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hunger strikes

'They set out to cause serious injury': 35 years since 200 were hospitalised in 'the Battle of Merrion Street'

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of a confrontation between gardaí and protesters on the doorstep of the British Embassy.

Soccer - World Cup Qualifier - Group Two - Belgium v Ireland Ireland fans at a match in March 1981 commemorating the hunger strikers EMPICS Sport EMPICS Sport

THIRTY FIVE YEARS ago the Irish public found itself watching the most heated and visible political protests of the Troubles unfold.

Five-years of opposition by prisoners in Belfast’s H-Block that started with the blanket protest in 1976 had come to a head with the 1981 hunger strikes.

Led by 27-year-old former coach builder Bobby Sands, on 1 March of that year Republican prisoners began refusing food.

By 18 July, six of the men – including Sands – had died from starvation.

The campaign by the men was based around five demands focused on their being treated as political, rather than criminal, prisoners.

The demands were as follows:

  • The right to wear their own clothes,
  • The right to refrain from prison work,
  • The right to freely associate,
  • The right to organise their own leisure activities,
  • The restoration of the remission (reduction of sentence) that had been lost during the protest. 

IRA Hunger Strike 1981: Bobby Sands funeral The funeral cortege for hunger striker Bobby Sands AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

With tensions reaching boiling point, a march to the British Embassy in Dublin was organised for 18 July 1981 to show support for the hunger strikers in the face of opposition from the British government – an event that would later be dubbed the ‘Battle of Merrion Street‘.

Protecting the embassy 

On a summer day that saw temperatures hitting 18 degrees, more than 10,000 people took to the streets of Dublin for a march that began peacefully.

By sunset, 200 people had been hospitalised in violent clashes between gardaí and protesters.

The scene of the confrontation was the doorstep of the British Embassy on Merrion Road.

Arriving at its junction with Simmonscourt Road, a group of around 500 protesters found them face to face with gardaí intent on damage being done to the building behind them.

No doubt, many of the 2,000 gardaí on the street of Dublin that day were intent on preventing a repeat performance of events nine years previous.

In 1972, following the killing of 14 unarmed protesters in Derry on Bloody Sunday, violence exploded on the streets of Dublin with gardaí unable to prevent the destruction of the British Embassy.

TirEoghainLad / YouTube

This time around the State had bulked up security in advance of the protest – shelling out £310,000 on garda subsidence and overtime for the day.

Pick-axe handles and ripped up bollards  

Speaking in the Dáil following the 1981 riot, then Minister for Justice Fine Gael’s Jim Mitchell said that a “substantial minority” in the crowd had:

Set out, from the very beginning, to cause serious personal injuries to members of the Garda Síochána and extensive damage to public and private property.

Mitchell said he had become aware that protesters travelling down from the North had purchased pick-axe handles on the journey down, and were seen carrying them during the march. They had also be seen tearing up bollards in the Ballsbridge area, he said. 

While 150 of the 200 hospitalised had been gardaí, according to the then justice minister, it was also noted that both himself and An Garda Síochána accepted that innocent people had been caught up in a baton charge.

A baton charge… is of its very nature not something that can readily discriminate between those who are leading the violence and others who may be passive or even innocent.

The strikes end

The 18 July riot was a flashpoint of aggression in fraught time for Anglo-Irish relations.

Just over a month later four more hunger strikers would be dead, and the protest called off with both nationalists in the North and the British government claiming victory.

During its 217 days, 10 strikers died, with 61 people killed in sectarian violence that took place during the seven months of the strike. 

Read: Gerry Adams: ‘We are not Fine Gael or Labour. We are proud of the men and women of 1916′

Also: Iran wanted films of the Irish struggle… we wanted to send them nature docs

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