Alfie: The Life and Times of Alfie Byrne, by Trevor White, Penguin, 258 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1844884247
Alfie Byrne was unsurpassed as a vote-getter. In the 1930 Dublin Corporation election he amassed just short of three quotas in an impressive line-up that included Big Jim Larkin and Kathleen Clarke, widow of Tom Clarke, the executed 1916 leader. In the 1927 Dáil election he received the highest number of votes in the state: 17,780 first preferences, over four thousand votes more than Eamon de Valera and WT Cosgrave. He was elected lord mayor of Dublin ten times, an achievement unlikely ever to be equalled. His achievements are all the more impressive when one considers that he had no party machine supporting him. His popularity was not confined to his native Dublin and he would probably have been elected president of Ireland had he not been prevented from running by a “stitch-up” engineered by Fianna Fáil and Cumann na nGaedheal in 1938. He was a legendary figure, still recalled fondly by Dubliners of a certain age. Yet there is no monument to him now standing in his city, historians only mention him in passing, if at all, and we have had to wait until now, six decades after his death, for a biography.
Trevor White’s biography of Byrne redresses the neglect; a neglect that was partly due to a certain disdain for the man and his convictions, or, as some might see it, his lack of them. Another factor that may have discouraged earlier potential biographers was the bland nature of his much of his public utterances. He generally played safe and tried to avoid rancour and conflict. His inclination was to conciliate or, where compromise was not possible, to procrastinate. (He even once tried to reconcile Shamrock Rovers with Bohemians, which some would regard as more difficult to achieve than Irish unity.) His political career defined him, and perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this was how out of tune it was to the national narrative. As his biographer puts it, “he found himself on the wrong side of history”. He began as a Redmondite home ruler and, throughout his career as a city father, a TD and a senator, he remained, for good or ill, true to his archaic political origins. How this political pedigree can be reconciled with his unparalleled popularity remains a puzzle which historians generally prefer to ignore.
Byrne’s first foray into electoral politics occurred when, as a twenty-eight-year-old in 1911, he was selected to represent the United Irish League (UIL), the local organisation of the Irish Parliamentary Party, in an election to Dublin City Council, or Dublin Corporation as it was then known. At the time of his election, he was married and the owner of a pub and was encouraged in his political activities by his father-in-law, also a publican and his former employer. He soon attracted the patronage of Joseph Patrick Nannetti, an Irish Party MP and former Dublin lord mayor. Nannetti was a leading trade unionist and advised John Redmond, the leader of the party, on labour issues. The MP was then in his sixties and not in the best of health and he may have been grooming Byrne to replace him as the voice of organised labour within the party. Alfie, though now a publican, would have had some credibility in the role. His father, a skilled dock worker, had been dismissed for trade union activities and the family retained its strong connection with Dublin’s dockland. A perceived labour presence within the UIL was important to Redmond and Nannetti in order to support their dubious claim that there was no need for a labour party in Ireland as the Irish Party represented their interest. Byrne was duly elected to the corporation to represent the North Docks ward, easily defeating the incumbent, Paul Gregan, a Sinn Féiner with links to Yeats and others in the literary set.
The 1913 Lockout was the most significant event during Byrne’s first term as a councillor. Initially he was supportive of the workers, calling for the restoration to employment of forty port workers who had been dismissed for refusing to unload reels of newsprint bound for the Irish Independent, owned by William Martin Murphy, the instigator of the employers’ lockout of all workers who refused to pledge not to join Big Jim Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. Byrne could hardly be anything but supportive given that a high proportion of his constituents were dockers and members of the union. The leadership of Irish Parliamentary Party, however, was far less supportive. Redmond remained aloof, but other leading figures were entirely hostile to Larkin. Byrne, however, faced a dilemma when a scheme to have the undernourished children of those locked out housed with sympathetic families in Britain for the duration of the dispute was condemned by the archbishop of Dublin, William Walsh. The prelate feared that these Catholic children would be exposed to Protestant influences. When Catholic priests and lay organisations, in particular the Ancient Order of Hibernians, linked to the Irish Party, gathered in great numbers to physically prevent the children being shipped away, Alfie Byrne was among them. The author records Pádraig Yeates’s view that Byrne was “doing what he did best … following a mob to pick up a few votes”. It is a view that can’t be discounted, although it implies that the wily politician must have assumed his actions would be supported by the majority of voters in his docklands electoral base, the impoverished community most impacted by the dispute. Byrne most likely came under pressure from the local clergy to join the protest and he no doubt made a calculation of the electoral consequence of refusing to participate. It would have involved a wrestling with conscience that many a politician, before and long after, indulged in before conceding to the clergy their last vestiges of independent thought.
