The Bugsy Malone Gang of 1970s Dublin.
December 5, 2017
In a former life, one of my great areas of academic interest was the so-called ‘Animal Gangs’ of 1930s and 1940s Dublin, and some of that research was eventually published. I was fascinated more by the folk memory around the gangs than anything else I think, and enjoyed delving into the newspaper archives and Garda intelligence files.
Recently I’ve been reading a lot about Dublin in the 1970s (before my time, but by considerably less than the Animal Gangs). Just as the media panicked in the 1930s about the Animals, the so-called Bugsy Malone Gang of the north inner-city frightened the powers that be and the press. Taking their name from the hit 1976 gangster comedy film, the gang was comprised of very young teens who made a name for themselves primarily through a series of daring ‘jump overs’ in the city, that is leaping over bank counters before making off with their takings. In time, the name seems to have been applied more widely to all youth crime by some journalists. The gang have warranted passing mentions in studies as diverse as Diarmaid Ferriter’s Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s, Garry O’Neill’s Where Were You? and several histories of Dublin crime gangs. The primary reason for their passing mentions in the later is the alleged involvement of Gerry Hutch, or ‘The Monk’, in the gang. A 2000 article in the Irish Examiner went as far as to claim that “in the 1970s, the Bugsy Malone gang was effectively led by Hutch. This gang of Dublin inner city youngsters were in to all kinds of crime, especially so called jump overs.”
The first most people would have heard of any such gang was a report in the Sunday Independent in late January 1978, which noted the presence of a young gang “being compared to the mini Chicago criminals in the box-office film hit, Bugsy Malone“. It detailed how the gangs 13-year-old “Godfather” had been arrested in the aftermath of a raid on the O’Connell Street Northern Bank, during which £1,400 was snatched after “the daring raid was carried out by hurling a bottle through a plate glass door.”
Reports of the gang sometimes appeared only pages away from advertisements for the film of the same name. By the early months of 1978 the movie was out of the picture houses, but the gang remained, now being refereed to as “infamous”. The Minister for Defence bemoaned how an organised gang of juvenile criminals was “roaming the streets of Dublin, openly cocking their noses at the Gardaí and courts.”
It all took place against the backdrop of an explosion of cases in the Children’s Court, where the number of charges brought against juveniles had reportedly soared from some 5,000 to 25,000 in just a decade. While not excusing the actions of any gang, the Irish Democratic Youth Movement, aligned with Sinn Féin the Workers’ Party (SFWP), rightly pinpointed “appalling housing conditions, inadequate education and the total lack of recreational facilities” as issues which “create an environment which breeds crime and violence.”
The sheer volume of bank robberies in the city in the late 1970s was remarkable in itself – spanning everything from paramilitary organisations to organised crime groups. Some went unreported until court dates (if there were any) but the youth of this particular gang ensured their escapades were always covered in the press. It was even suggested that they’d established something of a headquarters on Lower Gardiner Street in a former trade union building, which the Independent christened the “Bugsy School.” The gang were sometimes pinpointed by the press for other criminal activity, such as arson:
Some Gardaí were eager to pour water on the stories about the gang, with one insisting in September 1978 that much of what was written about the so-called Bugsy Malone Gang was “a figment of someone’s fertile imagination.” Yet only two days later, a different Garda source gave the media a totally different view of the situation in Dublin, even insisting that “the black market is paying off so well for the Bugsy Malone offenders that 12 of them were recently seen by Gardaí boarding a plane at Dublin Airport bound for a Mediterranean holiday resort.” plus ça change.
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Just as happened in the 1930s – when the term ‘Animal Gang’ went from being applied to one specific gang to youth criminality in general – the term Bugsy Malones began to be applied to all youth criminal gangs. Take this Evening Herald report from October 1978, which was front page news, insisting that a controversial new detention centre for the “untouchable delinquents” would be the end of the gangs.
Reversing the wave of criminality in the city involved serious investment. By January 1979, newspapers were reporting of how positive initiatives in the north inner-city were having an impact, including “a craft shop in a flat in Summerhill run by Peter McVerry, which employs six young people.” It wasn’t only the opportunity of work or police pressure that cracked down on the gang, as there were reports of one member dying in a stolen car which crashed when returning from a series of robberies on the West coast of Ireland.
There has always been youth criminality in Dublin and in other cities, in particular in neglected working class districts. At times, be it 1937 or 1977, there have been moments when the press believe it to be truly out of hand, and when new gang names mystify the powers that be and come to dominate the headlines. While they may have lacked the sheer violence of the Liberty Boys or the Animals, the Bugsy Malones were still good for column inches.