Who was Keith Branigan, the Drogheda feud’s first fatality?
When his violent past cost him his airport job, the 29-year-old fell in with serious criminals
Keith Branigan: was shot dead on Tuesday just three weeks after celebrating his first wedding anniversary
A newly married man with a record of violent crime in his younger days, Drogheda feud victim Keith Branigan appeared to have made efforts to go straight in recent years. He secured a job as a baggage handler in Dublin Airport in 2017 but quickly lost it again after his past caught up with him.
The 29-year-old, who was shot dead on Tuesday just three weeks after celebrating his first wedding anniversary, had not disclosed previous convictions when applying for the job.
However, Garda vetting quickly threw up details of his crimes, and time in prison, and Branigan was relieved of his duties. This was the first of a series of events that preceded his death this week.
“The risk with somebody like that is that they may only be looking for the job to get involved in smuggling through the airport,” said one security source. “And even if that wasn’t the case, you would always be concerned they would be pressured into something by other criminals they mix with.”
By the time the matter reached the courts two years later, the victim had needed a steel plate inserted in his face
By the time Branigan lost his baggage-handling job he was not known for any significant involvement in organised crime. However, he had an established record of violent offending and had been in prison for two years.
Impulsive and violent crimes committed when he was a teenager and under the influence of alcohol ensured his job at Dublin Airport, which may have diverted him away from the criminals involved in the Drogheda feud, was not to be.
In March 2008, when he was 18 years old and living at Grove Road, Ballsgrove, Drogheda, Branigan had committed a savage and unprovoked assault on a man he knew well.
The victim was running down George’s Street in the town just ahead of a group of friends when Branigan put out his elbow and struck the man as he passed.
The combination of the victim’s running speed and Brannigan’s elbow being swung into his face knocked the man to the ground. Evidence in court stated Branigan then kicked the victim in the head, though he denied that.
By the time the matter reached the courts two years later, the victim had needed a steel plate inserted in his face. He continued to feel numbness in his lips and his breathing was still affected.
Branigan told gardaí he had given the victim “a smack” and pleaded guilty to a charge of assault causing harm.
Judge Michael O’Shea told Branigan that using his elbow to hit the victim was more serious than using a closed fist because “the bone of the elbow his hard enough to inflict the maximum damage”.
Judge O’Shea also described the attack as “savage and vicious and unprovoked”. Taking other offences into account when sentencing, he imposed a term of three years in prison, with one suspended.
Those other offences related to Branigan’s involvement in a group attack at an apartment in Drogheda. One of the aggressors believed his girlfriend was seeing one of two men inside the property.
A car was vandalised outside the home, before the door of the residence was kicked in and three men, including Branigan, went inside. They used a table leg, a golf club and their fists to beat the two men inside. One of the victims sustained a large head wound that needed to be stapled together.
“Breaking into people’s houses at 3am, that’s what the Nazis did,” Judge Flann Brennan remarked of the attack.
Branigan pleaded guilty to charges of assault causing harm, criminal damage and burglary arising from the group attack in January 2008.
The street attack in Drogheda in which the victim was elbowed in the face occurred just two months later. And when all the charges were taken into account at sentencing hearing in 2010, a two-year sentence was imposed on Branigan.
The last time Branigan was in court was in 2017 when he was fined €200 for affray, though that conviction related to an incident in 2014. He had other criminal damage convictions as well as a series of traffic convictions but he had not been charged with any offences for five years.
Those convictions cost him the job as a baggage handler, a role that might have reinforced some of the stability that had come into his life. He was preparing to get married at the time to a woman who runs a successful business in the beauty industry in Co Louth. He had previously worked as a plasterer, but had not stuck with it.
Branigan began slipping into the worst kind of criminal company after he lost his baggage handling job.
He was clearly a violent man with a number of convictions even before that point. But he was not regarded as a significant gangland figure.
Gardaí are trying to establish if he was shot this week mainly because he was an associate of one of the gang leaders. Killing him was a way of getting at that man; much in the way associates of the Hutch family have been shot by the Kinahan cartel in that feud.
While the Drogheda feud began in earnest in July 2018, Branigan had already become close to some of the people on one side of the conflict; especially a man younger than him who is now regarded as a key player in the dispute.
Branigan was spotted by gardaí in the company of the gang members more frequently over the past two years – a relationship that appeared to strengthen as time when on.
As the violence escalated, a murder was regarded as inevitable
When some of the criminals were stopped in vehicles being driven around Drogheda, Branigan was often the man recorded by the Garda as being behind the wheel. These encounters were all documented and over time suggested Branigan was growing closer to the gang members.
There were suspicions he was the getaway driver for a gunman who opened fire on another man in a feud-related attack this year, wounding but not killing him.
Of the four men injured in feud-related shootings over the past 13 months, all were attacked by the gang that Branigan was aligned to. However, that group struck back last Tuesday afternoon at the Ashling Caravan Park near Clogherhead, where Branigan was gunned down as he erected decking around a newly installed mobile home.
The gunman was driven into the caravan park by an accomplice in a stolen Lexus vehicle. He got out of the vehicle to shoot Branigan, got back in and was driven away.
After more than 70 feud-related incidents in the north-east over the past year – including petrol bombings on houses and cars, shootings, beatings and various other acts of violence – Branigan’s murder was the first killing in the feud.
The two Drogheda-based drug dealing gangs involved initially clashed when the group Branigan was aligned to began challenging the other faction’s place in the area’s drugs trade and initially got the upper hand.
As the violence escalated, a murder was regarded as inevitable. The group that had been losing ground until this week has inflicted that first fatality. Gardaí fear a protracted murderous feud is now under way.
The faction Branigan was aligned to is a group of criminals in their early to mid-20s, who have carried out most of the attacks on the rival faction for the past 13 months.
The opposing faction is a mix of settled and Traveller criminals, a number of whom are veterans of localised feuding in the past. One of their number has been linked to three drug-related murders pre-dating the Drogheda feud.
He was suspected of involvement in the gun murder of Benny Whitehouse (35) in Balbriggan in 2014, a drug dealer who was shot dead as he returned to his car after bringing his daughter to her national school.
He has also been linked to the disappearance, presumed murder, of a couple in 2015. Willie Maughan (35) and Latvian national Anastasija (Anna) Varslavane (21) were last seen in Gormanston, Co Meath, on April 14th, 2015. Gardaí believe they were killed because the men who killed Whitehouse feared the couple was intent on supplying information to the Garda about the Whitehouse murder.
Branigan’s murder last Tuesday is the fourth killing he is now suspected of involvement in. There are serious concerns that he will now seek to drive the feud forward.