Alfie: the life and times of Alfie Byrne

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (January/February 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

Penguin Ireland
ISBN 9781844884247

Reviewed by Frank MacGabhann

Frank MacGabhann is a lawyer and commentator working in Dublin and Barcelona.

In 1911 Alfred Byrne (otherwise known to Dubliners as ‘Alfie’), a diminutive publican and former bicycle mechanic with little education, was elected to Dublin Corporation (not Dublin City Council, as the author states) from the north inner city of Dublin. Virtually never out of office for the next 45 years, he would top the poll regularly against such heavyweights as Seán T. O’Kelly and James Larkin. He was a vote-getterpar excellence, sometimes getting the highest vote in the state. He won 25 out of 26 elections contested. He was elected lord mayor a record ten times, nine of which were consecutive. He was the only person to be elected an MP, TD, senator and lord mayor of Dublin. Were it not for Douglas Hyde, he might have added ‘president’ to that list. And achieving all this as an Independent, from 1918 onwards, was truly remarkable. Yet he is largely forgotten today. This book attempts to understand why and to project his image.

The author, Trevor White, founder of the Little Museum of Dublin, which incorporates a permanent exhibition on Byrne, is clearly an admirer of Byrne. He brings to life the Dublin of Byrne’s day in what is a social history of the first half of the twentieth century, when the slums of the north inner city were horrendous.

Byrne was affectionately known as ‘The shaking hand of Dublin’, and not-so-affectionately as ‘the sewer rat of the Mansion House’. Seán Lemass pilloried him when he came into the Dáil chamber to plead for the poor of Dublin while wearing formal wear, obviously intending to go straight to a society ball after the debate.

Byrne was a constitutionalist to the core—British, Free State and then the 1937 Constitution. The ideal citizen, he was happy with whatever legal system was in force. He approved of censorship and was appalled by kissing in films, as well as by any violence depicted in them.No Cincinnatus at the plough, Byrne, in common with his cousins in Tammany Hall in New York, saw no difficulty in combining his political duties with his business interests, including property speculation. He became a ticket agent for what was probably Ireland’s biggest scam of its first 50 years as a state, the Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes. He was always an advocate of good relations with Britain, perhaps even more so when he was appointed in 1929 as trustee of the Royal Liver Friendly Society, which was to do many business deals with Dublin Corporation. One of the deals facilitated by Byrne was for a loan to the Corporation of the then staggering sum of £250,000 to build public housing. One wonders what Byrne’s fee for this arrangement might have been.

The author poses the question of whether Byrne was a fascist or merely fascist-leaning, in common with many Catholics of the day, particularly English Catholics such as Evelyn Waugh, G.K.Chesterton and Graham Greene. He reproduces the famous photograph in the Mansion House in 1934 of Eoin O’Duffy surrounded by his Blueshirts and ‘taking the salute’, in the author’s words, with W.T. Cosgrave and Byrne looking on. White appears to shy away from calling it a fascist salute, but by 1934 everyone in Europe knew what it was. Byrne looks embarrassedwith his hand raised. He hadbeen propelled to the Mansion House in 1930, and subsequently kept there, with the support of W.T. Cosgrave and Cumann na nGaedheal, afterwards Fine Gael.

On some of the issues of the day Byrne came down on the side of the angels. He strenuously opposed conscription in Ireland during the First World War and advocated equal pay for women in Dublin Corporation. During the Dublin Lockout in 1913 he tried to get sacked workers rehired,but he supported the Catholic Church’s ‘saving’ of the locked-out workers’ children from having their faith endangered by being temporarily cared for in Protestant homes in England.

To Byrne’s immense credit, he spoke out against the disgraceful industrial school system whereby children as young as eight were being sent to hell-holes such as Letterfrack for up to five years for stealing apples off a tree. The author recounts how the judiciary and the Catholic Church shamefully closed ranks and denounced Byrne.

Byrne’s connections with James Joyce are mentioned. They were classmates at O’Connell School for a few years, when Joyce found himself attending school with ‘Paddy Stink and Mickey Mud’ in his inter-Jesuit period. Joyce apparently retained a fond remembrance of Byrne, mentioning him in his works and referring to him in letters. While it is interesting to speculate on whether Byrne was the model for Batman’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth, the author might have examined the value of Byrne’s estate at the time of his death in order to get a fuller picture of his financial dealings in the light of his extra-curricular activities.

This very well-written book is an interesting account of a very successful politician, and an even more interesting social history of the period.Nevertheless, all of Byrne’s handshaking, children’s parties, letters to and from Dubliners and attendance at a dozen or more functions in a day have left little or no mark on the city whose local politics he dominated for many years.


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