By Tomás Ó Somacháin
On Thursday, 18th May, 1972, a major riot erupted at Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison. This was the most destructive, violent and costliest disturbance ever to occur in an Irish prison. At the time, Mountjoy was the main prison in the Republic and accommodated approximately 500 prisoners – 35 of whom were Provisional IRA who were located on B2 landing in the prisons B wing.
This cadre of prisoners had been agitating for some time for better conditions and in particular for a move to a prison separate from what they termed ‘common criminals’. Against this background it was somewhat ironic that they saw no contradiction in using such prisoners to further their aims in wrecking the prison and that one of the first casualties of rampaging prisoners during the riot was new equipment that had been installed in the prison kitchen in the months leading up to the riot.
At the time I was a prison officer at Mountjoy and having completed my tour of duty at 5p.m., had gone to the staff quarters where after having tea, retired to my room for a rest as I intended engaging in my normal Thursday night social routine – a few pints in the Hut pub at Doyle’s corner, followed by a visit to the nurse’s dance in the Irene ballroom on Parnell Square.
However, at approximately 7.40p.m., I was rudely awakened by the frantic banging by a colleague on my door who informed me that all staff were required in the prison as a major disturbance was taking place. I immediately dressed and returned to the prison where a scene of total chaos greeted me. Mountjoy staff, staff from nearby St. Patrick’s Institution and Gardaí from local stations were arriving in numbers and milling around the entrance to the prison awaiting deployment.
In common with other staff, I was issued with rudimentary riot gear – a white old style motorcycle helmet and a 14-inch timber baton and was deployed to the circle area. By this time all staff who had been on duty in the wings at the start of the disturbance had been withdrawn to the circle area for safety due to the ferocity of the rioting. The circle is separated from the four wings – A, B, C and D by a grillage on all three levels. Metal gates give access to all landings.
Shortly after my arrival in the circle area, groups of prisoners began throwing debris down into the circle area, forcing staff to retreat through the circle gate to the administration area. One group of staff had a lucky escape when a heavy cell door was dropped from A3 landing, shattering the stone flags beside where they were standing.
By this time Gardaí had secured the perimeter wall both inside and outside. Those in the prison grounds were being subjected to a barrage of slates and missiles by groups of prisoners who had broken through the roof. This in turn attracted a large crowd of ’supporters’ and media who had gathered on the canal at the rear of the prison and the North Circular Road entrance at the front.
The withdrawal of staff from the circle prompted a concerted attack upon the circle gate by prisoners wielding iron bars, which had been broken from the landing catwalks. During this assault, the ‘OC’ of the IRA prisoners shouted to the Chief Officer: “You may as well open up Chief, we are coming through anyway.” In any event, the circle gate held firm and bore the scars of this assault for several years before eventually being replaced.
The disturbance had begun on B2 landing at 7.30p.m. lock-up when the IRA prisoners located there had overpowered the three staff on the landing, taken their keys and bundled them off the landing. They quickly barricaded the gates to the landing while some of them climbed up to B3 overhead which housed ordinary prisoners, and despite their stated distaste for same, quickly enlisted their aid in proceeding to wreck the prison.
This disturbance quickly spread to the other three wings that were in the process of being locked up. Within minutes all four wings were in uproar and by 8.30p.m. the riot had reached its peak with some cells of fire, toilets and light fittings smashed and water flowing from broken pipes.
Around this time, the arrival of an army riot squad in the prison grounds coincided with a reduction in the noise level in the prison – possibly the sight of the army personnel in full riot gear carrying shields and three-foot long batons sent a significant message. The arrival of the army, however, had the opposite effect on the ‘mob’ of the North Circular Road who had overturned and set fire to a number of vehicles, including a Garda car. This forced the Gardaí to mount a baton charge to allow the army trucks access to the prison. In the event, the army were not deployed but remained on standby on the grounds until order was restored.
About the same time, Chief Officer Lee and two assistants entered the wings in an attempt to negotiate an end to the riot; however, they were promptly taken hostage and held against their will while the ringleaders discussed their response. During this tense time, some hair-raising threats were made, including one that the CO should be hanged, however, reason prevailed and they were soon afterwards released unharmed.
It is noteworthy that when the Minster of Justice, Des O’Malley, visited the prison in the early hours of the morning, he promoted CO Lee to the highest uniformed grade in the prison service – that of Chief Officer class 1. This was in recognition of his bravery and calmness during the riot and was the only time in the history of the service that such a promotion was made.
ROUNDING UP PRISONERS
At approximately 10p.m. a decision was made to retake the prison and to this end a large body of prison staff and Gardaí were deployed into the wings. They met little resistance but were faced with a scene of almost total destruction. Army engineers quickly rigged spotlights in the circle to illuminate the wings.
This and the torches were the only light available to staff as they commenced rounding up prisoners and securing them in any serviceable cells they could locate. A large group of approximately 80 prisoners were secured in the A workshops while work continued throughout the night to remove broken furniture, fittings and debris and to bring as many cells as possible into use.
The prison was finally secured by about 2a.m. and most of the Gardaí and the Army were withdrawn, however, most prison staff remained on duty for the remainder of the night and indeed most of the next day. The Provisional IRA prisoners who had orchestrated the riot were moved to military custody in the Curragh the next day and over the course of the following week approximately 100 prisoners were transferred to the newly furbished prison in Cork, which fortunately was just about ready to open when the riot occurred.
No escapes occurred during the riot and thankfully apart from cuts and bruises there were no serious injuries sustained by either prisoners or members of the security services. Due to prison kitchen being out of commission, it was necessary to source packed meals for prisoners for a number of days from fast food outlets in the Phibsbrough area that were no doubt glad of the business.
In the aftermath of the riot, the usual ‘post-mortems’ were held. This resulted in a rethink as to how subversive prisoners would be managed in the future, while from a staff perspective one positive outcome was a renewed emphasis on staff recruitment and training plus the provision of proper and long overdue riot equipment.