At his retirement dinner in 1973, Chief Superintendent of the Gardaí Patrick Malone — a man not known for exaggerated statements — described Branigan as “one of those people who become a legend in their own time”. Born in 1910 in the Liberties, Branigan was a man of his era where heavy-handed policing was accepted — and for most citizens expected. He gained notoriety for his unorthodox but very effective policing style. ‘On the beat’ described how he used to carry around a pair of leather gloves, never worn, but always cocked in position, ready to ‘clip’ anyone that was making trouble.
These gloves were the least of worries for Dublin’s criminals as Branigan could give a ‘hiding’ to anyone that overstepped the mark, the notorious victims of these punches were wife-beaters and pimps. At 6’3 tall and 17 stone, a punch from this ex-Leinster Heavyweight boxing champion would send a thug clattering to the ground.
He also had a soft side which many historians critical of Branigan tend to overlook. In an era where domestic abuse was seen as a family issue and not to be investigated by the civil authorities, Branigan made it his unofficial personal mission to keep the vulnerable safe from their violent family members. Another group protected by Branigan were Dublin’s prostitutes — or “pavement hostesses” as Branigan referred to them as — who were particularly vulnerable to abuse from their unscrupulous pimps.
A comedic story of his policing style involves a rowdy crowd ruffling up a young fella at the door of a cinema because he wouldn’t let them in. The Gardaí were called and Branigan came onto the scene. One by one he gave them a kick and threw them down the stairs and stated that he never wanted to see them again, but one of them stood up again and barked back in a gruff manner to Branigan, “I know my rights”. The man was therefore dragged up to the top of the stairs again and was given another kick up the arse down the stairs. Dusting off his hands Branigan remarked, “now that’s the last we will ever hear of those”.
The Beginning of a Legend
Growing up the son of an official in the South Dublin Union, he lived somewhat of a sheltered life, but a modest one at that too, as his parents could only afford to send him to school until 14 years of age. Branigan inherited his father’s love for old Western films, the ideology of the Western sheriff keeping law and order in the town rubbed off on him. This is where he learnt the basic principles of ‘good versus evil’, and the importance of justice, courage, and fairness.
He gained from his mother the trait of fearlessness. Most people at the time in the Liberties would act submissively around British soldiers when they passed by, Branigans mother, in contrast, would have her shoulders back, head high, and would walk straight. She was also great friends of a lieutenant in the Irish Volunteers, William T. Cosgrave, which instilled in Branigan the patriotic sense of purpose and duty.
As a timid 14-year old, he left school but was unsure of the career path he would take. He was a devout altar-boy throughout his teenage years up until his recruitment into the Gardaí, although he never considered the priesthood, instead remaining a pious layman all his life. He began his fitter apprenticeship on the Great Southern Railways soon after leaving school. This is where Branigan learned resilience as he was severely bullied by the other workers for being an apprentice at a trade that was jealously guarded by the families of fitters that go back generations. Even though he was beaten by his peers everyday he never fought back, his meek personality at the time didn’t allow him to.
At the age of 21 his mother died, which made him reflect on the shortness of life. Realising that he didn’t want to be a fitter all his life, he left his apprenticeship, even after the pain and hardship it took for him to get to that position. The grimy conditions of the job and lack of intellectual creativity dissuaded him from pursuing this highly coveted job further. Talking to his friend one night, who was a member of the Gardaí, he decided that an Garda Síochána was the career for him. It was a respectable job, with a good pension, that involved reacting to unique situations every day, unlike the monotony of his previous fitter apprenticeship.
Putting on his Uniform and Boxing Gloves
When Branigan joined the force, the Gardaí were only newly instituted in Dublin. The previous police force in Dublin were the DMP, who were notorious for their aimless cruelty to Dublin citizens. Public prejudices still persisted against the police, so the Gardaí sought to make a new impression on the populace. His superiors emphasised the importance of discretion in the new Gardaí, as opposed to the black and white, ‘us versus them’ ideology of the old DMP. This emphasis on discretion allowed Branigan to institute his version of the old sheriff of the Wild West into Dublin. The DMP were infamous for their baton charges, the Gardaí officials sought to limit this practice, but Branigan took this one step further by refusing to use his baton altogether — his fists were sufficient for him.
