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The animals who prowled 1930s Dublin

Ailin Quinlan recalls the Animal Gangs of Dublin's tenements who used iron hooks, knuckle dusters and potatoes spiked with razor blades in their brawls

To some, they were thugs who terrorised inner-city Dublin; to others, they were Robin Hood figures who helped poor families.

One thing is certain, however -- the Animal Gangs, who emerged from the grinding poverty of the festering, crime-ridden tenements of 1930s Dublin, constituted the violent underbelly of Ireland's capital city at the time.

The nickname reflects both the savagery of their regular clashes with other gangs, the police and the paramilitaries and a brutal street culture that eventually passed into urban legend.

By the 1930s, Dublin's north inner city had been deeply impoverished for generations. Its slums and tenements were notorious for their squalor and degradation.

Unemployment was rife and the area had high levels of crime and prostitution.

It was so dangerous, dirty and poor that even the police steered clear of the neighbourhood, which stretched from Henry Street to Amiens Street, Gardiner Street and up to Summerhill.

At the turn of the century, in an attempt to tackle the deprivation of one of Europe's worst slums, the local authority built a complex of flats called Corporation Buildings near Foley Street.

But the buildings quickly gained a bad reputation. In one 1930s court case, the judge described the occupants as being devoid of civilisation and even Christianity.

And it was here that the first Animal Gang is believed to have originated. It sprang from a dispute between the IRA and a group of young newspaper vendors from Corporation Buildings and the surrounding area.

Vendors would buy a bale of newspapers and sell them on. It was casual and often unpredictable work, but it was their only source of income.

However, these volatile earnings were threatened by a printers' strike in September and October 1934, which left the newspaper vendors depending solely on sales of the IRA newspaper 'An Phoblacht'.

Worried by their plummeting income, the vendors demanded a better price from the IRA for selling the newspaper.

The IRA refused and the dispute turned into a violent street brawl, in the course of which high-ranking IRA member Frank Ryan -- who later went on to fight in the Spanish Civil war -- declared that the young vendors were little better than animals.

The IRA viewed the brawl as an affront to its authority and started to harass the vendors. Dance halls used by the youths were attacked, and the violence spilled into the streets for several weeks before petering out.

The dispute may have ended, but the concept of the Animal Gangs didn't. While this feisty bunch of vendors were recognised as the first of the Animal Gangs, the name was rapidly commandeered by other youths.

"On one occasion, a 16-year-old youth was arrested in a different part of the city for assault with a 'lead yoke' -- he claimed he was the commander of an Animal Gang," says historian Dr John Gibney, whose documentary, 'Animal Gangs', is broadcast at 2pm today.

Animal Gangs were made up of young males ranging from teenagers to men in their 20s from a variety of inner-city areas.

They used a range of weapons in their clashes: iron bars, knuckle dusters, iron hooks, caps with razor blades sewn into the brim, tyre irons and bicycle chains.

Potatoes or apples spiked with razor blades were also popular.

Their activities popped up regularly in newspaper court reports throughout the 1930s as the name became more commonly used by gangs on both the northside and the southside of the city.

While researching the documentary, Gibney met older residents of the Liberties, who remember seeing the regular Friday and Saturday- night street fights which became a hallmark of Animal Gang activity.

"The fights were vicious but some people said they sometimes ended on good terms," he says.

Gang members were often well dressed, in black shirts with white buttons, suits or flat dockers' caps whose brims were studded with razor blades.

In the 1950s, Animal Gang members often sported fashionable Crombie coats.

"They'd often only have one good suit and this suit would be in the pawn shop during the week," Gibney says.

"They'd get it out at the weekend to look good around town in and to go dancing in. One lady told us about how during a fight one gang member howled at another not to get blood on his suit because he had to return it to the pawn shop the next day."

Although it was believed the gangs, who were primarily based in the Liberties and Foley Street areas, were involved in criminal activities such as protection rackets or providing muscle as enforcers, some stories portrayed them as the Robin Hoods of the community.

Gibney says one lady spoke about a gang member rescuing her sister, who had fallen into the water as she stepped aboard a barge on the Grand Canal.

There are also anecdotes about gang members stealing and butchering livestock and distributing it to impoverished families during a dock strike.

However, their violence is indisputable.

"One court case refers to youths calling themselves The Animals. This case focused on youths who had been engaging in disorderly behaviour and using weapons such as heavy sticks or batons weighted with lead and pokers," says Gibney.

On May 14, 1942, things came to a head during a serious stand-off at Baldoyle racecourse between Animal Gangs from the northside and southside. The reason for the battle is believed to have been a turf war between rival bookmakers.

The brawl, in which knives and bayonets were allegedly used, along with a sword, a home-made dagger, the fork of a bicycle and a tyre iron, left 20 people injured and resulted in 11 prosecutions.

It also made the front pages of the newspapers, who dubbed it the Battle of Baldoyle.

"Dozens were involved in the clash and the brawl was widely reported," says Gibney.

"A lot of people said that the Animal Gangs reached the height of their fame in that fight at Baldoyle racecourse. The newspapers had been reporting on the Animal Gangs since 1934, but the 1942 incident made them into front-page news. It was a huge event."

Related scuffles took place on the same day at a greyhound track in Harold's Cross.

However, while the so-called Battle of Baldoyle thrust the Animal Gangs into the limelight, it also ironically heralded their demise.

It is believed that following increased attention from the police, the gangs dropped out of sight. The nickname then began to be used for anyone who was involved in criminal behaviour, says Gibney.

Although they faded from the public stage, stories abounded about the gangs' terrifying antics. According to one rumour, an Animal Gang was in possession of the sword of Brian Boru.

"When my parents were growing up in the 1940s, they would have heard about the Animal Gangs," says Gibney. "The Animal Gang was a sort of shadowy presence in the background of their lives."

The groups briefly crashed back into the headlines during a flare-up at the dockside towards the end of the 1940s.

"There was trouble over who got the work," explains Gibney. However, he says, by the 1950s and 1960s the Animal Gangs had very much become the stuff of legend.

"Any young fellas who got together and became involved in fighting or trouble would have been called an Animal Gang," he says.

"One elderly woman I spoke to remembers looking out of her window in the Liberties area in the 1950s and seeing large rival gangs squaring up to each other. At that time, these groups of youths would also have been known as Animal Gangs."

In the 1960s, he says, a formidable individual nicknamed Henchico emerged from the shadows of the inner-city tenements.

"He was reputedly the leader of a prominent Animal Gang," says Gibney, who describes him as a larger-than-life figure who exuded menace, but who spoke in "a soft, feminine voice".

Henchico was sharply dressed and was said to carry a hatchet at all times. However, by the end of the 1960s, the Animal Gangs and their legacy had faded from popular view, and today they are remembered mainly by older Dubliners.

"They were a phenomenon of the time, but a lot of the people I interviewed said they were nothing like the criminal gangs of today," says Gibney. "What we have today, they say, is much, much worse."

Documentary On One, 'Animal Gangs', is broadcast at 2pm on RTE Radio 1 today, and is available to download at www.rte.ie/doconone