5. The Battle of Belfield 1975

Belfield’s most serious political disturbance to date.

UCD’s ‘official’ history is detailed in the President’s Office section of the UCD website. Presented as a timeline, it deals only with formal, ceremonious events such as the completion of the Water Tower in 1972 or the transfer of the Agriculture faculty to Belfield in 1979. In doing so, it ignores UCD’s rich social, often radical, history. Many of these stories are today just echoes and shadows around Belfield campus with no plaques to mark their importance.

One event that has been long overlooked is the so-called ‘Battle of Belfield’, a riot that saw UCD students and members of the Gardai fight pitched battles up and down the concourse outside the Arts Block and restaurant. [1] [2] It was Belfield’s most serious political disturbance to date.

In January 1975, Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave visited Belfield to have lunch with the college’s president Dr. Thomas Murphy, the US Ambassador to Ireland Mr. John D. Moore and an American multi – millionaire businessman, Mr. Edward Ball, who was in UCD to present a cheque of $100,000 (£42,000) towards the cost of financing a new Chair of American History. Ball, a descendant of the first United States president, George Washington, made the presentation on behalf of the Alfred I. duPont Foundation of which he was a Director.

From left: Mr. John Berlin (Assoiciate of Mr. Ball), Dr. Murphy (UCD President), Mr. Ball, Mr. John D. Moore (American Ambassador) and Mr. Kevin Mallen (American Irish Foundation)

From left: Mr. John Berlin (Assoiciate of Mr. Ball), Dr. Murphy (UCD President), Mr. Ball, Mr. John D. Moore (American Ambassador) and Mr. Kevin Mallen (American Irish Foundation)

UCD’s Students’ Representative Council (predecessor to the Students Union) decided to picket the function “in protest at the proposed fifty per cent increase in fees in the university and cutbacks in maintenance and tuition” recently implemented by authorities. The UCD Republican Club and other students saw the visit of the Taosieach as an opportune moment to also protest about wider issues such as the “failure to grant political status to prisoners in this country.”

Betty Purcell, who was Vice-President of the Student’s Representative Council at the time, remembers that students “gathered on the steps of the Arts building and (outside the) canteen”. [3] While student protests in Belfield were fairly common, many students were shocked by the numbers of Special Branch men policing the demonstration.

As The Irish Times reported, the first sign of trouble came when the Special Branch “discovered that the tyres of two of their cars had been deflated”. In response, they called for Gardai reinforcements from Donnybrook station. Purcell feels that, in general, the protest was all in “fairly good spirits until there was an attempt to arrest some students, which caused people to become quite angry and upset.”

Gardai trying to arrest a student

Gardai trying to arrest a student

An attempt to overturn an unattended Special Branch car led to a Garda baton charge. Three female students were injured in what an SRC statement described as an “indiscriminate” attack.

Running battles between police and students on main concourse

Running battles between police and students on main concourse

Running scuffles led to at least one garda being injured and requiring treatment for arm injuries in nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital.

Injured garda

Injured garda

The Irish Times accounts how the Taoiseach had to finish up his lunch early to be “led out a back door and driven away in a private car”.

An SRC statement which was released later that evening called the presence of Gardai on campus “a challenge to academic freedom … which only inflamed the situation” and dryly noted that “if the Taoiseach feels he needs an escort everywhere he goes, he should refrain from making public appearances”.

Purcell, now a television producer in RTÉ, felt that the altercation with the police “did serve to radicalise many students who up to that day would have naturally regarded the Gardai as a friendly force”. College Authorities tried to suspend individual students for their involvement in the protests but after interventions from the Student Representative Council this was not pursued.

Four days after the riot, 300 students protested against the presence of Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Garret Fitzgerald, who was in UCD to attend a meeting of the university’s Fine Gael Cumann. Over a hundred students entered the room to ask the Minister questions about the Government’s recent proposals for higher education and the UCD authorities’ recent warning of a possible 50% increase in fees. [4] A day later, 50 students occupied the Administration Building for over 12 hours to protest against the threatened fees increase. [5]

You’re not likely to find these events or any like them in the ‘official’ account of the history of our college. It’s up to us to collate and retell them.

[1]Anon, “Gardai and students in clash at U.C.D.”, The Irish Times, February 1, 1975
[2]Anon, “Students’ demo at U.C.D.”, The Irish Independent, February 1, 1975.
[3]Percell, Betty, 2009, Email to author, 28 January 2009.
[4]John Armstrong, “Fitzgerald heckled as 300 picket U.C.D. visit”, The Irish Times, February 4, 1975.
[5]Anon, “Students occupy U.C.D. building in fees protest”, The Irish Times, February 5, 1975.

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One response to “5. The Battle of Belfield 1975

  1. Justin Mc Carthy

    If I remember the ‘Socialist Society’ managed to overturn one (marked) squad car
    and Sinn Fein managed to ‘borrow’ the SRC’s only megaphone at the same time as the BBC news crew arrived (about an hour after the riot) . The BBC’s evening news had an item about students in UCD rioting as part of a protest against internment in the North of Ireland……..Gerrymandering……cutaways of the Shinners speaking to the masses about internment….staged for the BBC news crew.
    The Socailist Society was run by a ( now) well known RTE Producer.
    God knows…..but does anyone remember the two weeks in 1974 when cannabis was legal in Ireland?

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