From day one Branigan loved his job, he had finally found his higher calling. As boxing was becoming an exceedingly popular sport in Dublin, especially within the ranks of the Gardaí, Branigan found another love of his life. Initially he got battered around the ring, his slender frame did him no favours. He was paired up with a Garda colleague far more vicious than the still timid Branigan. For six days straight he took a beating, but Branigan was used to this level of pain from the severe bullying he received in his apprenticeship years.
The seventh day was a turning point for him, he took a wild swing that landed right on his opponent’s nose, his nose pumping blood made it an instant knockout. Branigan gained a sense of what it was like to be victorious when his opponent requested to never be paired up with Branigan again. The request was granted. If only the boys that bullied him on the railways could see him now.
As the years went by, his boxing skills — and his weight — increased to levels far superior to most of his peers. He moved onto the heavyweight rank, eventually winning the Leinster Heavyweight title. He went further afield fighting well-trained British opponents, but his toughest opponent was the German Champion Pietsch, a vicious German gladiator. This was at a time when Hitler was heavily promoting the myth of Aryan superiority through all aspects of life.
With high officials in the Nazi Party like Josef Goebbels in the audience, the pressure was on to for this German to preserve his title of being a “knock-out artist”. Branigan got knocked down nine times in total and lost on a technical knockout, which left his record of never being knocked out intact. Even though Pietsch won, the admiration was focused on the Irishman’s raw courage and bravery.
Concerns about brain damage from his doctor persuaded him to retire from the sport in his late twenties, but he maintained a presence in the boxing club by refereeing throughout his life. After 140 boxing matches and an even split between wins and losses, this was the biggest devastating blow he ever received in his boxing career.
Branigan’s First Foe
The ‘animal gangs’ were Dublin’s first introduction to gang culture. The 1930s was a decade of unemployment and economic depression; this economic hardship led to many of Dublin’s working-class residents congregating on street corners. These congregations slowly became disenchanted with the political system and became a liability for the courts and Gardaí. This coupled with the subversive influences emanating out of Hollywood in this period led to the formation of Dublin’s first gangs.
Although the Production Code of 1934 curbed many of the excesses of Hollywood’s films at the time, the new genre of gangster crime films perverted the morals of their American and European audiences. The films’ glamorisation of crime and their overt explanation of how different criminal activities operated seduced many of Dublin’s unemployed to emulate what they saw in the cinemas. Years later, sociology studies in the 30s and 40s proved this hypothesis to be true. Most Gardaí at the time were hesitant to confront these new menaces of society, until Branigan stepped up to face his first foe.
Emulating what they saw in the films, the ‘animal gangs’ had a set of honour codes. A Garda had to earn their respect, therefore, only Gardaí that showed no fear when confronting them would be able to get these gang members to comply with their orders. Even though Branigan was the youngest in the station, he became one of the most respected Gardaí there. Unlike the old DMP, whose tactic was to amass a large number of policemen and mount a baton charge, in the process indiscriminately swinging at anyone in the crowd. Branigan, in contrast, fearlessly “waded into the crowd and would sort out the ring leaders, which usually caused half the crowd to step down, thus, diffusing the situation.
A notable area where he showed his bravery was in his conduct with travellers. Usually Gardaí would turn a blind eye to brawls between feuding traveller clans — not Branigan. He would go straight into the brawl, give them a few ‘clips’, and carry them to the station. He also showed no fear going in alone into a traveller settlement to bring away suspects, this was unthinkable to other Gardaí at the time. As his reputation grew, so did his nickname ‘Lugs’. The origins of his nickname is unknown, but the thing that is known is that he’d give you a ‘clip’ across the face with his gloves if you ever had the gall to call him Lugs to his face.