Local elections in January 1914 were to test opinion on the lockout, as Larkinite candidates stood in all the Dublin wards. Byrne suffered retribution for his role in the children’s affair, although not electorally: he was injured when a stone thrown at him during the campaign hit him on the head, drawing blood. In the North Docks ward, he was opposed in the alderman election by Thomas McPartlin, a member of the parliamentary committee of the Irish Trade Union Congress. Byrne won, although his margin of victory was much lower than in 1911. In the vote for the councillorship, PT Daly, a close ally of Larkin, won the seat, defeating Byrne’s UIL colleague, suggesting that it was Byrne’s personal popularity that saved him. The timing of the election, when the dispute was effectively over and the unions in some disarray, did not favour the Labour candidates. The active support of priests for UIL candidates didn’t help the Labour cause either.
The clergy also seem to have played a role in Alfie Byrne’s next electoral contest. In 1915 he was nominated as a candidate in a by-election in the Dublin Harbour Division for the Westminster parliament. There was no Labour candidate, but Byrne had formidable opposition in two rival nationalists, The O’Mahony, as he liked to be known, and John J Farrell. O’Mahony, although from a privileged background, had been a supporter of Larkin. Byrne won easily, his vote exceeding the combined total of his two rivals. While O’Mahony gracefully accepted defeat, Farrell complained bitterly about literature distributed by Byrne’s supporters that, he claimed, labelled him as a “blackguard and a scoundrel”. He also deplored the role of two local curates who, on the eve of the poll, disavowed him. The wily Byrne clearly had the clergy on his side, perhaps in recompense for his role in 1913. Many years later, though, he was to disappoint them when he objected to the “savage” incarceration of young children in industrial schools for “trifling offences”, a statement for which, as White tells us, he was roundly condemned. He was accused of insulting the religious orders who operated the institutions, and reminded by a judge that they were composed of “men and women of gentle breeding who have given up all to devote themselves to the care and education of those children of the poor”.
Membership of the House of Commons must have been a challenging, if not intimidating, experience for Byrne. From a working class background, though having prospered somewhat, he had little formal education, having left school at thirteen. (He had by this time sold his pub, probably to help fund his election.) Westminster was still dominated by public-school-educated Tories and Liberals, while Byrne’s colleagues among the Irish Party were mostly from an upper-middle class background too. If he found the atmosphere snobbish, this doesn’t appear to have daunted him. He quickly began submitting questions, frequently about trade-union-related matters, indicating that he had indeed begun to take over Nannetti’s role. The focus changed after the 1916 rebellion.
Byrne was out in 1916, but not with the rebels. He joined with Francis Sheehy Skeffington (a pacifist subsequently murdered by a deranged British officer) in efforts to prevent looting. Later in that historic week he assisted in getting food and other essentials to those marooned by the conflict. Although opposed to the rebellion, he later used every opportunity in the House of Commons to raise issues about the condition of the prisoners and to condemn the executions of the leaders. One of his first actions was to ask for an inquiry into the shooting dead of Sheehy-Skeffington and those murdered alongside him. He visited Frongoch in Wales, where most of the volunteers were held, and made representations on their behalf and on behalf of Countess Markievicz. He was undertaking a role long adapted by constitutional nationalists, one of deploring the actions of those involved in violence, while seeking leniency for them after their arrest. This wasn’t necessarily calculated or hypocritical. Byrne appears to have been deeply upset by the executions, as is evidenced by a rare display of anger. When the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, read out a list of British military rebellion casualties, Alfie, untypically, called out “you ought to shoot Carson for that”. The previous day, four of the 1916 leaders had been shot, bringing the then total up to twelve. This and the subsequent execution of James Connolly and Roger Casement outraged Irish nationalists of all shades and was a major factor in the demise of the Irish Parliamentary Party.
