Friday 23 August 2019

The shaking hand of Dublin

Trevor White's biography of Alfie Byrne reveals how the 10-time Lord Mayor set the template for many modern-day politicians - despite a cloud over his links to dodgy lotteries, writes Damian Corless


Alfie: The Life and Times of Alfie Byrne

Trevor White

Penguin Ireland, hardback, 272 pages, €22.99

Power wears a uniform: Costume and charm were essential assets in the seduction of Dublin by Byrne, shown here on O’Connell Bridge
Power wears a uniform: Costume and charm were essential assets in the seduction of Dublin by Byrne, shown here on O’Connell Bridge
Alfie: The Life and Times of Alfie Byrne by Trevor White
Alfie Byrne on the cover of Dublin Opinion, depicting the man as 'The Shaking Hand of Dublin'

In October 1930, at the age of 48, Alfie Byrne completed a collection of political titles that remains unique to this day, adding Lord Mayor of Dublin to councillor, alderman, Westminster MP, Dáil Deputy and Senator. By the close of his stellar career, he had notched up another record that will never be broken, serving 10 terms as First Citizen of Ireland's capital.

Such was the far-flung celebrity of this poor inner-city boy made good, that he was often referred to as 'Lord Mayor of Ireland', attracting fan mail and begging letters from around the globe.

In the first of two 1927 general elections, Byrne was the country's biggest vote-getter. The feat was the more remarkable as he had no party machine behind him. When he first became mayor, The Belfast Newsletter nailed one secret of his success - he was the clientelist politician par excellence.

The Newsletter observed: "What he stands for is difficult to say; everybody agrees that he is a 'decent sort' and all classes give him their votes. He is not really much concerned with party politics... but will nearly wear the shoes off his feet in worrying government on behalf of any poor man whom he considers a deserving case - and he exercises a wondrous charity in his interpretation of the word 'deserving'."

Trevor White, the author of Alfie: The Life and Times of Alfie Byrne, adds: "Byrne presented himself as a simple man with simple tastes. All he wanted was jobs, housing, a united Ireland, more playgrounds, Mass on Sunday and a full dance card."

Take away the thick wad of notes, the biobliography and the index at the back, and White's biography is a slim enough volume, but it makes for hugely entertaining reading. Stories, myths and legends about Byrne lie scattered in memoirs and histories, but this is the first proper account of his life, and it's bolstered by White's access to the Byrne family's private papers.

Byrne was born into a large inner-city clan that hit hard times when his docker father was sacked for attempting to organise a union. At 13, he left O'Connell School where his contemporaries included James Joyce and future President Seán T O'Kelly. Making a buck always took priority over having fun, and at the age of 26, the multitasking Byrne bought his first pub, the Verdon on Dublin's Talbot Street. Although no-one doubted his credentials as a workaholic, people wondered where the hefty £500 purchase price had come from. Suspicions over Byrne's income streams would persist, with his bitter political rival 'Big' Jim Larkin branding him 'Alfie Bung'.

According to White, Byrne's time pulling pints was his entry into the world of politics. Besides educating himself on the hot issues, he came to understand how a barman could rule his own roost.

As a dispenser of drink, warmth and shelter, he grasped "the mechanics of power and influence in a community: how to flatter and win trust, how to tell a story, how to settle arguments, how to exude authority".

He put these life-skills to early use, winning a Westminster seat for Redmond's Nationalist Party in a 1915 by-election, and a TD post in the first Free State election of 1922. By the early 1920s, he was already immersing himself in property speculation. He loved the pomp and ceremony of Westminster, and in the words of White, discovered there "that power often wears a uniform".

The author says: "Returned to Dublin, this short undistinctive man dressed for a role in a costume drama, or even a comedy by Oscar Wilde. The top hat lent height, while a cane is always a useful symbol of authority. Costume and charm were essential assets in the seduction of Dublin."

Seduced they may have been, but Dubliners weren't blind to Byrne's preposterous side. He was the target of endless parody by Maureen Potter at the Gaiety, where Jimmy O'Dea nicknamed him 'The Shaking Hand of Dublin'. O'Dea told a joke about a cyclist up in court for failing to signal a turn. The defendant said he'd been afraid to put out his hand in case Byrne shook it.

An obsessive-compulsive political stuntsman, Byrne would happily risk life and limb flying in bad weather or clinging to a speeding fire engine, just so long as it got his name out there. He threw lavish children's parties, and cut a Willie Wonka figure, raining down sweets and lollipops on the city's urchins. As White reports: "A seminal figure in the history of pester power, he used children in a way that would raise concerns today, urging them to canvass their parents at the table. At one election, kids stood outside the voting booths with photos of Byrne around their necks."

In 1922, Byrne was manipulating blind children as he began a life-long intimacy with dodgy lotteries. As Deputy Lord Mayor, Byrne emceed a big draw to raise funds for the Mater Hospital. Blind boys drew the tickets as a vouchsafe that the operation was clean. It wasn't. The organiser, Richard Duggan, went on to found the superlottery known as the Irish Sweeps, illegal everywhere in the world beyond Ireland.

By 1937, Byrne was leading the New York St Patrick's Day parade as goodwill ambassador for the Sweeps. The business model was bribery and corruption, and Byrne did very well - most likely in some ways we'll never know - as the promoters' favourite pet politician.

Having taken up permanent residence in Dublin's Mansion House, in 1937, Byrne set his sites on becoming Ireland's first President. He was frozen out, and remained bitter to his dying day in 1956, aged 73.

Unintellectual, unimpeded by any ideology, fixated with making a bob and his property portfolio, and somehow able to get away with supporting both Bohs and Rovers, Alfie Byrne was the prototype role-model for many modern Irish politicians.

Trevor White presents him in a broadly sympathetic light. Unbelievers might prefer to enjoy this engaging book as the lively biography of a gombeen man.

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