Dublin has always been famous for its street characters - Bang Bang, Zozimus, the Diceman. It may seem curious to think of a gruff, lanky policeman in this company, but that is the legacy of Jim 'Lugs' Branigan, a ubiquitous presence on the streets of Dublin for many decades, plodding the beat, tackling gangs and dishing out instant justice, on the spot, with his big fists. The same fists also served him well as a prize boxer, who even fought for Ireland against a Nazi team in a 1930s tournament.
It is a fascinating story and one that has become part of the folklore of the city. Indeed, so often do the old timers recall his physical presence around the streets, keeping its citizens safe, that to those of a us of a younger generation, it seems that he was the only cop out at night, like some lone silhouette from a Sherlock Holmes mystery.
In fact, he was almost a one-man justice machine and did so much of his policing out of a personal passion which was apparently one reason he later failed to get promotion. Better to keep him on the streets, seemed to be the official attitude, than have him promoted and behind a desk.For Lugs, policing was not about paperwork but all about being 'out and about' and having a physical presence.
And Lugs was physical. That is the other memorable feature, the way he would adjudicate on a scene of anti-social behaviour and give the offenders a 'battering'. It's a long way from the present, when gardai cannot be aggressive at all and when the public is readily equipped with camera phones and the right to recourse. Sometimes today we feel there are too many excuses being made for criminals by the likes of Fr Peter McVerry or former Mountjoy governor John Lonergan, however well-intentioned, and it can be refreshing to hear about a system of discipline and punishment that did not involve wasting court time and further police resources. One might argue that the Lugs way was also a fairer system for the offender since by dispatching them with a 'clip on the ear' it prevented them from entering the legal system and getting a criminal record.
However, it's a problematic departure and certainly Lugs is not always remembered as fondly as in this affectionate and reverential account. Many blame him for needless confrontation with the city's youth, especially in working-class areas, thereby perpetuating an already bad relationship between the police and the city's poor. Nor was the few slaps from big Lugs quite so harmless. I grew up myself at a time when the gardaí could dish out blows, and I witnessed blameless if cheeky friends receive bloody noses; it left a long and horrible memory.
Lugs was a time warp figure, but in many ways his career charts the social changes in the city and in urban policing and youth culture. When he began there appeared to be just the ordinary mass of the population and the stiff police, but soon the latter were dealing with organised gangs, rockers and skinheads. Social dislocation was rising. Buses en route to the city's new suburbs were often attacked and Lugs and his garda colleagues had a lot of work on their hands. This book charts the pitched battles between different youth groups and gangs, armed with knives, chains and sharpened steel combs.
Indeed, one of the pictures in the book (left) shows Lugs in retirement with an array of such items: his wartime booty, so to speak. But of course by the time he retired in 1973 - to newspaper headlines, such was his fame - the criminal world had become much worse, with drugs and guns. Interestingly, although Branigan (called Lugs because of his large ears) looked like a big Munster rugby player, he was actually an inner-city boy himself, although born of country parents. Born in 1910 in the Liberties of Dublin, he was, by his own admission, a shy, scrawny "sissy" as a youngster.He suffered beatings as a teenager but refused to fight back. Yet he went on to become a heavyweight boxing champion.
As a garda he refused to carry a baton, relying on his fists. He took on the vicious "animal gangs" in the Dublin of the 1930s and 40s and in the 50s, the Teddy Boys with their flick-knives.
From his early days he was an avid fan of American Western films and books, a culture that greatly influenced his view of the world and of his subsequent policing. Essentially, he saw things in terms of 'good' and 'evil' and emulated the movie sheriffs by dishing out his unique 'showdown' brand of summary justice to those he saw as 'hooligans and hoodlums.'
However, Branigan could also be a humane and compassionate figure and this book details his strong and at the time unusual level of support for the battered women of the tenements and for the city's much abused prostitutes, or "pavement hostesses, as he called them. God help any pimps who came within his reach.
This is a revealing portrait not just of a passionate and dedicated public figure, but also of a society undergoing great and constant change. When he retired, Garda Chief Superintendent Edmund Doherty described Lugs as "one of those people who become a legend in his own time".
He was certainly a brave and tough policeman, but one cannot help but wonder did Lugs not often seek out, and almost unconsciously create, some of the very trouble he was looking for.
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