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shaking hand of dublin

WATCH: The 'rags to riches' story of Dublin's Alfie Byrne

Byrne was mayor of the city ten times. / YouTube

TO THOSE THAT knew him, Alfie Byrne was a fascinating – and somewhat complex – character.

The mayor of Dublin a whopping 10 times, he cut quite the figure in his bowler hat and moustache as he cycled the Dublin streets. But until now, the full story of Byrne’s life has not been told.

Byrne in his mayoral robes, 1954 Byrne in his mayoral robes, 1954. The Little Museum of Dublin The Little Museum of Dublin

That’s changed with the publishing of a book by Trevor White – director of the Little Museum of Dublin – about Byrne’s life.

Alfie: The Life and Times of Alfie Byrne is a biography of the man who was Lord Mayor of Dublin nine times from 1930 – 1939, before going on to hold the title for a tenth time from 1954 to 1955.

Byrne’s story is a “rags to riches” one, says White:

He leaves school at 13, and he reinvents himself as this extraordinary prominent character in the life of our capital.

Byrne on his bicycle - a familiar sight for generations of Dubliners Byrne on his bicycle.

He was first elected as a councillor in 1911, and later served as an MP, Senator, and TD during his career. Born in 1882, he left school at just 13 and was, says White, an autodidact who worked his way up in the world. He was a man of contradictions – a teetotaller politician and a Parnellite who opposed violence but was sympathetic to the Easter rebels.

Though he was fiercely conservative – for example, he formally opposed the Republic of Ireland Bill – there are many stories about him helping the poor.

The latter is perhaps why in the book, White describes Byrne as “the rarest of things: a genuinely popular politician”. He was so popular that people even wrote to him to ask for help in finding a husband or wife.

He was known as the Shaking Hand of Dublin, due to his love of going around shaking people’s hands. Postcards after his American tour of 1945 depicted people with broken arms, such was his penchant for shaking hands with everyone.

But some of his detractors called him the ‘Mansion House rat’.

Alfred the Great – Dublin Opinion cover, November 1930 Alfred the Great – Dublin Opinion cover, November 1930.

Byrne was born in Seville Place (the original building is long gone), one of eight children, and grew up across the road on Lower Oriel Street, after his father lost his job at the docks.

In 2015, Paddy Byrne gave the Little Museum of Dublin his father’s papers. They were put into a permanent exhibition at the city-centre museum.

“He’s somebody who is still remembered with enormous affection by other Dubliners,” said White. “Often when we show older people around and we mention the name Alfie Byrne, a tear comes to their eye.”

They say ‘I shook his hand and he helped me to get a job’ or ‘he helped me to get a house’. This exhibition is an opportunity to right a serious historical wrong because it’s scandalous that he’s so neglected, because he was a hugely important figure in the life of the city

In the video above, we spoke to White, Gerry Fay, Chairman of the North Wall Residents’ Committee, and Paddy Byrne (Alfie’s son) about the man himself.

Read: He was Dublin’s favourite politician… but today he’s a ‘forgotten hero’>

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