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

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW -

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

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