'The first thing I saw was a guy punch a girl in the face'
What really happened in the Phoenix Park last weekend? We detail the events that marked a new low in Ireland’s relationship with drink, drugs and casual violence
FROM EARLY morning, Dublin’s Phoenix Park was thronged with cyclists, runners and families visiting the zoo.
Last Saturday dawned clear and sunny, a rare good day in a damp summer and a welcome contrast to the deluge of the night before.
It seemed like an ordinary summer day, except for the groups of young people who started arriving at about mid-morning.
The five-act gig headlined by Swedish House Mafia wasn’t due to start in the park until mid-afternoon but the first fans were already on the move.
They came toting carrier bags filled with drink cans and bottles; many had already broken into their stash and were discarding the empties.
Residents by the North Circular Road entrance to the park reported groups of youths pushing supermarket trolleys filled with drink. Over at the Chapelizod gate, gangs of youths started passing through the village from 11am, according to Cathy Norris, secretary of the local Tidy Towns committee.
Many tried to access the park by the pedestrian turnstile but became frustrated when they found it boarded up. Most were drinking and smashed their bottles against hall doors and garden walls when they were empty. Just one member of the Garda was on duty in the village, she says.
North of the park, the Halfway House pub on the Navan Road was doing a good trade, having erected a tent in order to sell drink in its car-park. It was selling cans of beer and cider for €2.50.
At the main gate to the park, on Chesterfield Avenue, four gardaí were stationed to oversee the arrival of thousands of concert-goers disgorged from shuttle buses from the city centre, which started operating at about 2pm.
Other fans arrived on foot up the quays, drinking naggins of vodka or transferring alcohol into plastic bottles before the security checks. The steps of the Criminal Courts complex nearby couldn’t be seen because of the surfeit of bottles.
Paul McQuaid, who runs the bike-rental shop at this entrance to the park, says he had never seen so many underage drinkers in his life. The kids coming off the buses were “lorrying into” full bottles of wine and vodka before they were confiscated, he says.
Large bins put in place to collect the empties were full long before the gig even started.
With the gates to the gig due to open at 3pm, the atmosphere across the park had already turned nasty. Fights started breaking out, while other young people passed out from their excesses.
Small children were pushed off their bicycles and drugs were being openly touted. Hopelessly outnumbered, the small number of gardaí on duty could do little to control events.
The gig was sold out, all 45,000 tickets, but it was clear that many young people had come without tickets. Some may have wanted to stay drinking in the park; others may have intended crashing the event.
The first act, Calvin Harris, was due on only 15 minutes after the gates opened. This left little time for people to enter the concert area in an orderly way, and contributed to the crush at the entrance. “The queue to get in was basically pushing and barging for 30 minutes,” one fan says. “It also would have been very easy for anyone who didn’t have a ticket to get in.”
In the ensuing melee, many fans say they weren’t checked on the way in. They say they could have brought in anything to the gig, and even entered without a ticket. But other fans say they were thoroughly checked, and that drink, when found, was confiscated.
Many weapons, including hammers and knives, were also confiscated, but it would become clear later that some attendees successfully smuggled drink, drugs and/or weapons into the event.
Some fans have pointed out that no sniffer dogs were present, as happens at other festivals overseas. Others said a failure to control entry using wrist bands made the event harder to control.
By now, there was trouble both inside and outside the concert area. Fans outside, in the park, were seen flinging bottles around and starting fights.
Families cowered inside the zoo to avoid the trouble, or cut through the grass to the car park, past fans urinating in full view, to make a quick exit. Drunken fans stopped by the ice-cream vans asking if they sold alcohol.
Some idea of the mayhem can be gleaned from social media sites and subsequent radio programmes. One woman saw a group of 10-15 youths fighting.
“They were jumping on top of each other, coming away with heads and faces bleeding, and their shirts ripped, I had to drive away quickly because they were landing on my car.”
“In my first five minutes there I saw a guy loaf a girl and bust her nose,” recalled one concert-goer, while another may have been describing the same incident: “The first thing I saw when got into the area was a guy punch a girl full force in the face.”
Things were particularly fraught during breaks between acts. An ambulance worker*, whose group treated more than 100 fans, said bottles were being thrown into the air or smashed over people’s heads.
One fan witnessed two young men slashing each other with broken naggin bottles, and another a fight between two girls.
YouTube footage shows images of bare-chested, bellicose youths kicking and punching each other in a bath of mud, while others join in on a whim. There is little evidence of meaningful intervention by security personnel.
“One man that was pushed, pulled out mace from his pocket and sprayed it in another man’s eyes in front of the whole crowd,” said concert-goer Sinéad Doyle. “It was horrible. At this point I decided it was way too dangerous and I wasn’t comfortable and decided to leave the concert.”
Large numbers of fans were described as being “out of their heads”. One group was seen using coins to scoop up cocaine from a tennis-ball-sized bag of powder; another used keys to deliver their hit.
Fans reported being offered ketamine and other pills of various hues. Some of the product on offer was new to Dublin, and was being sold under names such as “ghost” and “death”.
Large queues formed at the women’s toilets, leading to outbreaks of aggression.
A pregnant woman had drink thrown over her, while an attempt was made to overturn a Portaloo while it was occupied. Impatient fans kicked in the door of another toilet which was occupied by a couple for a long time.
The musicians on stage seemed unaware of the mayhem occurring among the audience and many fans said they were unaware of the violence or were successfully able to steer clear of it. Of those who witnessed violence, many avoided it and had a good time.
The on-site bars, which had been serving Heineken, wine and water, closed at 10pm. This area was well staffed by security, according to those present, and was largely free of queues.
Despite the subsequent focus on a hard core of trouble-makers, it was clear that the concert attracted young people from a wide variety of backgrounds and classes. However, many fans opted to leave early, some going even before the headline act.
The disorder continued as the fans dispersed before midnight, spilling out into the surrounding neighbourhoods for a time.
It took another day, however, before the full scale of the violence became apparent: two drug deaths, nine stabbings and 33 arrests leading to 70 charges.
Lee Scanlon (20), from Clonsilla, died after looking for help at the medical tent complaining of chest pains.
He was pronounced dead shortly after he was admitted to James Connolly Memorial Hospital Blanchardstown on Saturday evening.
Shane Brophy (21), from Swan, Co Laois, left the concert and died after becoming ill at a party in a friend’s house in west Dublin.
Two of the stabbing victims remain in hospital and one man has been charged with a knife assault on a fan.
Concert company MCD has rejected claims of inadequate security, saying that the 511 security personnel and 145 gardaí on duty exceeded the number required under its licence.
By last Thursday, the park had been cleaned up and the worst litter that could be seen was the dung left by passing horses.
Staff continued to pick the concert site clean as work continued on dismantling the stage. The site looked like a pasture through which a herd of cattle had passed, but no worse.
*This article was amended on 18/07/2012 to correct a factual error.