THE PIED PIPER OF DAWSON STREET
Perhaps the most popular Dublin politician of the 20th century, Alfie Byrne served ten terms as the Lord Mayor of the city
employment”. He claimed to receive more than 100 such appeals every day.
Byrne’s reputation went far beyond Dublin. A story in The Irish Times reported that he spent more money on postage in a week than any four of his predecessors combined. The article, headed “Lord Mayor’s Postbag: 15,000 letters”, also formalised a nickname: “The letters come from all of the earth, and often from people who know nothing about Ireland. One letter, whose contents showed it was intended for the Lord Mayor of Dublin, was addressed: ‘The Lord Mayor of Ireland, Sligo’.”
When Byrne developed a habit of boarding mail boats to welcome distinguished visitors to Dún Laoghaire, a Fianna Fáil councillor complained that the lord mayor “comes out here to usurp our chairman’s functions”.
The chairman concurred: “I have generally succeeded in being first on the boat, but not having any insignia of office except perhaps a temperance badge, I am not as easily recognisable as a man with links of gold round his neck. I have always preceded him, but he has always managed to get in his speech first.”
Byrne’s first term as elected lord mayor came to an end in the summer of 1931. Determined to retain the title, he brokered the support of Cumann na nGaedheal in return for his fealty in the national parliament.
The Belfast Newsletter noted that the loudest opposition to Byrne’s re-election was “from Larkinite and other Labour representatives, who are extremely jealous of ‘Alfie’s’ great popularity in the poor quarters of the city”.
The paper described Byrne as “a curious study, because apart from his public position he is an absolute nobody. He is unlearned – he is not a big business man; he is not a politician.”
The legend that he was “non-political” was self-perpetuated, but the same piece also identified something genuine. “If you meet him in the street, a dapper little man walking with quick steps, you feel sure that the friendly smile on his face was meant for you.
“Only the bitterest fanatics can withstand his friendliness. The friendliness is not mere show; ‘Alfie’ has helped hundreds of lame dogs over stiles.”
Byrne presented himself as a simple man with simple desires. All he wanted was jobs, housing, a united Ireland, more playgrounds, Mass on Sunday and a full dance card. It was not the world’s most credible manifesto, and some of those goals would remain beyond his reach.
But on July 1st, 1931, Byrne was re-elected for a second term as lord mayor of Dublin.
If you meet him in the street, a dapper little man walking with quick steps, you feel sure that the friendly smile on his face was meant for you
Trevor White is the author of Alfie, published by Penguin Ireland
Main photograph: Alfie Byrne on his bicycle – a familiar sight for generations of Dubliners; Top: Byrne welcoming the papal legate to Dublin for the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 and with his daughter Carmel in the 1950s; Left: a letter he wrote in 1954 and below: Alfie Byrne (second from right) with Desmond FitzGerald, Patrick McGilligan and WT Cosgrave