The operations of the ‘animal gangs’ received a heavy blow with Brannigans intervention in the ‘Battle of Baldoyle’ of 1940. Leading up to this event, rival gangs started to have violent clashes with each other, most notably at soccer matches to the annoyance of the spectators and the government. These feuds often resulted in brutal stabbings or even murdered Gardaí on some occasions. The Baldoyle Races was the high point of these violent clashes. Brannigan’s suspicions of overly cheerful hooligans in the morning of the races were proven right when an estimated forty or fifty combatants fought each other in one of Dublin’s most infamous gang battles.
Brannigan’s meticulous note taking skills were of great help in bringing in suspects — within 48 hours all those involved in the battle were brought in for questioning. Those high up in the echelons of gang life sought to silence Branigan in court through intimidation, these attempts were futile as Branigan persisted along with the judge giving defendants a harsh sentence to signal to all the other gangs the consequences of their actions. The newspapers gave great esteem to Branigan for his decisive detective skills, which proved to be a key stepping-stone in his journey to legendary status. Another heavy sentence for gang members involved in the “Battle of Tolka Park” in 1942 — assisted along by Branigan — put an end to the ‘animal gang’ era, but a new era form of gang warfare would take its place.
The Rocking & Rolling of the Teddy Boy era
Just as Hollywood brought subversive influences into Ireland with their glamorisation of the criminal lifestyle in their films that resulted in the ‘animal gang’ era, so too did subversive music begin to play the same role in their demoralisation of Irish Catholics from the mid ‘50s onwards. This was the first time in Irish history that the youth didn’t follow the morals and outlook of their parents, and instead the new ideal was the lifestyle of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, all promoted by foreign capitalists. This new corrupting music initially escaped any form of regulation by the British or Irish government as it was transmitted on the most powerful privately owned radio transmitter in Luxembourg, known at the time as Radio Luxembourg.
This new rebellious behaviour was a worry for the Gardaí, especially after they thought the era of gang warfare had been curbed by Branigan’s defeat of the ‘animal gangs’. The new gang warfare would be centered around the antagonisms between the different youth subcultures. The first of these sub-cultures would be the infamous Teddy Boys. The Teddy Boys started in Britain in the early ‘50s, they were distinguished by their Edwardian attire and their “DA” (duck’s arse) haircut — and to the dismay of the public — also distinguished by their flick-knives. It wasn’t long until Dublin’s youths started imitating their British counterparts.
Around this time, Branigan started to refine his unorthodox policing style. Most ‘Teds’ relished the attention the press gave them, it gave them a sense of status, and it was an indication to others that they were ‘cool’. Understanding this, if Branigan thought that a Teddy Boy was putting it up to him, he would give them a well-timed slap across the face with his leather gloves. A youth ready for a brawl would instantly become a coward after this demeaning slap in front of his peers, some even broke out in tears at the shock of being humiliated.
Branigan refined the art of this slap to such a degree that he categorised the varying degrees of force he used, ranging from a “sting” for a boisterous youth to a “crack” for a dangerous hardened criminal. It wasn’t uncommon for criminals to have their eyes nervously fixated on his gloves due to the fear it brought them.
If a “crack” of his leather gloves weren’t sufficient, a punch from this ex-Leinster boxing heavyweight would be required. Just like his categorisation of different slaps, he designated his punches into different categories to fit the situation — also as a way to refrain from using the word ‘punch’ in court. A “clip” was a quick jab used to constrain a man, a “clout” was a more powerful punch used to restrain a dangerous man, and if the occasion really necessitated it — especially for unscrupulous wife-beaters — a “clattering” would mostly knockout a belligerent cold. All this came under the title of what Branigan called “summary justice”, which was greatly approved by the public and judges at the time.
