'Lugs' documentary review: 'beautifully produced, richly researched doc showed not everyone bought into the myth'
Lugs, TG4, (available on TG4 player)
THERE’S a famous line in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
It could have been written specifically to describe the life and career of Det Sgt Jim ‘Lugs’ Branigan, the subject of last night’s fantastic TG4 documentary.
If you were a member of the Dublin working class in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s or the early years of the 70s, it was hard to avoid the name Lugs Branigan.
It was even harder if you were born and raised, as I was, in the Iveagh Buildings, right across the road from Kevin Street Garda Station, where Branigan was based for much of his 40-year career.
By the time Branigan, who unusually for a garda of his era was a working-class Dubliner, was compelled to retire in 1972 — his request to stay on for two more years was denied — I was just 10, the youngest in the family and still a little tender to get up to the kind of mischief that earned many a boy and young man a hard lick across the face of his infamous black leather gloves (which, if you believe another bit of the legend. were either loaded with marbles or lined with strips of lead).
Still, everyone knew who Lugs was – the nickname he hated was pinned on him because of his huge, sticky-out ears — and everyone talked about him: parents, grandparents, older brothers and sisters, usually in tones of awed respect.
Lugs was indeed a legend and a hero to many, including Dublin’s abused wives and its vulnerable prostitutes (Branigan preferred to term them “pavement hostesses”), who he respected and protected from, respectively, drunken husbands and vicious pimps.
The ladies of the night respected Branigan back. On his final night on the job, they surprised him with gifts of Waterford Glass and a silver cutlery set, having lured him to Burlington Road with a prank 999 call about a non-existent disturbance.
“He’s entered the folk memory of the city,” said historian Donal Fallon. Lugs the sheriff. Lugs the scourge of teenage gang members. Lugs the lone avenger, the one-man police force, always ready to wade into the middle of gang fights — and quite possibly relishing every minute of it — to break up the trouble with his huge boxer’s fists.
As this beautifully-produced, richly-researched documentary showed, there’s more truth in the exploits of Lugs Branigan than in most myths. He really was that tough and fearless in the way he dealt with the vicious “animal gangs” roaming the streets of the city in the 40s.
He really did offer young fellas who wandered off the path of righteousness, but who he thought were worth trying to save from themselves, the choice of a belt around the head or a day in court, where the legal punishment might be even more severe than the physical one.
There was no shortage of contributors here who thanked Lugs for giving them a taste of his rough summary justice when they were younger. It kept them on the straight and narrow for the rest of their lives.
But it was a credit to the documentary that, unlike the fawningly uncritical biography of Branigan by Bernard Neary (a contributor here), it didn’t settle for printing the legend.
It explored the dark and destructive side of Branigan’s career, which was frequently little more than a legalised reign of terror and licensed thuggery.
A few eyebrows were no doubt raised last night when Christy Dunne, a convicted armed robber and a prominent member of the notorious Dunne family that flooded Dublin with drugs during the first wave of organised crime, labelled Branigan “a brutal man, a bully”. But he wasn’t the only one not buying into the legend.
In among the praise from various admirers, including some ex-gardai, were stories of young men being brutally beaten up in cells, in Garda cars and up dark alleyways for the most spurious of reasons, and sometimes for no concrete reasons at all.
Teddy Boys, who when left to their own devices tended to be harmless, were particular targets of Branigan. An archive radio clip featured a woman speaking admiringly of how she’d seen Branigan kicking 14 Teddy Boys, one at a time, down the stairs of a cinema. When one of them dared to answer him back, Branigan dragged him back up the stairs for a second round.
Branigan didn’t just target troublemakers and gurriers; he persecuted boys playing football or handball in the street and hassled teenagers for doing nothing more offensive than gathering in a group.
If he told them to move on and they hadn’t when he returned five minutes later, out came the gloves.
The most intriguing idea to emerge from this excellent film was that the unwitting Branigan, who came across as a narrow-minded man with a black-and-white world view, was used as a blunt instrument of oppression by an establishment that regarded any sign of dissent or rebellion, be it in the form of Teddy Boys, wayward teenagers or screaming girl Beatles fans, with suspicion and hostility.
His masters let him run riot when they needed him, but they never needed him enough to promote him beyond the rank of sergeant.