Being bitten by drug dealers and stabbed with syringes “went with the territory” for undercover cop Michael O’Sullivan.
At just 22, Michael became a member of a secret Irish National Police unit when Dublin was in the throes of its first heroin epidemic in the early 1980s.
As the problem “multiplied”, the city became a “dangerous and crime-ridden area” – and it was “disastrous for law enforcement”, says Michael.
“The situation in Ireland – it was like Mexico,” he told Sky News.
“There were people who were obviously being kidnapped in Dublin. There were two or three bank robberies in the country a day.
“You had gunmen going into country towns and robbing three banks at the same time.
“It was chaotic.”
Frustrated by the Gardai’s failure to tackle Dublin’s heroin problem through conventional methods, Michael began working with an undercover team known as the Mockeys who posed as drug addicts to catch traffickers in flagrante delicto.
But faced with the prospect of lengthy prison sentences, dealers are reportedly turning to violent tactics in an attempt to evade arrest.
“A lot of us got our fingers bitten off,” says Michael.
“You were getting bitten by guys who might have AIDS.
“There were a lot of injuries. A guy was hit with a hammer. A guy was bitten four times. (There were) black eyes, stitches.
“People lost teeth. One guy broke his jaw.
“Downtown was a tough place.
“Many of these people were violent criminals anyway. You stand between them and five years (in prison) – and they didn’t care how they got away.
“They were transforming like animals. It was fight or flight.
“A guy on a balcony on the top floor tried to push me over the balcony and I had to hang on for life…I was about five floors up.
“Thinking back, it was hairy.”
“Terrifying” undercover work
Michael says he’s never done drugs but grew up in a tough part of Dublin – where someone in his class was ‘done for murder’ – so he could ‘talk’ during his undercover work.
He was also “very light”, weighing 10 and a half stone and standing 5ft 9in tall, he barely met the minimum height requirement to serve in the Gardai at the time.
“You could sit on a wall or in a park with all these addicts for about an hour, an hour and a half, swapping stories,” he says. “Then you went and made the purchase.
“Was I scared? I was terrified.
“You were operating on adrenaline.
“You don’t have a radio. You leave your gun at the office. You have your ID card in your sock.
“You walk into these apartment complexes and other drug addicts assault or rip you off.
“Some jobs didn’t work out.
“You came in and you were just hoping for the best.
“It was terrifying but you’re young, you feel invincible.”
Michael spent around six years working undercover before rising to the rank of assistant commissioner at the Gardai and then heading the European drug smuggling agency.
Now retired, he appears in a new Sky documentary, Narcos Dublin, about the city’s illegal drug trade, from the introduction of heroin in the late 1970s through the 1990s, when the cocaine and ecstasy flood the country.
The three-part series, from the team behind the BAFTA-winning documentary Liverpool Narcos, shows how the notorious Dunne family became one of Ireland’s most terrifying gangs and delves into the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin , who had worked to expose the drug lords. .
Protecting the family from the “dark side of life”
Michael, who arrested Micky “Dazzler” Dunne for drug trafficking, says it was “odd” to see fellow family member Christy being interviewed for the show.
“It was like looking at something in the past to see it,” he adds.
“It brought back memories – some of them not so good.”
Michael says his family didn’t know his job involved meeting dealers and pretending he wanted to buy drugs until they watched the documentary.
“My kids weren’t there at the time – my wife knew I was doing surveillance and drug stuff,” he says.
“You see the dark side of life. When you come home, you don’t talk about it.
“You close the door on it in your head. It’s the only way…not to worry the people at home.”
Ex-addict who used heroin for 37 years
As well as showcasing efforts to tackle drug trafficking in Ireland, the series hears the stories of former drug addicts, including former heroin addict Paul Tracy.
He first injected the drug in Dublin at the age of 18 and continued to use it for 37 years before finally getting clean at the age of 55.
Now 59, the hairdresser says doctors told him he had just five years to live when he was 22 after he tested positive for HIV, which was linked to his drinking heroin.
“I had a promise of five years if I stayed healthy. If I had to use (heroin) I wouldn’t last two years,” he told Sky News.
“I thought I’d rather be two on my terms.
“It was a time of self-destruction.”
He adds: “I was a little excited. It was irrational.
“(I thought) ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die young’. I’ve had visions of my heroic, young death. It’s crazy. I can’t even explain it to you.
“I was looking forward to telling some people.”
“Heroine Takes Your Soul”
Despite being diagnosed in 1985, Paul says “incredibly” that the HIV virus has now been undetectable for over 25 years.
Describing his first heroin use, he says: “This thing made me feel really cool and relaxed and I liked the kind of person I was.
“Once the narcotic effects wore off within an hour or two, I had this nice feeling – a false feeling, maybe – that I was in control, calm and feeling good. were together.
“I actually liked this new person who appeared in the midst of drugs. It was a very dangerous thing, this attraction to me.”
But as his addiction grew – which at its peak saw him take two grams of heroin a day – he turned to fraud to fund his habit.
“There’s a poverty mentality around heroin because you can’t get enough of it,” he says.
“Any time you see 20 pounds, that’s a get well card.
“The obsession was so deep inside me that I needed to break the obsession.
“I could go cold turkey all the time. I could never get over it. The obsession was always with me. I needed something to break that.
“Everything else takes your money, your reputation. Heroin takes your soul.
“Nobody can take heroin and keep their soul.”
Dublin Narcos is available to watch on Sky Documentaries and Now TV from today.