Running riot — Frank McNally on a manic night in Dublin

My eyes stung for no apparent reason, until I guessed it was pepper-spray floating on the breeze

I was out for a run when the Dublin riots started. And for most of an eight-mile route around the canals and city centre, there was no hint of trouble. Except for a few more sirens than usual, it was just another Thursday night.

Only when I cut across the top of Ground Zero – Parnell Square – were there signs of violence. Gardaí had cordoned off the east and south of the square, forcing me to avoid O’Connell Street.

A car burned in the distance, near Parnell’s statue and the city’s miniature Chinatown. But the crowds looking on were passive. And I thought that any skirmishes must have been minor until I arrived home to a text from a friend in America saying the scenes from Dublin were “nuts”.

That’s when I saw the videos of the bus and tram fires and realised that, right enough, the city centre had seemed a bit smokier than has been normal ever since Mary Harney banned coal.



An hour later, showered, I was back there, this time walking. The thing that had been a bus on O’Connell Bridge was by now an unrecognisable skeleton. The Luas fire had burnt itself out too. But the situation on the ground remained chaotic.

Gardaí were still scrambling to get a grip. A thin blue line of under-equipped officers – four or five at most – stretched across the great expanse of Westmoreland Street, trying to stop traffic and pedestrians.

On nearby and much narrower D’Olier Street, by contrast, a dozen guards in full riot gear cut off the approach to O’Connell Bridge.

There as elsewhere, a small number of vocal protestors sought to engage the shield-bearers in debate, the typical motion being: “You should be protecting the Irish – not fuckin’ foreigners”. One man who pushed the point (and a shield) received a reply in the form of pepper spray.

Some of the verbal abusers were more mobile. Groups of youngsters in hoodies or scarf-balaclavas zipped around side streets on mountain bikes, pausing occasionally to lob invective at Garda lines. I suppose they saw themselves as flying columns.

Or maybe not. It was predictable that the shops looted during the riots included Foot Locker. Whatever about being televised, the revolution will not be unshod, it seems.

Whereas, as someone joked on X/Twitter, the history section of Eason’s was probably safe from having its merchandise liberated by the “patriots” who had taken to the streets.

The official Liberator looked on, unimpressed. But then Daniel O’Connell had seen worse. One of his guardian angels still has a bullet hole from 1916. Bad as Thursday night was, the only missiles fired were the contents of bottle recycling bins and a few fireworks.


For some bystanders, appalled or otherwise, it was free entertainment. When riot police charged down Eden Quay at one point, they sent the crowds scattering. And yet the dominant noise was giddy laughter.

One young woman warned her friend: “Them lads would split ye, woman or not.” Even so, when the riot squad stopped at Liberty Hall, the crowds stopped too and resumed gawking.

This was the Abbey Theatre district, which has hosted a few riots in its time. And aptly, a scene of mild drama ensued there as a group of retreating protestors paused to divert road-work barriers into the path of traffic on Butt Bridge.

The play was directed by an agitated young man who strutted around, high on something (his own importance, perhaps) shouting at drivers: “Youse are not going to work in the morning”.

The stand-off lasted 20 minutes. Then the barrier police got bored and drifted away, and traffic resumed.


Bus services had stopped and taxis seemed scarce. So remembering that my daughter was working late in a restaurant near the war zone, I offered to rent a GoCar and drive her home to her flat in Rathfarnham.

The nearest available car on the Southside being the far end of Stephen’s Green, however, we arranged to meet at the bottom of Grafton Street and walk there together.

Then we discovered this was impossible. The shops of Grafton Street were a prime target now, so a phalanx of shielded gardaí had made College Green impassable. Two long detours from opposite sides later, I met Roisin at Leeson Street and drove her and a colleague – a 20-year-old recently arrived from Argentina – to their separate homes.

An hour later, GoCar returned to base, I walked home myself, reflecting that it had been a bad night for Dublin seagulls. On a normal Thursday, they would have been busy ripping open rubbish bags before the bin lorries came.

Tonight, the job had been done for them by rioters. There was rubbish everywhere. And yet the seagulls were in hiding – presumably having noted with alarm that Dublin’s humans had gone feral.

In Dame Street, my eyes stung for no apparent reason, until I guessed it was pepper-spray floating on the breeze. The bells of Christchurch struck 12.30am as I trudged homewards, heavy-legged, on a carpet of broken glass.