irish people will remain prepared for any future disaster.
“Thankfully we’re on top of the vaccinations”, says O’Conaill, “but something like this could hit with a higher mortality or higher infection rate or could be airborne or could be waterborne. You could get hit with a drought and can’t get food in or an oil crisis or a really bad winter with a storm or something and people are gonna be caught with their pants down – pardon the French.”
The same rings true for Deegan.
“It’s like everything, in a couple years’ time you forget all about the pandemic. It’ll move on to something else.”
But if the likes of the Apophis kicks in?
“Then, it’ll be every man for himself.”