It also led to Alfie Byrne losing his Westminster seat when he was, like almost all of his colleagues, swept away by the Sinn Féin electoral landslide in 1918. It was the only election he was ever to lose. He bounced back in 1920 when he was re-elected to Dublin Corporation. In the first election involving the use of proportional representation, he easily defeated his Sinn Féin, nationalist and Labour rivals with a first preference vote that was four times the quota. He remained an alderman until Dublin Corporation was dissolved in 1924. By then he had begun his career as a TD, winning a Dáil seat in 1922. Although exceeding the quota then, and in 1923, he was not the poll-topper: General Richard Mulcahy was the most popular candidate in Dublin North. But it didn’t take too long for Alfie to spread his appeal beyond his North Docks base and by 1927 he had overtaken the Cumann na nGaedheal man, winning by huge majorities. White quotes him as being nonplussed by his own success, claiming with undue, or perhaps false, modesty: “I cannot explain the enormous vote. My humble efforts in public life, I am afraid, have been greatly exaggerated.”
With the restoration of Dublin Corporation in 1930, Byrne began his decade-long reign as lord mayor, combining this with his role as a TD or senator. He might have become the first president in 1937 had not de Valera, reacting to an appeal by Cardinal MacRory that an election be avoided, reached agreement with WT Cosgrave on the nomination of Douglas Hyde. He may have felt particular disappointment that Cosgrave helped to stymie his bid for the park. Patrick Byrne, Alfie’s son, believes that his father had generously resigned from the Dáil in 1929 to permit Thomas F O’Higgins, the brother of the assassinated minister for justice, Kevin O’Higgins, to take over his Dublin North seat. As White points out, there is no direct evidence to support this. However, it seem probable: Byrne’s stated reason at the time, that membership of the senate would be less demanding on his time, lacks credibility given his proven appetite for work and the fact that he returned to the lower house at the first subsequent opportunity. He would not have wished it to be known that his resignation was to facilitate Cumann na nGaedheal, as that would have destroyed his cherished image as an independent.
There was never, however, any doubt that Byrne was close to Cumann na nGaedheal/Fine Gael in his politics. He was a Catholic conservative who supported the treaty settlement. The party’s support was crucial to his elections to the Dublin mayoralty, in part because some of their councillors depended on his imprimatur in order to get elected to the council, but also because they did not have the numbers to elect one of their own and Alfie’s election prevented a Fianna Fáil nominee becoming mayor. There were, however, occasional tensions in the relationship. Byrne was more attached to the British connection than many of the Cumann na nGaedheal veterans of the War of Independence. In December 1932, he hosted a meeting in the Mansion House at which steps were taken to establish a new party that would unite all those who recognised “that the interests of the State are bound up within the Commonwealth”. The meeting was a reaction to Fianna Fáil’s election victory in March of that year and it eventually led to the establishment of Fine Gael, a merger of Cumann na nGaedheal, the National Centre Party and the Blueshirt movement (National Guard) under Eoin O’Duffy. Byrne flirted with the Blueshirts for a time and White’s book contains a photograph of a Mansion House meeting in which the lord mayor is seen to have his arm raised in a fascist-style salute. In truth though, he was an old-style home rule nationalist rather than a radical reactionary. One suspects that his time in the British House of Commons made a lasting impression on him. There he had reinvented himself as an Edwardian gent and he maintained this image, sartorially and culturally, thereafter. The Gaelic revival didn’t interest him and he made no effort to speak the near obligatory “cúpla focal”. Always decked out in a three-piece suit and winged shirt collar, and sporting a waxed circus-ringmaster-type moustache, the small man was instantly recognisable. He, no doubt deliberately, took on the appearance of a kindly grandfather figure, one who made no concession to modern fashions, no more than he did to progressive ideas.
Byrne had a reputation for being generous, approachable and always polite. He received countless begging letters from all over the country and replied to them all, offering sympathy if not cash. He was a target for cadgers and didn’t always disappoint. During his perambulations, he probably took with him what a later politician was to call “carrying-around money”. But he was no Francis of Assisi: he kept some for himself. He had long moved away from his northside base to a large house on Palmerston Road in Rathmines. In common with a number of other politicians of that period, he enjoyed an income as a ticket agent from the Irish Sweepstakes. He was also a trustee of Royal Liver Insurance, a role he had inherited from Nannetti. As White points out, there were obvious conflicts of interest involved, especially with the sweepstakes, which he shamelessly promoted, but such matters rarely attracted comment in those days. The lord mayor’s charities were generally well supported and it’s not made clear if Alfie, during his long residency in the Mansion House, had control over how these were distributed.
