With war engulfing Europe, many elite expeditionary forces executed secretive commando-style raids into enemy territory during March 1942. Dublin was not immune. On Sunday, March 22nd, with a Red Army offensive ongoing in Crimea, a group of young men commandeered several boats moored on the Tolka River and stealthily rowed towards Tolka Park football ground during the semi-final of the Junior Combination Cup.
The Tolka Park commando raiders belonged to an Ash Street gang of thugs anxious to acquire lebensraum to expand their toss schools and protection rackets against local shopkeepers. Inside the ground, a rival "animal gang", from Stafford Street, awaited, prepared for fisticuffs, iron bars, knuckledusters and everything except an amphibious landing. Next morning the two headlines in The Irish Times read "Fierce fighting around Kharkov" and "Fight at football ground".
With stringent censorship, the only surprise is that the fighting around Kharkov got mentioned. Frank Aiken tried to inoculate readers against news of the global war, but every Dubliner soon knew about what newspapers called "the Tolka Park Rumble". They also knew that only one man could sort it out: the man who brought to justice the gang-leaders and crooked bookies behind the infamous Battle of Baldoyle, where rival animal gangs fought a pitched battle amid racegoers. This man would later sort out the 1953 Battle of Dolphin's Barn (involving Teddy Boys) and the 1965 Battle of Malahide, where Swords and Donnycarney gangs attempted a conflict-resolution process which involved flick-knives and sharpened steel combs.
Compared to Love/Hate, they were innocent times, but anyone reading Kevin C Kearns's description of the 43 years during which Jim "Lugs" Branigan became Dublin's most famous policeman might suspect that Dublin in the Rare Old Times left several verses on the recording-studio floor. The Dublin of the 1930s was a friendlier place than today, but chronic poverty and overcrowding meant it possessed an undercurrent of public and domestic violence.
Jim Branigan, the garda regularly praised in newspapers for his unorthodox methods, was a complex figure. A Leinster heavyweight champion, he achieved boxing fame not by his knockouts but by his courageous refusal to ever be knocked out, even when the German champion, Pietsch, stretched him on the canvas nine times in front of Nazi dignitaries in Leipzig in 1938. During his career, this courage would be tested on Dublin’s streets as Branigan became the go-to man during any disorder.
In addition to being tough, he seems to have been generally popular and respected, even among men he fought against. His legend grew so much that one shout of “Lugs is here” could scatter crowds. Yet this book feels more like a tribute than a biography, with Kearns so fond of his subject that at times he becomes a cheerleader.
In previous books such as
Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History
, Kearns has done a remarkable and incalculable service to the history of Dublin by capturing the recollections of a disappearing generation of people from every walk of life. His oral histories form a democratic treasure trove of deftly woven tapestries of life as lived by factory workers or slum-dwellers or women caught in a culture where a blind eye was turned to savage matrimonial beatings.
Kearns must be a brilliant listener, judging by his skill in letting people tell their stories. By identifying trends within personal narratives, he builds intimate portraits of a society and a time. But these skills, which make him so good at collective narrative, work to his detriment as the biographer of one individual. In his oral histories Kearns is firmly on the side of the people he interviews, accepting their accounts at face value. But biographers must exercise some objective scepticism about their subjects to ensure that a true picture emerges, containing all the contradictions that make us human, and fully contextualising them.
Branigan seems to have been a man of integrity. He never sought to enrich himself, in an era when many gardaí owned warrens of overpriced bedsits. He coped stoically with being unfairly denied promotions because of his resolute independence. He was genuinely brave in putting his ageing body on the line in dangerous situations, and he cared about the scourge of violence against women. Battered wives, dismissively told by priests to submit to their husbands, sought Branigan’s protection. In the short term, he made their lives more bearable by threatening abusive husbands with the same violence these cowards loved to mete out.
At 63 he was devastated when, sensing that his techniques were outdated, his superiors refused his request to continue work, forcing him into what he considered premature retirement. His superiors didn’t bother marking his retirement until months later, but on his last night on duty prostitutes faked a 999 call to lure him to a spot where they presented him with a retirement present, in gratitude to a policeman they saw as their friend and protector against violence by clients and pimps.
A ‘clip’ or court?
His methods seem extraordinary: regularly offering petty criminals the choice of taking their chances in court or accepting a “clip”, “clout” or “clattering” from him. Knowing what we know about the gulag of Daingean, perhaps his rudimentary pugilist justice saved many teenagers from horrific abuse behind those walls. Repeatedly in this book, people assaulted by Branigan (even if only with a flick of his black leather gloves) testify that he set them straight, be they former animal-gang members or just bored youths hanging around with nowhere to go.
But in examining a man who became increasingly controversial, at times Kearns acts too much as an apologist. His book undoubtedly reflects the affection former colleagues felt for Lugs, but the world was never as black and white as he saw it. We only occasionally hear the voices of innocent youngsters whom Branigan mistakenly singled out for inappropriate acts of summary justice. Towards the end, any group of teenagers were suspect to Lugs and, while the book continually details his abhorrence of violence against women, it also recounts (without seeing any contradiction) that he was not above slapping young women who questioned his authority.
He may have been selective in his violence, and intervened if he saw other policemen use excessive force against youths whom he regarded as innocent, but this book never questions whether his legacy was safer streets or a culture of unacceptable violence in certain Garda stations. As a youth, I recall a squad car stopping outside a New Year’s Eve disco to offer anyone from Finglas a lift home. The youths who got into the squad car received a hiding instead. Branigan would have been disgusted, but the problem with cultivating a legend as a Wild West sheriff is that you can’t control the legend. I believe the pumped-up young gardaí in that car wanted to prove they were as tough as Branigan. No policeman, no matter how decent, can create one set of rules for himself and expect less discerning officers not to follow suit.
Kearns has been a great servant to Dublin history, but Branigan, and his legacy, deserve a more nuanced biography. Kearns describes Branigan patrolling Dublin on VE Day, amid scenes of "unbridled joy" in "a sea of deliriously happy humanity". In fact, VE Day saw a riot, where University College Dublin students, led by Charles Haughey and others, stormed the closed gates of Trinity, some defiantly waving Nazi flags. Few were true Nazi sympathisers and none fell into Branigan's neat categories of pups, hooligans and scoundrels. But this unmentioned riot was of greater significance than anything that occurred in Tolka Park.
Dermot Bolger is an author, poet and playwright.