Trevor White €25.00
Reviewed by Leo Varadkar
WHEN Alfie Byrne died in March 1956, shortly before his 74th birthday, there was a moment of silence in the Dail as TDS stood to pay their respects to a remarkable man who, uniquely in Irish history, had been a councillor, an alderman, an MP in the British parliament, Lord Mayor of Dublin, a Senator and a TD. The Taoiseach, John A Costello, praised Byrne as a “kind, courteous” and “charitable” man, and described him as “probably the most popular representative we had in our capital city during the past 50 years”.
There was a time when the ‘Shaking Hand of Dublin’ would have been known to every schoolchild and adult in the capital, but as time has passed, his memory has faded. Trevor White brings him vividly back to life in the pages of his elegant new biography. For example, there is an amusing story about the 1930 council elections and how Byrne was found minding a baby in a pram while the mother went in to vote, with the newspaper noting that “kindly man that he is, he would have done it even if aware that the mother was hostile to him”.
Reading the book, it becomes clear why Alfie Byrne was such a loved figure in Dublin, and also why a Young Fine Gael branch is named after him. Even though he was never a member of the party, or its predecessor Cumann na ngaedheal, he had strong links and his son, Patrick, who I had the honour of meeting last week, was for many years a Fine Gael TD. ‘Alfie’ was also personally very close to WT Cosgrave, having served with him on Dublin Corporation where they had developed a lasting friendship, and he was a strong supporter both in and out of the Dail.
When Alfie Byrne stood to become Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1930, he was supported by Cumann na ngaedheal and he defeated the leading Fianna Fail politician (and future president of Ireland) Sean T O’kelly. He was re-elected throughout the decade, serving a remarkable nine continuous terms in office, sometimes defeating Kathleen Clarke, the widow of the 1916 leader Tom. However, when he stood down in 1939, he used his casting vote to ensure that Clarke succeeded him.
As Lord Mayor, he allowed the Mansion House to be used by politicians interested in establishing a new political party “unifying all opinion”, and following on from that, it was there that Fine Gael was formally launched in 1933. White quotes with approval the historian Ciara Meehan, who calls Byrne “the Lord Mayor of Dublin and legendary independent deputy [who] played an instrumental role in forging the notion of a new national party”. When I was elected leader of Fine Gael in that same Mansion House last summer, I was conscious of the powerful links with our party’s history, going back to that time, and further back to Michael Collins and the very first Dail. In some ways, Byrne was an unusual politician. Few politicians voluntarily give up their seats in the Dail, but he resigned in 1928 citing exhaustion, enabling the brother of the assassinated Kevin O’higgins to take his place in the by-election. However, he re-returned in 1932 when Cosgrave mademade a personal appeal to persuade him to run for election as an independent, and he topped the poll in Dublin North, receiving 18,170