Thursday 19 October 2017

'Shaking Hand of Dublin' who inspired us all

  • Biography: Alfie, Trevor White, €25.00
  • Reviewed by Leo Varadkar
Leo Varadkar and Alfie Byrne's son Patrick with the book in the Taoiseach's office
Leo Varadkar and Alfie Byrne's son Patrick with the book in the Taoiseach's office

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 returned in 1932 when Cosgrave made a personal appeal to persuade him to run for election as an independent, and he topped the poll in Dublin North, receiving 18,170 first preferences, the highest vote in the country.

In other ways, Byrne was the consummate politician. He understood the media and he understood marketing, and the book includes stories of how he sent letters to his constituents which looked like they were handwritten, but which were actually copies, and how he commissioned his own specially branded box of chocolates to give to visitors.

'Alfie' was not without his flaws, and the book addresses some of the criticisms made against him, including his love of jobbery, and his innate conservatism: for example, his opposition to jazz. But it also defends him against the more recent allegation that he was anti-Semitic, listing his support for various Jewish causes and other evidence.

Byrne's greatest regret in political life was that he was not able to stand for election in 1938 to become president of Ireland. Despite travelling to county councils around the country, he was outmanoeuvred by the decision to put forward a unity candidate in the form of the distinguished figure of Douglas Hyde. However, in the 1950s, he was elected to a further term as Lord Mayor of Dublin, making it an incredible 10 terms in office.

In 1955, he received an honorary doctorate in law from Trinity College Dublin, and at the ceremony, he was praised as "a champion of the poor and needy" and a friend to all people. It was a deserving honour for the self-made man, someone who had left school at the age of 13 to become a bicycle mechanic across the road from the college.

As we consider creating a directly elected Lord Mayor of Dublin, we should look to the example of Alfie Byrne, someone who used the office to advance and support all the citizens in the capital, and who set an inspiring example of what can be achieved in the role.

Leo Varadkar TD is Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael.

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