In inner-city Dublin, the name Lugs Brannigan will still be met by a story or two. Donal Fallon recounts a man far too familiar with his fists.
Lugs’ is the Garda who has most left his mark on this city. He is historically associated with the states response to changing youth cultures of the city, and also with the emergence of the infamous Garda ‘Riot Squad’ to tackle gang violence.
“The citizens of Dublin owe an immense debt of gratitude to Jim Branigan for his great contribution to fighting the criminals of his day in Dublin city until his retirement in 1973.”
Thus wrote a certain Mr. Haughey when reflecting on Jim in the foreword for Bernard Neary’s biographical work. Yet among the youth of the city Jim was a rather divisive figure, if not a respected one.
The name Jim Branigan perhaps wouldn’t instantly ring bells with younger Dubliners, But few knew him as Jim in his day. He hailed from James’ Street in the city, joined the Garda Siochana in June 1931, at the age of 21.
A great debate exists around the origin of the nickname Lugs, and whether it had been bestowed upon him as a younger and keen amateur boxer owing to his cauliflower ears, or if the nickname was handed to him by a Dublin criminal in the 1940s, as legend suggests.
Regardless, it was said not to be a wise choice of words for a young Dubliner to refer to Garda Branigan as Lugs. What separates this particular Garda from any other then? To get to the root of that, one has to look at the broader context of early 1930s Dublin. This was a period which saw the re-emergence of youth gang culture in the city, leading to the emergence for example of the infamous ‘Animal Gang’.
Branigan, assigned to Kevin Street station in 1936, would rapidly make a name for himself for his hands-on approach to gang violence in the city. Hands-on is of course a nicer way of saying ‘very physical’.
The ‘Animals’ were based around Corporation Buildings, and the gang had emerged out of the printers strike of 1934, made up mainly of young news-vendors and under-employed youth. They were not, as folk memory sometimes suggests today, some sort of Blueshirt gang ‘for hire’, but rather groups of young men formed on geographic lines, tending to come from the same line of (or lack of) employment. Their exploits (or supposed exploits) can be traced in the newspaper archives today, showing a city wide hysteria over youth gang violence.
Branigan was crowned Leinster Heavyweight Champion boxer in 1937. He himself noted that this commandeered a certain respect among the youth of Dublin, saying he was able to “approach the Animals, search them and talk down to them without being assaulted or subjected to verbal abuse.”
The Animals emerged out of the same part of the city which witnessed the infamous Dublin Metropolitan Police Riot and attack upon flats they believed to be the heartland of the 1913 Lockout. In an area with such a troubled relationship with physical policing historically, Lug’s approach to the Animals would prove divisive. Branigan was a leading figure in both the Battles of Tolka Park and Baldoyle which saw lengthy jail sentences dished out to leading gang members, following physical altercations with Gardaí at broken-up showdowns.
Branigan’s ‘Riot Squad’ of the 1960s however is the reason he is widely remembered today. Established in the mid 60s, the Evening Herald would note the ‘Squad’ had a “wonderfully deterrent effect on gangs of youths” but its approach was controversial.
Known as the ‘Red Cars’, they travelled in a car and van alongside British-trained Alsatians with the aim of pacifying the re-emerging gang culture in the city with a preference for physical discipline.They were also a sight outside closing dance halls. While a blind eye may have been turned officially, such actions only had a negative effect on how the force would be seen among working class Dubliners.
Branigan is an interesting character because he came through so many eras, not retiring until the 1970s. He was a familiar sight to not just ‘The Animals’ but indeed the Teddy Boys who followed, and the Show Band scene too. He recalled following the Sands Show Band, noting that “they attract a bad crowd, real bowsies. Although the lads themselves are very decent lads.”
It sounds comical today, but Lugs was on-top of every developing youth subculture in Dublin. It is also important to note that upon his retirement Branigan received a presentation from the prostitutes of Dublin, which left a lasting impression on him. A beautiful cutlery set, it was a gift from the women Brannigan would refer to as the ‘Pavement Hostesses’ of the city.
Illustration: Luke Fallon