Former city council alderman and chancellor of Saor Ollscoil na hÉireann


Kevin O’ByrneKEVIN O’BYRNE, who has died aged 77, was a former Dublin City Council alderman and chancellor of Saor Ollscoil na hÉireann (Free University of Ireland). Closely involved with the campaign to save Wood Quay, he was a resolute opponent of motorways in the city and fought to preserve Dublin Bay as an amenity area.

Entering electoral politics in 1974, he became Kevin Byrne so that his name appeared at the head of the ballot paper. He was one of six community councillors elected to Dublin City Council, and in an early intervention urged councillors to decide on their priorities in relation to the building of civic offices at Wood Quay. He called for a co-ordinated plan to ensure that archaeological finds were excavated, preserved and displayed to the public.

Five years later, he was one of those who occupied the Wood Quay site when construction work commenced after a rushed archaeological excavation.

Born in 1934 into a family of dockers on both sides, he was a fourth-generation East Waller [sic]. His grandmother remembered her former neighbour Seán O’Casey as a “long thin fella with scaldy eyes and a cap on his head and a hurley over his shoulder, going off to the Phoenix Park”.

A secondary school teacher, in the early 1970s he was assistant editor of the Dublin Magazine, a literary journal. Reflecting this background, in 1975 he condemned the Department of Education for withholding the annual grant of £36,000 towards the schools’ library service. This, he said, was a vital service for children from working-class areas; it was a tragedy that every time there was a financial crisis the first cuts were always in education.

When League of Decency leader JB Murray wrote to the council objecting to payment of a £4,000 grant to the Project Arts Centre in 1975, because of a “vulgar” and “obscene” revue, O’Byrne called on councillors not to “enter into this nonsense”.

Also in 1975, he opposed renaming the Municipal Gallery the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery. By this logic, he argued, the National Gallery should be renamed the George Bernard Shaw Gallery. Later, however, having read of Lane’s contribution to the visual arts in Ireland, he changed his mind.

Subsequently he supported the purchase by the gallery of a drawing by Picasso for £17,500, saying that when millions of pounds were being spent on motorways, Fianna Fáil said nothing, but were now objecting to a few thousand on a Picasso. The purchase was agreed. In 1978, he proposed that the council should impose a levy on cinema seats in order to fund indigenous film-makers.

He had a colourful turn of phrase, and once warned: “We’re going to get creeping motorways in Dublin like creeping paralysis.” When it was announced that lord mayor Jim Mitchell was to visit New York, he said: “Well for God’s sake, bring something more typically Dublin as a present than Waterford Glass. You would be better off [to] bring a cran of Dublin Bay herrings.”

In 1977, he stood as a candidate in the general election, paying his deposit of £100 in pennies after his cheque was refused by the city sheriff on the grounds that it was not legal tender. But he failed to win a Dáil seat. And, in 1979, having clashed with the North Central Community Council, he lost out in the local elections to the council’s secretary Tony Gregory.

In 1980, he was employed as an adult education officer by the City of Dublin VEC; he retired in 1999.

In 1986, he was one of the founders of Saor Ollscoil na hÉireann, which provides third-level education to degree standard for mature students. His philosophy of education was based on the belief that learning should be a free-flowing development. He was chancellor at the time of his death.

O’Byrne was proud of his working-class origins. He was equally proud to wear his alderman’s robe and three-cornered hat on formal occasions.

Predeceased by his son Myles, he is survived by his wife Mairéad Ní Chíosóg.

Kevin O’Byrne (Byrne): born November 1st, 1934; died January 4th, 2012