After much drama and indecision, Byrne withdrew from a mayoral election in 1939, ending nine successive years as lord mayor, thus graciously allowing Kathleen Clarke, who had stood unsuccessfully against him on many previous occasions, to succeed him. The gesture didn’t reconcile Fianna Fáil to him, however, and he was the subject of a stinging attack in the Dáil later that year when the pugnacious Seán MacEntee, minister for industry and commerce, accused him of making “sickening hypocritical speeches” concerning the poor. Byrne’s constituents clearly didn’t agree, for he received three and a half quotas in the 1942 municipal elections. He was also re-elected to the Dáil in 1944, although on that occasion he trailed the Fianna Fáil candidate, Oscar Traynor. However, he recovered his pole position three years later in the election that resulted in defeat for de Valera and the establishment of the first inter-party government.
When that government, which he supported, proposed the Republic of Ireland Bill in 1948, Byrne opposed it and spoke in favour of Ireland remaining in the British Commonwealth. He argued that the declaration of a twenty-six-county republic would be inimical to the prospects for Irish unity. He argued that the Home Rule Act achieved by the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1914 would have achieved independence for the whole island. He also implied that the 1920 Act, which established partition, was facilitated by the absence of Irish Party MPs, effectively blaming it on the abstentionism of Sinn Féin following the 1918 election. Now in his late sixties, it seemed he was regurgitating his speeches of thirty years earlier, again standing by Parnell, his boyhood hero, and Redmond, his former party leader, against the die-hards. He was, as his biographer puts it, something of a “home rule dinosaur”. He had been the only Irish politician to travel to London on the death of George V and, to the fury of republicans, later attended a Mass in Westminster Cathedral in connection with the new king’s coronation. This all raises the question: was his popularity due to, or in spite of, his political leanings? On the whole, the evidence points to the latter. His followers, if they knew or cared about his affection for the Commonwealth, probably put it down to his eccentricity. However, he may not have been too out of line with the sentiments of much of the Dublin working class. Emigration meant many of them had worked in Britain for a time or were financially dependent on other family members resident there. Many, out of necessity, or in search of adventure, had enlisted in the British armed services. There was a residual interest, even affection for the monarch in some households, something that infuriated republicans, who rioted in cinemas that dared to allow Pathé news screenings of royal events. Alfie Byrne’s moderate nationalism, and his quiet Anglophilia, certainly did not dent his popularity and probably enhanced his appeal for some.
In the 1950s his popularity extended to a new generation. He was particularly popular with women and children. I can vouch for the latter: as a child I recall joining other urchins in annoying canvassers of the main political parties by following them, chanting:
Vote, vote, vote for de Valera,
In comes Alfie at the door eye-oh
Alfie Byrne is the one who will be a bit of fun
And we won’t vote de Valera anymore.
In 1954 Byrne, now in his early seventies, won a tenth term as lord mayor. It was a valedictory tribute and a final hurrah: this time he was unable to engineer his own re-election and was replaced by Denis Larkin, the son of his old North Dublin rival. He is remembered now, if at all, as part of Dublin in the rare old times, as the song goes ‑ a mawkish misremembrance that filters out the appalling poverty and intolerant religiosity of the place, afflictions he, for all his legendry generosity, did little to alleviate. But we cannot condemn him without impugning our parents or grandparents. They saw him as one of their own who had made good, and who made others feel good about themselves. And he was, by all accounts, a nice man, always mannerly and friendly, even towards his rivals. He was also, of course, a populist, one with a keen sense of knowing what the people wanted to hear, but he was not of the type that pandered to prejudice. The citizens of Dublin could have made worse choices.
Trevor White has done today’s citizenry some service in providing us with a balanced and well-researched account of the phenomenon that was Dublin’s own Alfie Byrne.
Tom Wall is a Dubliner and a former assistant general secretary of the ICTU.