Alfie Byrne was the most popular Dublin-born politician of the Twentieth Century. In twenty-seven public elections he was elected twenty-six times. No one spent longer in the Mansion House; no one else was an MP, a TD, a Senator, a Councillor and the Lord Mayor of Dublin. Yet today he is largely forgotten by Official Ireland. The first biography of Byrne was published sixty years after his death, and he is not mentioned in most histories of Ireland in the Twentieth Century. Even in David Dickson’s august seven-hundred-page history of Dublin, he merits just one mention in a footnote. Further, his presence in the capital is slight. There is some public housing named after him, and a one-kilometre road between East Wall and Clontarf. Until 2015, Byrne was remembered on that road with an ornate memorial bench. When the bench was removed by Dublin City Council, the press mentioned vandalism and years of neglect.
Alfie Byrne was given the Freedom of Kilkenny and the Freedom of Toronto, but not the Freedom of Dublin. Every year, the O’Connell Street statue of Jim Larkin – who never once secured more votes than Byrne – is admired by millions of people. Byrne was Lord Mayor ten times, and he never got a statue anywhere.
Why? What ever happened to Alfie Byrne?
The subject of my new book is an awkward presence in the republican account of Irish history. A constitutional nationalist who opposed the Easter Rising, he never shut up about uniting Ireland. When telling the story of Ireland it is easy to overlook his contribution and inconvenient to shoehorn it into a history lesson. This is one explanation for his absence from historical textbooks.
When Alfie Byrne died, it was widely assumed that he would be remembered as one of the greatest Dubliners of all time. Today he is largely forgotten. by Trevor White Why Alfie Byrned out Though flawed, jobbing and a Home Rule dinosaur, Byrne promoted civic pride as a bulwark against the excesses of nationalism, and harnessed the power of social capital before the term existed From left, Desmond Fitzgerald, Patrick McGilligan, Alfie Byrne, WT Cosgrave October 2017 3 1 We must ask what, if anything, his story adds to our understanding of Irish history. Byrne had a remarkable life for many reasons, but he never attained high office at national level. He was not Taoiseach, Tánaiste or President, and he did not have a starring role in the birth of the Irish nation, like Michael Collins or Patrick Pearse.
Byrne was flawed. Indeed, it is arguable that he should be remembered as an arch-populist who traded largesse for votes, leveraging his power to carve out a fiefdom in a part of Dublin that he abandoned as soon as money allowed. An absent father, fond of censorship, he crushed free speech when it suited him, and he was, as Pádraig Yeates has said, the sort of politician who followed a mob “to pick up a few votes.” He had several dubious allies at a time when much of Europe was succumbing to fascism. And then there was the jobbery. Byrne used his position as a public representative to benefit himself through the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake and the Royal Liver Insurance Company. He often had more than one horse in the race.
There is also a legacy issue. Three of Byrne’s sons became TDs. The last to enter politics, Patrick, took his late father’s seat and retired unbeaten in 1969 after being elected four times in succession, a formidable achievement in itself. But none of Byrne’s grand-children entered politics. The dynasty came to an end, and no one is there to claim the legacy. As a result, while many politicians inherited some of his traits, the pensioners of Dublin are more upfront about the debt. Many of them still cherish his memory.
Byrne’s achievements primarily benefited a people and a city that remain neglected. Tension between the capital and the country was something he deplored. A man whose constituency once straddled both sides of the Liffey, the champion bridge-builder loved to bring citizens together. But in the years since his death, the idea of Dublin has suffered, not just outside the city but in its own imagination. The old boy in the bowler hat made people feel good about the place. It is easy to be cynical about such claims until one sees what a great mayor can do for a city.
“You mean Alfie?”
An admirer once insisted that he was “much more than a municipal comedian”, but his appearance was oldfashioned and faintly comical – and he knew it. Another contemporary said the Lord Mayor “was perpetually conscious of the dignity of his office and studiously avoided familiarity himself, always addressing people as Mr, Mrs, or Miss or by military rank or title”. Yet he told everyone to call him Alfie. Even today, when older Dubliners hear the name of Alfred Byrne, a smile will creep across their lips. “You mean Alfie?”. The style concealed the substance. As a result, it was all too easy to write him off as a lightweight relic of the Home Rule movement.
Alfie Byrne regarded it as a privilege to live in Dublin, and because of that, he devoted his life to furthering its ambitions. Transcending class and geography, he gave sweets to children and hope to everyone else: to not be poor; to be heard; to be proud.
Byrne has been forgotten for many reasons. The case for keeping his memory alive is shorter, and it starts with a unique bond: for a long time he was one of the most popular men in Ireland. In addition to all his political victories, there is also the manner in which he played the game. Éamon de Valera said that he only had to look into his own heart to know how the Irish people felt. This claim deserves an asterisk, because Byrne was closer to Dublin opinion, and his record-breaking life invites us to reconsider values like courtesy, tenacity and pride of place, all of which he embodied in a long career of extraordinary public service.
Byrne was a Home Rule dinosaur, but in some ways he seems a remarkably modern figure. He promoted civic pride as a bulwark against the excesses of nationalism, and harnessed the power of social capital before the term existed. The tourist board asked for his help to promote Ireland – he was a master marketer who had already made his name in London and New York. He supported equal pay for women and spoke out about the persecution of children in industrial schools. His belief in persuasion as the only way to unite Ireland prefigured the Good Friday Agreement by sixty years. And finally, he gave many of the most marginalised men and women in Irish society a reason to believe in the future. Alfie Byrne regarded it as a privilege to live in Dublin, and because of that, he devoted his life to furthering its ambitions. Transcending class and geography, he gave sweets to children and hope to everyone else: to not be poor; to be heard; to be proud. At a time when cynicism about politics has blinded many of us to the possibility that an individual can advance the human good, his story still has the capacity to inspire.
Byrne was a public servant whose charm, style and essential decency won admirers all over the world. In giving his city a voice, he made the place smaller and more intimate, but also larger and more inclusive, and at his very best he encouraged a broader understanding of what it meant to be Irish. These are among the reasons why Alfie Byrne deserves to be remembered.
‘Alfie’ is published by Penguin Ireland.