Detective Fiction – Frank McNally on three famous Dublin characters, real and imaginary

An Irishman’s Diary

I see that Tuesday was the 40th anniversary of Thomas Dudley, better known to generations of Dubliners as “Bang Bang”. Born in 1906, the son of a chimney sweep, he grew up in an orphanage in Cabra but spent most of his adulthood in the Liberties, where he was popularly diagnosed with the condition known as “innocence”.

His great joy in life, inspired by Hollywood cowboy movies, was to pretend that the large brass key he carried everywhere was a Colt 45.

Dubliners cooperated with his gunfights and played dead, as required.

When he died himself, quietly, on January 11th, 1981, he was in the care of the Rosminian Fathers in Drumcondra. His grave there was long unmarked. But his fame has endured and deepened in the years since.


He has been commemorated in both a Dubliners song and a play by Dermot Bolger. His nickname is now also immortalised by a café in Phibsboro, which in 2017 raised funds for a plaque on his grave. Meanwhile, back in the Liberties, a pub that used to be called Baker's has recently been renamed Dudley's in his honour, complete with a quasi-papal crest incorporating the key.


Speaking of Dudleys, and still on the theme of Hollywood gunfights, I am reminded that a Dubliner of that name is a central character in James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet of crime thrillers, the most famous of which was made into the classic 1997 movie L.A. Confidential.

Even less probably, the character has Dudley as a first name, something few actual Dubliners have ever had. Yet there he is, the corrupt but charming senior detective who says “grand” a lot and is introduced by Ellroy as follows:

Branigan was also long-time adjudicator in another of Dunne's sports – boxing. Some of his decisions still rankle in Kevin Street to this day

"Mal shook the man's hand, recognizing his name, his style, his often imitated tenor brogue. Lieutenant Dudley Smith, LAPD homicide. Tall, beefside broad and red-faced; Dublin born, L.A. raised, Jesuit College trained. Priority case hatchet man for every L.A. chief of police dating back to Strongarm Dick Steckel. Killed seven men in the line of duty, wore custom-made club-figured ties [...] Rumoured to carry an Army 45 loaded with garlic-coated dumdums and a spring-loaded toad stabber."

I don’t know how much thought Ellroy put into the name of his Irish anti-hero, but it works, somehow. A lesser writer might have called him “Jim Branigan” and maybe added a nickname, like “Lugs”, on account of his big ears. And that would have been so obvious, nobody would believe it.


Over New Year, I paid a visit to the great Willie Dunne, a former Olympian and five times national marathon champion, now 88, who among many other distinctions can claim to have known the real-life Lugs Branigan all too well. Willie lives now, as he has all his life, in the Iveagh Trust buildings on Kevin Street, which used to be the middle of Branigan's famously well-patrolled beat.

As a young man in the area, you didn’t have to do much (or anything) wrong to incur the wrath of Lugs. But as well as administering rough justice for a living, Branigan was also long-time adjudicator in another of Dunne’s sports – boxing. Some of his decisions still rankle in Kevin Street to this day.

My friend Des Gill and I were there to get Willie to sign photographs of his 1960 marathon in Rome. But as we chatted to him and two siblings from one of Ireland's most illustrious sporting families, his sister Patricia and brother Bernard, they recalled other local characters from down the decades.

One of these, it turned out, was also a policeman, after a fashion. Mickey Edmonds was his name, and they remembered him often directing traffic in and out of Kevin Street station, to which he was (sort of) attached.

Edmonds’s career had begun under Lugs Branigan’s tutelage. But long after Lugs, it continued to thrive, culminating in him becoming station “boss”. Like Bang Bang’s gunfights, however, this was all make-believe, a form of care in the community.

In reality, Edmonds had been born with a severe learning disability, unable as a child to speak, read, or write. Then a fascination with the local Garda station was indulged to the point where officers gradually adopted him and, within reason, allowed him the run of the place.

They helped develop his language skills – good and bad – to the point where he even learned to pronounce “veh-icle” in a country accent. He also came to recognise all the different forms used. By the time he died in 2011, he was nominally a chief inspector. His funeral was much better attended than Thomas Dudley’s. Despite torrential rain, his former “colleagues” even gave him a guard of honour.