When researching Dublin’s ‘Animal Gangs’ of the 1930s and 40s recently, the story and mythology of Garda James ‘Lugs’ Branigan came into play, with Dubliners of a certain age not only considering Lugs the downfall of the ‘Animal Gangs’, but also crediting him with taking the fight to the Teddy Boys of the 1950s. Like so many youth subcultures which would take hold in twentieth century Ireland, the Teddy Boys had originated in Britain, where working class youths took to dressing in a style which had been popular with dandies in the Edwardian period, and taking to rock and roll as their music of choice. Much of the reputation of the Teddy Boys in Dublin came from the hugely popular film screenings of Rock Around the Clock in 1957, a film Branigan would claim to have seen almost sixty times, though not voluntarily!
In Bernard Neary’s biography of the famous Garda, he claims that:
When the film Rock Around the Clock, commenced showing in Dublin cinemas, it hit the headlines and remained there during much of 1957…. not the film itself, but the antics of the Teddy Boys, who flocked, en masse and often, to see their very own movie. The Teddy Boys would riot in the cinemas, ripping up seats with flick knives,throwing bottles and other missiles from the balconies and engaging in fist and sometimes chain fights, causing great consternation.
The common perception was that these young Irish men were not alone being influenced by British fashion and trends, but were also “returned Irish emigrants from Britain”, according to Gardaí. One Dublin tailor told The Irish Times that “no reputable Irish tailoring establishment would undertake to make an Edwardian costume”, but one suburban Garda brilliantly told the paper that “if I had to be going around investigating all the outlandishly dressed young people in this area to see if they were Teddy Boys when would I ever get time to be a policeman!”
“Eccentrically dressed” youngsters were denounced in the same newspaper for causing a row at a disco in Malahide in 1954, one of the earliest references to the youths in Irish media. Noting that the Dublin youths are “said to be more peaceful than their London counterparts”, the paper still reported that their “extreme” jitterbug dancing and attitude had resulted in local young men in Malahide taking it upon themselves to inform the youths that they were not welcome.
One columnist in The Irish Times blamed the Teddy Boys for spoiling New Years’ Eve leading into 1955, when trouble in the city saw a police baton charge near Christchurch Cathedral. Six people were injured and shop windows broken by Dublin youths, but high spirits and even violence on the night was nothing new in the city. The newspaper columnist defended the Gardaí, and noted that
Knowing the Guards as I do, I don’t believe that either the older ones or the younger ones are baton happy. Having seen some of the Teddy Boys I feel they are just the type that would provoke a riot. The Teddy Boys are all for liberty, their kind of liberty.
Denunciation of the youths was particularly strong in the Dáil, though like today the hysteric language of politicians seemed a million miles removed from the realities of life at the time. P.J Bourke, a longstanding Fianna Fáil TD, rose in July of 1956 to condemn the Teddy Boys, claiming that “lack of parental control is the whole cause of the trouble; parents let these boys out to make a disgrace of themselves.”
I hold that the Department should put 40 or 50 policemen into plain clothes to clean up the city and county of these brats and bring them under control. There is no use in using plámás when dealing with these people. It is a terrible thing that a decent boy and girl cannot go to a dance hall without having a knife or bottle pulled on them by people going around in gangs. These youths are now going into the country because they have been banished from a lot of places in the city. They have a special haircut and a kind of uniform.
The cult film Rock Around The Clock was widely condemned upon its release in Ireland and the U.K, banned in Belfast almost immediately owing to crowd disturbances in Britain and the Republic. The film centres around Bill Haley and His Comets and other popular rock and roll bands, and attracted huge crowds of youngsters in cinemas across the world. Clashes between youngsters and Gardaí at screenings and directly afterwards, no matter how minor they were in reality, were central to the mythology that developed around Lugs Branigan. Neary quotes London-based The People in his biography, who claimed sensationally:
When the show first hit Dublin it inspired waves of Teddy Boy terrorism. Usually it erupted in the cinemas and flowed out into the streets. In an effort to quell the riots, police brass looked for their toughest men. And with bottles, stones and chains flying,they had to be really tough. Jim Branigan was a first choice. In his day he rocked and rolled every pugilist of his weight that Ireland or Europe could produce. And he walked off with all the silverware.If Bill Haley comes back to Dublin again with his Comets, Jim Branigan is one cat who won’t rip it up even for free. But I dare say he’ll rip up any scraps that start’.
Some Gardaí at the time did not engage in sensationalist exaggeration of the youths, and one correctly told the Irish Press in 1956 that “too much publicity was being given to these people which had the effect of exaggerating their importance.” Just as the media had rushed to label the bulk of gang violence ‘Animal Gang’ violence in the 1940s, the 1950s saw the new label bandied about.
The scale of the craze was evident in March 1957 when Bill Haley, star of Rock Around the Clock, visited the city with his band, to perform at the Theatre Royal. In scenes quite similar to those six years later when The Beatles would visit the city, newspapers reported that as many as two thousand Dublin youths were packed into Poolbeg Street, dancing in the streets as Haley appeared at the windows above them. One journalist noted that “Gardaí finally formed a line and with batons drawn forced the crowds into Hawkins Street and Tara Street. Several bottles were thrown and the glass shattered on the roadway near the Gardaí but none of them were struck.”
Fashions change with time of course, and by the late 1950s and early 1960s the Teddy Boys were no longer a frequent subject in the national media. Sam has previously posted about the legendary Rockin’ Kev on the site, who appeared in traditional Teddy Boy garb in the Evening Herald in 1976, but many others would change their styles. While Dublin folklore has it that a certain Garda ‘removed’ the threat from the streets, it’s arguable even how much of a ‘threat’ these youths ever were.
The term ‘Teddy Boy’ continued to be used with very negative connotations throughout the 1960s however. On one occasion, an Irish republican activist would tell a crowd at a Dublin gathering that:
Physical force is dear to Irish republicanism. Violence is for hooligans and Teddy Boys. We resent the word ‘violence’ and stick to the term ‘physical force’.