Following his father’s rule at home of never allowing any vulgar language, Branigan accordingly never used slurs to classify the criminals he brought to court, although he didn’t shy away from calling evil by its correct name. A sample of the identifiers used for these troublemakers were “rowdies”, “blackguards”, “villains”, and “wasters”, expanding later to include the different youth subcultures like “mods” and “Beatlemaniacs”. As Branigan usually spent his mornings in court, judges became accustomed to what these different descriptives meant.
Just as Branigan studied the lingo of these new youths, these new youths soon understood the lingo of Branigan. After apprehending a defiant youth, he would give him the ultimatum that he was “either going or coming”, as in if they didn’t move off, they would be coming to the station. For the more hardened criminals that wanted a fight he would give them a choice, “fight me here — or take your chances in court”. This choice resulted in many ex-criminals thanking Branigan years later as he spared them from getting a criminal record, instead, giving them a “hiding” right there which made them reflect on their life choices.
Many times Branigan’s wouldn’t even have to get physical, his mere presence could stop a riot. Garda Mulhall recounts a riot in Inchicore where this exact event happened. Everyone was out on the street killing each other, it was absolute mayhem. Once Branigan stepped out of the car, the cry of “Lugs is here” caused the entire riot to stop instantaneously, it was remarkable.
Inner City Destruction and the Founding of the Riot Squad
The 1960s saw Dublin turn into a city of haves and have-nots. Living standards during this decade rose by 50%, but this new wealth mainly went to the newly prosperous middle class. The old industries of the working class were fading away, which gave rise to conditions of frustration similar to those experienced in Dublin during the rise of the ‘animal gangs’ in the 1930s. This coupled with many of Dublin’s inner city working class communities being uprooted and transferred over to soulless suburb towns like Ballymun created the perfect conditions for a new resilient and continuous form of gang culture to emerge.
At the time, facilities in these suburban towns were undeveloped and limited, therefore, youths began to travel into the city on the bus to pass the time. As most places of entertainment, like the cinema or the dancehall, were on during the night, these late-night bus routes became a dangerous place for Dublin’s citizens. The top deck of the bus turned into a no-go zone for those wanting to avoid any sort of confrontation with these violent gangs. If assaults did not happen on these buses, they would happen at the dancehalls in an encounter with a rival gang.
This new gang violence was the beginning of the five-fold nationwide increase in crime from 1963 to 1983 (adjusted for population growth). Horrific acts of crime were becoming so common that some members of the public started to consider arming the Gardaí as a solution to these crimes. One judge repulsed by the case of an elderly woman being assaulted by a young man, asked the courts legal staff about the legality of flogging as a punishment for this young offender.
Another development in the 1960s was the new occurrence of drunk and disorderly women. Women had previously been barred from pubs due to the worry that some mothers would spend the husbands wages on drink instead of upkeeping the house and children. With this new development, judges were now noticing that there were now nearly as many women being brought before them on drunk and disorderly charges as there were men.
Along with this gang culture, new youth subcultures began to emerge, most notably ‘mods’, ‘rockers’, and ‘skinheads’. These subcultures turned to fighting each other, instead of just the Gardaí. With all this disarray in society, the governments answer was to set up a riot squad headed by Branigan that would be able to police the entire city at night in a black Bedford van. As Branigan was pivotal for this operation — so pivotal that the riot squad was disbanded after Branigan’s retirement — the official code name of Bravo 5 was altered to Branno 5 by patrol headquarters. Soon his Garda colleagues began to call him Branno, a name he seemed to like, unlike the nickname ‘Lugs’ he picked up in his youth.
The black Bedford van also acquired a nickname, it was known by Dublin residents as the ‘Black Maria’, an archaic name for a Garda car. The riot squad was an instant success, according to the admissions of criminals themselves, it was a big deterrent on any street brawl that could emerge. The newspapers consistently praised Branigan and the riot squad, which was the beginning of Branigan being known as a legend amongst the public.
