Historical Experience

Retired Superintendent Matt Cosgrave

Interviewed 27 September 2021

H-BLOCKS RIOTS – 1981

‘THE BATTLE OF MERRION ROAD’

Retired Superintendent Matt Cosgrave speaks to the Capturing Our History Oral History Project about his memories of his time and his career in An Garda Siochána, which began in 1959. Matt is also a past president of our organisation, that is, he was President of the GSRMA, The Garda Siochána Retired Members Association. In this segment, Matt outlines his experiences of the July 1981 Ballsbridge riot, when supporters of the H-Block Hunger strikers (IRA and INLA prisoners on hunger strike in the H-Blocks), attempted to march on the British Embassy. The events saw over 200 people injured, 1 million pounds worth of damage caused and dozens of arrests. The riots (also known as ‘The Battle of Merrion Road’), led to the injury of several Gardáí, including Matt himself.

JOHN O’BRIEN: I know, Matt, like many colleagues during your time in Dublin City, Dublin City Centre, you were involved or you were part of the Garda contingent at major demonstrations and I think that was the case on 18th July 1981, a demonstration at the British Embassy. And, indeed, you had been there at the previous Embassy demonstration way back in 1972. But I think you are particularly talking this morning about what happened on 18th July 1981.

MATT COSGRAVE: Yes, John. In 1981 we were out at the junction of Lansdowne Road where the demonstrations were coming through towards the British Embassy at that stage was out in Ballsbridge. And there was two lines of Gardaí in the front line with our shields and there were barricades which we erected earlier on across the road which would be maybe about, you know, 10 or 15 yards away from us standing back, on the belief that they would stop, that the demonstration would stop at the barrier and they wouldn’t be able to come through and we would let through and that probably would contain them there. While we were expecting violence, but the type of violence that we confronted on that particular occasion was the worst I think I never saw anything like the hatred in the eyes of the people that we faced on that day.

MR. O’BRIEN: And this was a H-Block demonstration, Matt, yes?

MR. COSGRAVE: It was a H-Block demonstration. A lot of the people that were in the frontline came from Northern Ireland. They travelled down and the information came to us that they had stopped and bought cudgels and that type of stuff they throw. We were prepared for a certain amount of confrontation but nothing like what it turned out to be. They broke walls on both sides.

MR. O’BRIEN: And I think, Matt, at the very start a number of people were let through the Gardaí lines to present a petition at the Embassy itself?

MR. COSGRAVE: That’s true, John. They went through and they went to the American (sic) Embassy and they obviously (inaudible) whatever, the protestors.

MR. O’BRIEN: And then the trouble started at that stage, Matt, yes?

MR. COSGRAVE: Well the trouble started. They started throwing stones and missiles at us and we were poorly kind of ready for that because we had only short shields and short batons. And they threw, in fact, it was described by one of the inspectors there as like a shower of bullets, a shower of rain that was coming with all the missiles that were falling down on top of the Gardaí in the frontline. Needless to say, guards got injured and as guards fell because the blood was coming, you know, they were getting hit in the face and they were getting injured, and their hands that were holding the shields were damaged and I was also hurt and as a result –

MR. O’BRIEN: You had some serious injuries yourself I think, Matt.

MR. COSGRAVE: I did. I had very serious injuries both in my legs and my face. I got 60, around about 60 stitches altogether. I was three to four weeks out of work. But we all anyhow were brought to the hospital, St. Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin. So the demonstration lasted until; eventually, they pulled the barriers down. We couldn’t get at them when the barriers were up and when the barriers came down then we baton charged the crowd and they all then ran and we got the upper hand at that particular stage and restored order.

MR. O’BRIEN: What was it like in Vincent’s Hospital, Matt, because I know that it was a different time and place like in terms of how many of you were there and how the staff in the hospital reacted when they saw you.

MR. COSGRAVE: Well there was about 100 guards altogether I think injured at that time in various different units, some very serious and I was one of those that was probably injured fairly serious. I recall very well when I was walking into the hospital, I think there was three of us in the ambulance as we arrived at the door and there was a Sister, a nun, inside and she broke down in tears as she saw us coming in with our faces full of blood. And we were you know tended to effectively and efficiently by all of the staff in the Vincent’s Hospital. And, indeed, I understand that at some time later when the baton charge came and some of the others got injured that they also ended up in Vincent’s Hospital. But it was a frightening experience and the hatred, and you can compare it with what I am talking a little while ago, with the same hatred that was in the faces of the Greeks and the Turks facing each other as there was in that group of demonstrators on that day in Ballsbridge.

MR. O’BRIEN: A frightening time, Matt.

MR. COSGRAVE: A frightening time, yes.