As the last of the broken glass makes its way into the bin from last week’s riots, one phrase in particular seems to be doing the rounds. “It made me ashamed to be Irish,” people said, shaking their heads solemnly. Or they wrote it online over re-shared videos of buses on fire or videos of anti-immigration chants.
On the ground on Thursday covering the unrest for foreign outlets, I was asked “what the rest of the world must think about us” as newswire images of rioters squaring off with riot shields hit newspaper landing pages across the globe. “We’re not all like that,” was the same nervous reassurance.
But just as people felt national shame over Thursday’s events, there were equally things that should make the people of Ireland feel proud. Because even in the chaos, the fear and the smashed up Footlocker, the everyday soundness of Irish people shone through.
It was there as my taxi was heading to the periphery of the growing riots. The taxi driver was heading home after this, he said. Despite living in Ireland for years, he suspected he could be a potential target for riot participants laying the blame for the country’s woes on immigrants. But, as we pulled into the empty rank, he saw a waiting group of older women with anxious faces and shopping bags. Instead of heading home to safety he set about trying to get them home. In turn, as rattled as they were, instead of hopping straight in and locking the doors, the women started performing logistical operations for the rest of the queue and scarce taxis available. “Where are you going? This lady’s heading that way. You can hop in with her,” came the calls down the line. It was like watching a military evacuation organised by women holding Arnotts bags.
The soundness was there as gardaí blocked other access points to the quays to corral the mob away from flashpoints. As a burning bus blocked O’Connell Bridge and the public order unit formed barriers along the streets, Rosie Hackett Bridge became the remaining access path to the other side of the Liffey. Crowds of students and workers trying to cross the city to get home on any available public transport that might still be running were wide-eyed at the sudden presence of gardaí in full riot gear blocking streets. But, as a group of rioters got either too close or too much of a threat to gardaí, the phalanx of riot shields hinged in a hammer swing from blocking the quays to moving down the street. Pedestrians found themselves caught between glass bottles being hurled and gardaí advancing on those throwing them. But, instead of pushing past each other to get away to safety, there were concerned looks for the others around. It was not “every man for himself”, it was “mind yourself there”. An Irish man ushered a woman in a headscarf along the path in a low and calm voice. “I don’t want you to walk alone, I don’t want you to be a target,” he said with the sort of gentle insistence associated with giving a friend a lift home, even though it appeared they had just met.
Down the street, one young woman in her very early 20s was trying to console her frightened and crying friend in Portuguese. But the crying friend seemed unable to move, frozen with shock or fear or other feelings too big to have a proper name. A burly pub security took one look and called out to them. “Yis’ll be all right in there,” he said lifting up the already closed metal gate to make room for them to pass under.
At one point a young man approached a member of the public order unit standing on the very edge of the line blocking a through road. The garda swung back, baton ready and the whites of his eyes showing. The young man had come up very quick and very close, he had his hood up and his intentions were unknown. “I’m sorry but could you tell me which way I can go to get back over on the north side,” he asked. The garda softened. “Ah, what you want to do is go around X and head up Y street,” came the good-natured response. In conflict training, journalists in other jurisdictions are taught to keep a wide berth from law enforcement in riot gear who do not have time to discriminate between threat or press. They will likely scream at you to get back if you try to talk to them. But here was someone feeling safe enough to ask for directions and a garda taking the time to give them. Despite the fear both men probably felt, it was overridden by soundness.
As the night went on, the rioters roamed about in separated packs trying to see where the action still was. It had the same air of teenagers trying to find where the house party was by wandering around aimlessly, periodically calling mates and checking voice notes. One boy tried to light a bin on fire before being told off by a grandmotherly Dublin woman on her way home in heels from dinner. It must have been a powerful “YOU STOP THAT NOW!” as he did indeed stop it and looked like he was about to cry as he ran off. She rolled her eyes and walked on, unperturbed.
At one point a group of men shouting about immigration stopped to look at the crowd walking by them, which happened to be a mix of nationalities. “I’m not racist, everyone’s welcome, they’re just not vetted,” one called out to us, as if he was worried he would cause offence. As if he was taking pains to make sure that, despite participating in public disorder, he hadn’t left us with a bad impression. That the Irish were still sound.
We cannot police what is and isn’t Irish. We have to accept that anti-immigration sentiment is here in Ireland and people who hold those views are still Irish. Just as those who find it abhorrent are also Irish. But we can still find pride in the glimmers of unique Irish soundness that shine through, even in our darkest moments.