The Formidable and Uncompromising, Detective Sergeant Jim ‘Lugs’ Branigan
Before the phrase “anti-social behaviour” was ever coined, Detective Sergeant Jim ‘Lugs’ Branigan declared war on Dublin’s street thugs, making a name for himself as a legendary street policeman from a by-gone era.
The divisive career of Jim ‘Lugs’ Branigan in the ranks of an Garda Síochána has served to make his name synonymous with an old-fashioned style of policing the streets in the more notorious parts of Ireland’s cities. Yet, while the current force tackles crime in the socially deprived neighbourhoods and debates the need for an armed police force, the experiences of Detective Sergeant Branigan serve to put into perspective how far policing and society has come since ‘Lugs’ Branigan began walking his beat more than 60 years ago.
Born in 1910, Jim Branigan was brought up on the grounds of St James Hospital (at the time it was called St Kevin’s Hospital). His father was a Union Official at a workhouse that was located beside the hospital. One of Branigan’s earliest and most profound memories came at just six years old when he witnessed the 1916 rising at first hand. The South Dublin Union, where the family lived, was taken over by the rebels under the command of Eamonn Ceannt along with his deputies Cathal Brugha and W.T. Cosgrave. The event left an indelible impression on Branigan, as evident in his account of it years later:
“The door opened and I heard a voice saying “it’s all right, Paddy, I’m one of yours’. I then heard two shots coming from under the door. The next thing I saw a Volunteer pointing a rifle from our kitchen window and firing out. Afterwards, when we were being evacuated, I saw a near-dead body being attended to. It was a British soldier.”
By the time Branigan had grown up Ireland had won its independence but he entered adulthood trying to find some stability in a volatile country. He attended St James Street C.B.S until he was 14 years old, at which age he left his education and found a job as a trainee fitter at the old Southern Railways Depot at Inchicore. He spent seven years at his first job but later admitted he would have liked to have furthered his education away from the dust and the bolts of the railway. However, like so many young men in those years the opportunities to study were simply not available to him.
At the age of 21, Branigan left the railway and spent six months unemployed, using the time to contemplate what he was going to do with his life. It was during this time that a friend of Branigan’s, a serving Garda in Kilmainham Station, encouraged him to apply to join the force, telling him his 6′3″ stature would give him a good chance of acceptance. Although his early years were spent in a deprived area of Dublin city, Branigan said he had respect for the Gardaí. Officers would often visit his parent’s home for tea when they were stationed near the hospital. Branigan’s upbringing also served to instil a discipline and moral code in his character. He later explained this by saying, “no bad language or brawling was ever allowed by my father, and whatever my enemies may say about me, they will admit that obscenities and vulgarities were never uttered by me.”
Branigan passed his written exam without incident but it was his physical condition that nearly ended his Garda career before it began. Later pictures show Branigan to be a well-built man in height and breadth, however in his younger years he was tall yet thin from illness in his youth. Branigan had suffered from pneumonia and pleurisy as a boy from which he lost much of his strength as a young man. However, following a training regime organised by his father, Branigan passed his physical. Upon his retirement in the 1970’s Branigan defended the psychical requirements put on new recruits in those days when the height restriction was being eased. He said, “You have to be big, strong and know how to defend yourself in this job.”
With his fitness improving, Branigan soon settled down into his training at the Depot. He began to make a name for himself in Garda boxing circles by winning the Leinster Championships and fought in the German International Boxing Tournament in Leipzig, just before the Second World War broke out in 1938. At the end of his training Branigan was included in the ten-man Defence Unit, comprising of other sporting talented recruits. However, the mundane nature of the job soon began to frustrate Branigan as his tasks usually included escorting prisoners or solving rural land disputes. Branigan complained, “as a Dublin man I was bored by agrarian feuds and I thought I would never get home.”
He did not have to wait long to get back to his hometown though, two years after his recruitment Branigan was posted to Newmarket Garda Station in the Coombe, Dublin. For the next 18 years Branigan would be on the beat policing the streets of the Coombe. However, his first few weeks in the area were a steep learning curve, on his first day on the job Branigan described how he set out on his beat and almost immediately tripped over a dead man in the street.
As a young Garda he soon learned to deal with the more grim aspects of the job such as accidents and suicides, however, the incident that seems to have unnerved Branigan the most was when he delivered a baby in a shop doorway. Branigan was on his rounds when he came across a woman being walked to the Coombe Hospital by her husband. Branigan ordered the husband to find a phone and call an ambulance while he sat the woman down in a doorway. However, the baby was not going to wait for the ambulance and Branigan had no choice but to deliver the baby boy on Thomas Street. Later Branigan admitted, “It took me days to get over the shock, I was terrified, I was a young Garda and did not understand these things.”
Eventually Branigan learned to understand the way the streets worked and made a formidable name for himself among the local criminals. He found the kids from the tenement houses in the Coombe were bullish and were taught from an early age to have no fear of the Gardaí. Branigan recalled how kids would run up to him on his beat and shout “Stick them up, Branigan”. His reaction to this intimidation was to confront the troublemakers head on.
Life around the Coombe was unpredictable in those years and Branigan would often turn a corner to find a street brawl in session. Branigan’s uncompromising solution was to march into the middle of the scuffle and to start calling out the names of faces he recognised. At that point the familiar faces would invariably drop their weapons and flee.
Branigan freely admitted that his methods of policing were unorthodox, in that he often ended up not making arrests. He preferred instead to, “grab the culprits and give them a few clips and send them home.” Branigan’s policy of punishing a young troublemaker on the street grew out of frustration at the courts system. He found that if he arrested a youngster for fighting he could only be fined for a breach of the peace under the legislation of the time. Although when he did have to make arrests he would often have no choice but to put the suspect on the handlebar of his bicycle and wheel them to their cell at the station.
