‘Lugs’ Branigan

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2005), News, News, Volume 13

Lugs-Branigan-1 BRANIGAN, James Christopher (‘Jim’, ‘Lugs’) (1910–86), Garda, was born on 6 January 1910 in the South Dublin Union, James St., eldest child of John Alick Branigan, South Dublin Union official, and Ellen Branigan (née Kavanagh). The family lived in the union complex, which saw heavy fighting in 1916, when Jim witnessed the shooting dead of a British soldier. Educated at Basin Lane Convent and James’s St. CBS, he left school at the age of 14 to join Great Southern Railways as an apprentice fitter. Having no railway background and a quiet manner, he was bullied and occasionally beaten up in the railway yards, but never retaliated. He quit on finishing his apprenticeship and joined the Garda Síochána in June 1931.
Having only barely qualified on the required Garda chest measurement, he took up weight training, rowing and boxing to fill out his slim 6ft 3in. frame. He became a physical fitness fanatic, rising at 5 a.m. most mornings to train, and was a non-smoker and a teetotaller. Throughout the 1930s he fought in various inter-police boxing contests with the Garda Boxing Club. A rugged rather than skilled fighter, he fought at cruiser-weight, light-heavyweight and heavyweight, and in 1936 he won the Leinster heavyweight title. Fighting for the Irish international boxing team during a bout in Germany in January 1938, he was knocked down nine times by a skilful opponent, but got to his feet each time. His courage won an ovation from the local crowd, which included Goering and Goebbels. Although he disapproved of Nazi anti-semitism, he greatly admired their emphasis on discipline and sport. He retired from the ring in 1939, but became a well-known boxing referee.
In 1936 he was assigned to the Kevin St. district and he soon became well known for dispensing rough justice on Dublin’s streets. He admitted that, rather than charging petty offenders, he gave them ‘a bit of a going over’ and sent them on their way to avoid excessive paperwork. In the 1940s a Dublin criminal dubbed him ‘Lugs’ because of his large ears; the nickname stuck, but Branigan hated it and anyone foolhardy enough to use it risked ‘a few clips’. He rarely used a baton, but wore a pair of black leather gloves if trouble was likely. His mere presence, and especially the donning of his gloves, was often sufficient to calm tense situations. He was popularly regarded as the man who tamed Dublin’s teddy boys, and in controlling their excesses in Dublin cinemas in the late 1950s he was obliged to see the film Rock around the clock at least 60 times, much to his annoyance. Close to the people on his beat, he often acted as an unofficial social worker, speaking up for young offenders in court, and trying to fix them up with jobs. He regularly sorted out domestic disputes, saving many marriages by giving stern warnings to husbands who beat their wives. Many criminals had a grudging respect for him, and he was often on good terms with their families.
He was promoted detective garda in July 1958 and was sometimes assigned as bodyguard to visiting celebrities in Dublin, including Elizabeth Taylor, Cliff Richard and George Best. In December 1963 he was promoted to garda sergeant and given charge of a mobile ‘riot squad’—a Bedford van code-named ‘Branno five’—to deal with violent crime and gang warfare. He was still weight-training and sparring with young boxers well into his sixties, and remained on active duty with the riot squad till his retirement on 6 January 1973. He received many tributes on his retirement, but the one that touched him most was a canteen of cutlery and set of Waterford glass from Dublin prostitutes (‘pavement hostesses’ he preferred to call them), many of whom regarded him as a father figure.
He carried numerous scars from knives and bottles and was once even bitten on the rear while trying to subdue an offender by sitting on him. In court he said that the biter was ‘worse than the Balubas. At least they cook you first’— a remark for which he was reprimanded by the Gardái. Although his outspokenness in court endeared him to the Dublin public and press, he believed that it was held against him by senior Gardái and explained why he never progressed beyond garda sergeant.
He spent most of his retirement in Summerhill, Co. Meath, where he grew crops and bred budgerigars for competition, and died on 22 May 1986.

James Quinn is Executive Editor of the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

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