It was cold and dull January day in Drumcondra, and Joe Tyrrell stood, spade in hand, ready to dig another grave at St Joseph’s Cemetery.
A day earlier, the groundskeeper had been told by one of the Rosminians at the nearby Clonturk House that “a gentleman had died down below”. A grave needed to be dug.
Tyrrell stood with the brothers, a priest, and what few mourners had gathered the next morning, around a compact plot to the rear of the grounds, and laid the “gentleman”, Thomas Dudley – known to most as Bang Bang – into the earth.
Before St Joseph’s became a school for visually impaired children, it belonged to the Rosminian Fathers.
Beyond what is now the school’s petting zoo sits the small cemetery where Tyrrell buried the Dublin character, known for his mimed shootouts on public transport.
“He was given all the trimmings,” says Tyrrell. “Up at Clonturk House, they’d have a Mass and all. And then they’d walk him up here.” He points to a narrow, dirt path leading to the graveyard’s white gates.
Inspired by early Western films, in the 1950s Dudley took to staging hold-ups and shoot-outs on public transport in and around Dublin. Often, it’s said, passersby would join in with his cowboy games.
Local historian and author of D’You Remember Yer Man? Bobby Aherne notes that it “was commonplace for Dudley’s victims to shoot back at him. Commuters would use their umbrellas as rifles, whilst the bus conductor took aim with his ticket machine.”
“It wasn’t long before Dubliners knew to keep their eyes peeled for Bang Bang as they went about their day, knowing that he could appear at any moment, brandishing his firearm,” wrote Aherne. The firearm was, in fact, a large, brass key.
But Bang Bang, as Tyrrell recalls, was an elderly, blind man by the time he died in 1981. His antics on Dublin’s trams and buses had come to a halt.
In 1977, he had been taken into the care of the Rosminians at Clonturk House, where they cared for the visually impaired man until he died four years later.
His body now lies alongside priests, brothers, nuns and others beset with blindness in later life in the small graveyard, which remains locked most days.
Tyrrell has buried most of the bodies below. But few have visited Bang Bang’s unmarked grave since January 1981. Few visited then.
A Sparse Affair
“Brother Patrick came to us and said, ‘Right lads, we’ve to dig a hole,’” recalls Tyrrell.
Bang Bang’s funeral was sparsely attended. “There wasn’t a huge amount of people came,” says Tyrrell, leading me over to the right-hand side of the cemetery. Rosminians, Tyrrell and Labour TD Michael O’Leary made up the bulk of the mourners, he says.
After a short service, Tyrrell and two others heaved the coffin into a small plot he’d dug the day previous. They lowered Dudley down.
Near the rear wall of the cemetery, Tyrrell drags his right index finger through the air, then lightly prods the ground with his right foot, pointing out the contours between the graves below. A gap.
“There,” he says. “Bang Bang.”
Dudley has since become one of the city’s myths, seen as one of the last real characters. His weapon, the key, or a Colt .45 known as the Peacemaker, is now on display at Pearse Street Library.
Historian Aherne notes that “some people claimed that this key opened the door to a local church, but Bang Bang maintained that it came all the way ‘from Germany, from Hitler himself’.”
Thirty-six years after burying Bang Bang, Tyrrell admits his lonely funeral sits at odds with his legend. “I’d say today he’d have gotten hundreds [attending],” says Tyrrell.
But back then, in 1981, Dudley had diminished.
There is a plaque bearing Dudley’s and the names of others buried nearby. And across the boneyard, another plaque, with more names inscribed upon it. The graves below these all have headstones. Bang Bang’s, however, does not.
“It has changed since,” says Tyrrell. “But it is unfortunate that he doesn’t have one.”
Daniel Lambert, who co-owns Bang Bang café in Phibsboro, reckons the business’ namesake deserves better.
Over the coming weeks, Lambert plans to roll out a community donation fund in the café, where locals can contribute what they will towards a headstone for Dudley.
The reason is simple, says Lambert. Time’s running out.
“The people who remember Bang Bang now are generally in their fifties and sixties,” he says. “More or less in the next few years he could be totally forgotten, where he is will be totally forgotten.”
Bang Bang intends to make up the difference after the donations. Instead of a cross for a headstone, Lambert thinks a key might be in order.
Although Lambert is waiting for the go-ahead from the Rosminians at Drumcondra before proceeding further, groundskeeper Joe Tyrrell thinks that the memorial will go ahead.
It’s nearly four decades since he buried Bang Bang on that cold, January day. Why not remember one of the last Dublin characters?
“Nothing stays the same. There’s a big difference between now and forty years ago,” says Tyrrell. “There’s very few of them characters around now.”