Wednesday 25 April 2018

Taming the violent Animal Gang

Hooligans who roamed Dublin met their match after a garda locked up 11 of them in one day, writes Donal Fallon

In popular Dublin memory, the term 'Animal Gang' leads Dubliners of a certain age to recall a violent underbelly of youth life in the city in the Thirties and indeed well into the Forties and Fifties.

Many think of horrors like razor blades hidden inside apples and violent showdowns between groups of youths from opposite corners of the city. Yet others recall a sort of 'Robin Hood'-like culture, of youths who engaged in some sort of criminality yet also looked out for their own localities. In Kevin Kearns' wonderful Dublin Tenement Life, for example, some would recall what they referred to as the 'Animal Gang' of their area assisting in a time of labour dispute in the Liberties, providing food for families.

Yet in other parts of Dublin, such as Marrowbone Lane, evidence exists of locals organising against these youth gangs which were seen as anti-social elements only.

Some Dublin firefighters of the day, operating ambulance services in the city, were said to carry axes with them for fear of encountering gangs.

The period in question is a fascinating time in the capital's history. Dublin had just hosted the Eucharistic Congress, the onetime anti-Treaty IRA were sitting in government and the city was in the throes of a red scare which would see Connolly House on Great Strand Street burned to the ground in 1933.

On September 24 1934 The Irish Times ran the headline 'Dublin Charges: We are the Animal Gang' and this marks the arrival of the term in the Irish media. There had been a case which saw five men charged with 'being members of a riotous and disorderly mob' in the vicinity of Townsend Street, carrying a variety of weapons including a poker, a portion of a tyre filled with lead and a baton.

One man who had been assaulted by the gang claimed in court that his assailants had said 'we are the Animal Gang'.

In October 1934, more reports of violence in the vicinity of Townsend Street and the inner city emerge in the national media. When two youngsters from North Cumberland Street were sentenced to a month imprisonment for their part in an assault case, it was noted in the newspapers of the day that "there was some cheering in the court", which had to be suppressed by the gardai.

The antics of this gang continued to fascinate the public. For example, in mid-October a story emerged of the gardai coming under attack in Corporation Buildings attempting to arrest a youngster. "You will not take my son, though he is the leader of the Animal Gang!", the newspapers reported the father of a young suspect as stating during the incident in which a garda was hospitalised after bricks, stones and bottles were thrown at gardai by an assembled crowd.

There was now a real apprehension expressed in the media towards this gang culture. The Corporation St Buildings were very much the centre of police focus at the time in their attempts to suppress this new youth gang culture.

It was noted in the Irish Independent that these buildings had sadly become notorious, with District Judge Little remarking in the courts that "the buildings seemed to be occupied by people who have little or no regard either for law or the basic principles of Christianity".

He added that the Corporation Street Buildings should never have been built and that they resembled "rabbit warrens with narrow passages".

The gangs were nearly always formed on geographic lines alone, but many of the boys came from similar lines of employment. For example, newspaper reports of the day suggest many worked as newspaper vendors -- a line of employment that would have given them intimate awareness of the city.

Other gangs would emerge throughout the Thirties and indeed much later, with titles like The Tigers and the Hawks Nest Gang. Violence between rival gangs was frequent, and indeed it was Dublin's best known police officer Lugs Brannigan who is often accredited with the demise of the first Animal Gang.

A wonderful article written upon the retirement of Lugs noted that "Brannigan proved himself in 1938 when he dealt with a gang called The Animals", a gang centred in the slums in the centre of the city. "The gang were mixed up in a bookie crowd," he informed me. They used to attack bookmakers who were not too popular with other bookmakers. Brannigan dealt with them at a meeting at Baldoyle racecourse. He searched and questioned 12 well-known members of the gang as they entered the course. However, he must have made an unfortunate oversight because three hours later a bookie was found transfixed by a fish knife.

"Luckily it hit nothing vital," continued Brannigan. This knife was used to gut fish and it must have been quite an oversight to miss it since it was a foot-and-a-half long and serrated on both sides.

But with a different sort of efficiency Brannigan arrested seven of the gang at the course and four of them that night.

"The last one got away," he remembered wistfully. Within a month all eleven were dispatched to Mountjoy and 'The Animals' were put paid to for the time being.

Yet interestingly it is the gangs run-ins with republicans of the day which is most fascinating to historians today.

Newly released Department of Justice files, for example, show confrontation with the IRA during a printers strike.

They were seen as hostile to the republican-left in particular, such as the 'Republican Congress'. Indeed, J Bowyer Bell noted in his study The Secret Army: The IRA that the Blueshirts -- Eoin O'Duffy's right-wing outfit formed from the Army Comrades Association -- sponsored an 'Animal Gang' to run amok during republican demonstrations.

However, the garda reports of the time would say "there is no political significance attached to the formation or activities of this 'Animal Gang'. The members are hooligans, pure and simple."

Donal Fallon is editor of the Dublin life and culture blog 'Come Here To Me'. He will be a panellist at the History Ireland Hedge School this Thursday at the National Library of Ireland, entitled 'Animal Gang: Myths And Reality'. More information is available from the National Library of Ireland online at

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