I decided on a change of pace this month. Something true, something Irish. A story to take me back to the rare old times, when men were perennially drunk and the local lawman was uncompromising and fearless.
Lugs Branigan is an interesting character no matter what your perspective. Born in the south inner city of Dublin in 1910, he lived through the formation of the state and bore witness to the social change, both gradual and manic, until his death in 1986.
This book attempts to chart his early beginnings from within the relative comfort of his family home on the grounds of what is now St James’ Hospital right through to his final years in rural County Meath.
Of course, most people would be more interested in the space between, his forty-three years of service to An Garda Síochána.
The book is broken down into a straight chronological timeline of the early years right through to retirement. We are offered useful bits of information along the way. One important note was that Branigan hated being called Lugs. It was an allusion to his prominent ears which jutted out far beyond his head. Very few people had the nerve to call him this to his face. And those that did, we are assured, were quickly corrected.
We also learn that Branigan had early thoughts of being a vet, until family finances precluded such an arrangement. Instead he chose a career in the Irish Railway company. There he suffered badly from bullying though the writer seems unwilling to really delve into why except to say his co-workers took an immediate dislike to him. This is an early hint of what’s to come from Kearns.
We are brought along quickly as Branigan elects to take a job in the newly formed Garda Siochana. We are told how tricky it is to get a job in the service at this time, with key emphasis placed on physical size. Jim Branigan eventually becomes a sturdy seventeen stone but at this early age, he remains rakish.
After making the cut by the skin of his teeth, he begins to take a strong interest in physical fitness and among his numerous past times decides boxing is the one he likes best. This leads him to the kind of opportunities very few working class Irish people could have dreamed of back in the 1920s and 30s. A pre-WW2 trip to Germany chiefly among them.
We trudge along from there. Going from his daily beat in Dublin’s liberties and getting to know the locals to his battles with the Animal gang, a vicious mob of angry young men, employed by unscrupulous bookies amongst others. The ensuing battle at Baldoyle Racecourse, where we get to see the first signs of his maturity as a policeman come to the fore. Omnipresent throughout this are his trusty leather gloves, which according to this record at least are the only weapon Branigan ever used. The suggestion that these gloves were lined with anything foreign is quickly denounced here.
I could checklist the rest of the book and recite each chapter heading but I won’t. It’s all there, all the good stuff anyway. Marrying a fine Irish girl : check. His bodyguard duties to the likes of Cliff Richard and Liz Taylor : check. Dealing with the changing face of Irish youth from respectful, quiet Catholics to more rebellious Teddy boys and other assorted bus traveling bowsies, it’s all here.
I guess what the writer really wanted to do was to tell the story of this man’s career. What he saw and what he did to make things better. At his disposal, he has endless newspaper reports, the eyewitness accounts of younger Gardai who served with Branigan and of course the man’s family as well.
It is a very positive account of the man. Little in the way of criticism gets in the way and the reader is often subjected to repetition and bombast. Kearns is a writer I have no prior engagement with but even a cursory glance at his previous works might indicate he has something of an obsession about dreary old Dublin. It comes across here as a miserable god fearing place for the most part, with the demon drink never too far away and only one sheriff willing to clean the whole damn mess up.
For all that though, it is impossible to ignore the impact Jim Branigan had on policing Dublin city. We might only hear one side of it in this instance but there can be no doubt he was a hugely popular figure around the south inner city in particular. There are endless anecdotes about him going out of his way to protect long-suffering women from drunken spouses and more still of Branigan’s fatherly approach to would be criminals. His meticulous research before going to court and his special relationship with the judges who served there is all highlighted as well.
One advantage of Kearns stringent chronological style is that you can really imagine Dublin’s development from before the War right up until the early 1970s. Tenement houses are falling down daily as the local authority tries to keep up with the demand for new accommodation.
Unemployment is a constant as well as the trouble it brings around the city. Branigan’s attitude and response to this is largely seen as necessary action. His superior’s attitude to him is questioned later in the book, as well as the stress of poor pay and narrow scope for promotion, all of which many wouldn’t find surprising even nowadays with the Gardai.
All in all, it’s a bit one-sided but pretty informative record of the man and the service he did.
More critical accounts of his behaviour could probably be found elsewhere but this is all about a legend and the mask rarely slips.