A notable area that the riot squad had to deal with was on the late bus routes out to Dublin’s suburbs, the press dubbed it the “bus wars”. For the first half of the 20th century, bus drivers and conductors were seen as respected members of society, if one were to attain this coveted job, they had to have their pious character verified by their parish priest and a Garda in their area. The age of politeness and good manners came to an end in the 1950s when the subversive foreign influences created a rebellious attitude in Ireland’s youths. Coarse language and rudeness became a common occurrence with Dublin’s youths who became estranged from the timeless values of their forefathers.
This was the least of the bus workers problems, buses soon became battlegrounds for rival gangs. Bus workers, knowing the effect Branigan had on Dublin’s criminals, asked for Branigan to monitor their bus routes at the most dangerous times. This was slightly impractical as the easily noticeable Bedford van alerted troublemakers to their presence but meant that trouble would erupt on other bus routes. 1965 was a turning point in the violence present on buses, usually gangs would fight each other but on one occasion a passenger trying to break up the fight was stabbed. A public uproar ensued which led to an uptick in the riot squads involvement in monitoring late-night buses. Branigan and his crew began to interrogate suspicious looking teens at notorious bus stops along with Branigan sitting alone at the top of the bus on known dangerous bus routes.
No Garda would have dared to go on these buses on their own to face these potentially violent crowds, but Branigan showed no fear. A group of rowdy youths would often board one of these buses and would go completely silent on encountering the sight of Branigan. The unaware passengers below would be in amazement at the instant change of atmosphere that would come over these youths. Another strategy that Branigan employed was merely boarding the bus and walking up the stairs to the top floor. A boisterous gang would instantly be paralysed in silence, or even remain motionless like a deer startled in headlights once they saw Branigan peek over the rails.
Even after these measures were introduced, the situation was still dire. Even though Branigan’s presence was an effective deterrent, he couldn’t be everywhere at once. A public debate ensued about how to properly handle the situation. All seemed to be in agreement that tougher policing and harsher punishments needed to be implemented. Again, flogging was brought up as a possible punishment for these ‘ruffians’ and ‘blackguards’, along with the suggestion that the Gardaí should monitor all bus stops, and even the suggestion that passengers should coalesce together and take on the gangs if fights ensued. A two-way radio between bus workers and the Garda station was introduced, but the measure that curbed the violence was the introduction of proper facilities into these newly built suburb towns in the mid-1970s. Youths no longer had to travel into the city to entertain themselves.
An end of an era
The late 1960s saw Branigan reach his late fifties, which at the time, would have been an age where you’d be referred to as an ‘old man’. Usually someone at this age and in his career would be preparing for or would already be in retirement. Branigan on the other hand disregarded the commonly held belief about someone of his age being a ‘has-been’. He still continued his rigorous workout routine along with the highly demanding role of leading the riot squad. Although in his head he still saw himself as the same invincible sheriff he was 20 years ago, there was signs of his stamina slowing down. Criminals began to notice this deterioration which led to many taking on Branigan for bragging rights. Due to his long 40-year career, Branigan accumulated a long list of enemies who would not hesitate at the chance of getting their revenge.
As the mandatory age of retirement for a Garda (60 years old) was approaching, Branigan applied for a three-year extension. These extensions were seldom handed out, but Branigan was in excellent shape for his age, so an acceptance of his application seemed likely. Branigan, who unlike others, dreaded reaching retirement age was ecstatic that the extension was approved.
During this period Branigan made many trips to America as a member of the Garda contingent on behalf of the International Police Force. The different policing strategy and atmosphere in America was quite perplexing to Branigan. Police in America had guns and were quick to draw their weapon or pepper spray. Branigan in comparison was accustomed to using just his fists and gloves.
With the Vietnam War protests raging around America at the time, Branigan was fuming at the liberty the police gave the protesters. Branigan was enraged that a rowdy protest like that could occur outside a place like the White House. “Oh, that wouldn’t happen in Dublin”, he exclaimed to his colleagues. One can only imagine what was going through one of the protesters’ heads when a mad Irishman like Branigan walked over to him to angrily lecture them about virtues of common decency and respect.