The lawless element of the area became all too familiar with his imposing stature and his signature leather gloves, thought to reduce the impact of Branigan’s blows, something he always denied. Branigan saw himself as a deterrent and he could have the effect of dispersing gangs just through approaching them and having a few words. His means of sorting out trouble soon gained respect as he was put full-time on the duty of solving “street nuisances” in his area.
The command that Branigan had over crowds brought him into contact with the worst of society, but also the high-rollers. He was often detailed with VIP protection due the ability of his formidable figure to calm the over-zealous fans and well-wishers. Among those he provided protection for were Elizabeth Taylor, George Best and Cliff Richard. Although dealing with excited young girls was a world away from his usual beat, Branigan remembered it as being just as chaotic. He later recalled from his time policing the cinema showing the movie, ‘Rock Around The Clock’ featuring Bill Haley and his Comets, which was a huge success in 1956. “The antics of those rock-and-roll mad girls, screaming in the aisles and shouting usually led to fighting in the cinemas. During these fights seats would be ripped and property damaged.”
Branigan also came up against the more well-armed and serious of criminals from the gangs that held sway over his patch. In his home, Branigan had accumulated a collection of unpleasant weapons he had confiscated over the years ranging from knives and knuckledusters to hatchets. This battle of wits, as Branigan called it, came to a head one summer day in 1942 when twelve of the notorious “Animal Gang” were arrested and charged. Branigan knew they were up to no good that morning and found out they were going to the races. Branigan saw a number of the gang head off in taxis from his area already intoxicated even though it was still the morning. The gang were in fact on their way to Baldoyle Races to settle a score with a corrupt bookmaker who was backed by another Dublin gang.
Gardaí were quickly tipped off about the events at Baldoyle but on their arrival the two gangs had already began their bloody battle. In a hail of flying bottles and men being chased by knife wielding attackers, twelve arrests were made, most of them being the same men who Branigan had seen piling into a taxis in the Coombe. Eleven of those were later imprisoned for their part in the fight but the “Animal Gang” were organised for the trial. Branigan’s evidence was crucial in the trial despite him receiving threatening letters and phone calls. A blank cheque was even offered to Branigan to buy his silence but was never likely to be entertained by the lawman. Branigan was nearly transferred from Newmarket Station during the trial “for his own safety”, however, Branigan refused to budge and said he would only move if Commissioner Michael Kinnane personally requested it.
Branigan did eventually leave Newmarket Garda station after 18 years of chasing ferocious offenders around the streets of the Coombe. He was briefly posted to Kevin Street station before he was installed as leader of the new “Riot Squad”. The squad was designed to react to any assaults or public disturbances in the city quickly before the incident could get out of hand.
The squad had their own Bedford van known officially as Bravo 5, however, it inevitably became known as “Branno 5” in reference to the squad’s famous leader. At the outbreak of late night trouble in the city, “Branno 5” would be dispatched usually with Branigan, a driver, and Garda Tom “Sonny” Heany, a Branigan protégé of 6′ 3″ in height and a former tug-of-war champion. By this time in his career, Branigan had such an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Dublin underworld that he and his squad usually only needed a description of a suspect to know who they needed to pick up for questioning.
The Riot Squad stayed together for seven years until it was disbanded upon Branigan’s retirement in 1973. He spent the last night of his career with the Riot Squad and got kicked in the shin as goodbye from Dublin’s criminal world. One extraordinary aspect of Branigan’s career is that he was still serving until he was 63-years-old. As Branigan said himself, “There is no other Garda of my years on the beat on Dublin streets at night. They are either retired or doing nine-to-five desk work.”
Also on one of his last nights, Branigan was presented with a retirement gift not many ex-policeman can boast on their mantelpiece. 50 of Dublin’s prostitutes had banded together to buy him a canteen of cutlery. It was a testament to how much of a community policeman Branigan was. One of the prostitutes was quoted at the time of saying, “Mr Branigan was something special. He was always in good humour. If we were browned off he would always cheer us up or give us a pep talk. He was a father figure to many of the girls.”
Although Branigan had criminals running for cover on the streets of Dublin, he was passed over for promotion a number of times. For while Branigan was valued for his muscle man capabilities it seems the Garda hierarchy never saw him as anything more than that. After thirty years’ service and with an average of 400 cases being brought to court each year, he finally got his promotion to Sergeant in 1963. Branigan by his nature was a man who spoke his mind and was not the type to blindly follow the official line.
He was often reprimanded for his court appearances where he refused to follow protocol and insisted on describing defendants as a “gouger” or a “teddyboy”. During one court case Branigan stormed out of the courthouse after hearing his case had been dismissed. He told the judge presiding over the case that day he would like to “wring his neck” after he had dismissed a charge against a man who had beaten his wife on three consecutive occasions.
The legacy of Jim ‘Lugs’ Branigan is difficult to distinguish in modern Garda history. In the era of the Garda Ombudsman, Branigan’s “belt on the mouth” method seems completely out of place. However, his ways and means of policing his patch were of his own virtue, for while he dealt out violence to the criminal, he also suffered it. As Branigan put it himself, “If people say I bullied the street gangs, don’t forget that they gave as good as they got.” By the time of his retirement Branigan was covered with scars and bruises from over forty years of battling with criminals.
While policing has changed considerably over the last 50 years, the attitude of the criminal on the street, one could argue, is almost the same. Branigan once commented on the mind of the criminals he was chasing, “make no mistake about it, many of these lads would stick you with a knife or a broken bottle as quick as they would look at you, and they have no fear of a man because he is a Garda.” He could easily have been talking about criminals in the socially impoverished urban areas of Cork, Limerick and Dublin today.