The darling of Dublin – An Irishman’s Diary about Alfie Byrne
MP, TD, lord mayor and gentleman
One of the displays in the Alfie Byrne exhibition at the Little Museum of Dublin
Like all successful politicians, the 10-time lord mayor of Dublin Alfie Byrne was adept at pressing flesh. So relentlessly did he do it, he was nicknamed “the shaking hand of Dublin”. But he was also an accomplished ballroom dancer. And he used his feet to great electioneering effect as well.
It wasn’t unusual for Byrne to have several social functions to attend on any night. Once, he had 13. The trick was to get in and out quickly, with maximum exposure. Dancing was useful. Where possible, Byrne would take the floor before anyone else. Then, having briefly dazzled with his presence, he would be on to the next engagement.
Another of his strategies, in more innocent times, was giving sweets to children. Lest there be any misunderstanding, this too was transparent. However young, the beneficiaries would be urged to tell their parents where the sweets came from and ask them to vote for Alfie.
His nimble footwork was not confined to waltzing. Born in 1882, Byrne was fated to straddle the gulf that opened up in Irish politics a generation later. In what could have been bad timing, he made his debut as MP in October 1915, just as his Irish Parliamentary Party was about to be swept into history as a discredited relic.
Byrne must have been disconcerted by subsequent events. In the words of one his own children, he was a “great West Briton”, who had done well under the ancien régime. The son of a docker, he left school at 13 and thereafter worked himself up from selling theatre programmes on the street to owning a pub in his 20s, to addressing the House of Commons at 33.
He was a prolific addresser, judging from Hansard. But one of his pithier contributions came in May 1916 after the prime minister listed the military casualties of the Rising. The total killed, wounded, or missing was 521, he said. To which Byrne replied, angrily: “You ought to shoot [Edward] Carson for that”.
This was not typical, it must be said. He was by nature a peacemaker, who worked to bridge the divides that had opened between north and south, London and Dublin, and within the emerging Free State itself.
In 1917, he was the only IPP member to attend the funeral of hunger striker Thomas Ashe. He later became a TD, independent but pro-Treaty. And during his first marathon spell as mayor (still independent), he faced controversy by attending another funeral, of King George V in 1936. But nothing disturbed the affection Dubliners held him in. He was re-elected again in 1937.
He was also favourite to become Ireland’s first president, until the main parties stitched him up in favour of Douglas Hyde. For once, Byrne was unsure of his footing. He was at first defiant, saying he wouldn’t “stand aside for anybody”. Then he did, magnanimously calling Hyde “a charming and cultured Irish gentleman”.
He was by all accounts a charming man himself, famously dapper, with an “old-world courtliness” and a refined Dublin accent that has since disappeared. Another key to his success was moderation in drink. He restricted himself to “thimble-sized glasses of sherry”, probably wise when attending 13 functions in one night.
This explains why thimble-sized sherries were among the refreshments at the Little Museum of Dublin yesterday, where an exhibition on Byrne’s life opened in the presence of his now 92-year-old son Paddy and others who knew him, including former taoiseach Liam Cosgrave.
Along with an eerie, top-hatted model of Alfie, peering out over Stephen’s Green, the exhibition includes personal effects, correspondence, and a cross-section of Byrne’s voluminous press coverage – so extensive at one point as to catch the eye, in exile, of James Joyce.
An indirect result was Joyce’s 1936 short story for children, The Cat and the Devil, which also features in the exhibition. It concerns the attempts of the Mayor of Beaugency, a real-life town on the Loire, to build a bridge across the river. Made an offer he can’t refuse by the devil, who promises to provide one overnight in return for possession of the first crosser, he agrees.
Then, the morning of the opening, the mayor arrives with a cat and a bucket of water. Watched from the far end by the devil, he puts the animal down, and throws the water on him. Whereupon the cat runs across the bridge into the ungrateful arms of the devil, who is left cursing the cunning mayor – named, improbably for a Frenchman, Monsieur Alfie Byrne.