With the three-year extension coming to a close, Branigan assumed that another extension would be granted. To his dismay, the extension was denied. Branigan initially felt hard done by his superiors, he was strong in his conviction that he wanted to stay. The sentiment among his colleagues was confusion at first, but they eventually saw that the higher ups in the Gardaí were merely trying to save his reputation. The 1970s was a different world to the ‘30s and ‘40s, Branigan’s ‘summary justice’ was beginning to be seen as old-fashioned. Gardaí were now more susceptible to being dismissed if their use of force was considered excessive by the new morals of society. There was a possibility that Branigan’s ‘clips’ or ‘clouts’ would be labelled police brutality if an allegation was made against him, this would tarnish his reputation forever.
On his last night as a Garda, an uneventful night was suddenly interrupted by a 999 call from Upper Mount Street. As Branigan and the riot squad reached the destination, out popped a whole cadre of women from the shadows with a banner ‘Happy retirement, Jim’ etched on it. These were the prostitutes — or “pavement hostesses” as Branigan referred to them as — that Branigan had looked after all through the years. He was left speechless as he accepted the Waterford crystal and a canteen of cutlery from them.
These prostitutes weren’t the only ones to thank Branigan for his service, he received letters from all over the world and from the high echelons of Irish society. Not to mention the thanks he continually received on the streets of Dublin from either ex-criminals that he gave them a good ‘clout’ instead of bringing them to the station, as well as from the ordinary citizens he kept safe.
Weeks after his retirement, it came as a shock to him that the riot squad was being disbanded. It was no surprise to the rest of his Gardaí colleagues who knew that riot squad effectiveness was predicated on the presence of Branigan. As a replacement, the Gardaí set up a new unit of 20 detective-sergeants to patrol the city. His colleagues tried to cheer him up by jokingly explaining that it took 20 people to replace him.
Branigan was restless once retirement came around, his hectic schedule was suddenly free. Zhivago nightclub — a nightclub frequented by Dublin’s elite — noticing the respect Branigan received by everyone, offered him a job as ‘security superintendent’. Branigan jumped at the offer.
Ironically Branigan never achieved superintendent status in the Gardaí, even though there was no one more deserving. He later remarked that to get a promotion in the Gardaí one had to pull strings and to sometimes turn a blind eye to offences committed by friends of those high up in the Garda hierarchy. This was nothing an honourable Garda like himself wanted to get involved in.
He remained working at Zhivago nightclub for 10 years but had to retire from that affair as his physical condition deteriorated. Branigan was a proud man, he didn’t want to be seen as ever being sick. His son only found out that he pneumonia nine times throughout his life after he passed away. What got Branigan in the end was the tumour in his head, an area he banged about a lot during his boxing career. Hearing the news a pilgrimage of friends and family visited him regularly, including his Garda Chaplin who gave him great comfort in his final moments. These final moments were never acknowledged by Branigan himself, he always remarked to his visitors in his faint voice that he expected to be out of hospital next week.
News broke out suddenly that the legend that was Jim ‘Lugs’ Branigan had died. All newspaper obituaries admired the fortitude the man had, comparing him to a sheriff of the Wild West. A diverse multitude of mourners attended his funeral to pay their respects to the toughest gentleman Garda in Irish history.
Some historians or commentators would portray Branigan in a negative light, often focusing on his tough attitude towards Dublin’s criminals or even going as far as to primary highlight any mistakes Branigan made in his long career. These critiques are usually from people that have an overly idealistic view on how to handle crime, hugs and kisses don’t make streets safe, a firm hand that protects the vulnerable does.
Branigan is now an intricate part of Dublin folklore, but his life of virtue has slowly been forgotten about as the decades go by. Whenever the problem of lawlessness is discussed on the radio or in any media outlet for that matter, the quip ‘if only Lugs was around today’ is often remarked. Even someone like David Norris has a nostalgic view of Branigan.
They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing, and a second time, a bit later on, when someone says your name for the last time. One can only hope that Branigan’s second death never arrives.