The Legendary ‘Lugs’ Branigan

Lugs B

The legendary ‘Lugs’ Branigan

A book review by Frank O’Shea

Kevin C Kearns. The Legendary ‘Lugs’ Branigan: Ireland’s Most Famed Garda.  

Published by Gill & Macmillan. 370 pp

ISBN: 978 07171 5939 0

RRP:  €24.99 euro

The picture on the front cover, with those prominent ears, explains perfectly why Garda Jim Branigan was known as “Lugs”. But he was only ever called that behind his back, never to his face. Even children who might innocently repeat the name they had heard used by their elders would be called aside and reminded of their manners and how they would feel if they were the victim of a hurtful nickname.

Whatever about the nickname, the ‘legendary’ tag used in the book’s title is certainly merited by Jim Branigan; even this reviewer from the bogs of Kerry had heard of him. He was born in the Liberties in 1910, in fact inside the South Dublin Union, the post occupied by Eamonn Ceannt’s battalion in Easter 1916. He remembered how as a six-year-old he watched his mother rush into the Volunteers being marched away after the surrender, to shake the hand of William T Cosgrave whom she knew well.

As a child and a young man, Branigan was bullied, first at school and later during the six years he worked in a CIE apprenticeship. This book describes how, after joining the Gardai at the age of 21, he discovered boxing and went on to become Leinster heavyweight champion and represented Ireland in a sequence of bouts in Germany where the front seats were taken by the heavies of the Nazi party.

He was the archetypal old-school Guard, inclined to action before questions. Within the force, he could have been seen as an outsider, a native Dubliner in a body dominated by young country lads with little sophistication, even less understanding of how a big city works and a penchant for buying  houses to be set in flats. His successes in taming the ‘animal gangs’ of the 30s and 40s, and the Mods and Rockers and Teddy Boys of later decades made him the darling of the media and even the judiciary.

Those successes are well covered in this book. Many a rumble between gangs, armed with flick knives or razors or sharpened combs was halted by the shout ‘Lugs is here.’ With no fear, he would stride into the middle of the row and with an uncanny sense, pick out the leaders. He never carried a gun or even a baton; his favourite weapon was a pair of black leather gloves which he carried in his right hand and which he would slap across a villain’s face, the physical hurt being less significant than the insult to the miscreant.

Many of these events were reported in the newspapers of the day. What was not recorded was the softer side of his character, his support in court for a young man he might have brought before the judge, for example. Even more significant was his help for the women beaten by their husbands and for the women he called ‘pavement hostesses.’

On Branigan’s last night at work, a 999 call was received about a disturbance in Upper Mount Street to which he and his mobile Riot Squad were dispatched. To their surprise, they found the place peaceful, except for a few women working their normal beat; these were suddenly joined by 50 or so others out of the darkness, all gathered to say goodbye to the man who had been their guardian and protector for years. They even made him a presentation of crystal and cutlery and a whip around of pound notes which he donated next day to a city refuge. That was 1973; if he was alive today and such support of vulnerable prostitutes was publicised, it is easy to see how it would be twisted by a malevolent media.

Sadly, the author tells us nothing about Branigan’s wife or three children. Although his two sons, now in their seventies, are quoted extensively, we learn nothing about them; their sister, his middle child, entered a convent, something we know only because she is shown in some of the photographs. The book is also poorly served by the aimless scattering of italicisation as unnecessary stresses of words from those interviewed by the author.

Those caveats aside, this is a wonderful book, an uplifting story of a good man. It is tempting to speculate whether Branigan’s methods might be employed with some effect in today’s Dublin.

Frank O’Shea
Frank is a retired mathematics teacher who has recently moved from Canberra to Melbourne. He is a regular contributor to The Age and other Fairfax mastheads and the Irish Echo