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Dublin: 7 °C Monday 18 November, 2019
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He was Dublin's favourite politician... but today he's a 'forgotten hero'

He is described as a “truly self-made man and a heroic figure”.

“This is a story that has not been told, and deserves to be told. It should be a source of great pride for people.”

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WHEN HE DIED in March of 1956, thousands attended his funeral.

But today, Alfie Byrne is not the household name he was during his 45 years of political life in Dublin.

The fascinating life of the character – who was known as the ‘shaking hand of Dublin’ during his time as Lord Mayor of the capital – is explored in a brand new and permanent exhibition that opened today at the Little Museum of Dublin.

Curator of the exhibition is Trevor White, who set up the Little Museum. He explained that Byrne’s family donated the 4,000-item-strong archive to the museum, not knowing if it was of any interest.

But of interest it was, with White in particular extremely enthusiastic about Byrne’s contribution to Irish life. The museum intends on rotating picks from the archive over the years.

Lord Mayor, TD, Senator

Source: British Pathé/YouTube

So, why was Alfie Byrne such an interesting man?

“Alfie was Lord Mayor of Dublin 10 times, he was an independent politician, he is somebody who is not remembered as widely as he should be, because he was probably the most popular Dublin-born politician of the last century,” said White.

Byrne was Lord Mayor nine times from 1930 – 1939, and held the title for a tenth time in from 1954 to 1955.

He was first elected as a councillor in 1911, and later served as an MP, Senator, and TD during his career.

he was called Lord Mayor of Ireland, he was that popular.

Byrne scooped high votes in elections, and was even mooted to run for President in 1938.

He was born in 1882, the same year as James Joyce and Eamon de Valera.

“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.

White emphasised that Byrne wasn’t just a politician:

“He was also a very, very good man. He was a man who was extremely compassionate and kind and he was always there for people who were on the margins of society.”

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In 1937, at a time when children were sentenced to industrial schools for petty crimes, Byrne spoke out, calling the sentences ‘savage’.

For his trouble, he got denounced by a senior judge, who said Byrne was “off his rocker”, accusing him of “Mansion House mummery”.

Byrne was a “very complex figure”, said White, describing how he dressed like “a 19th century gentleman”, with a large white moustache. Byrne’s politics also didn’t suit the dominant narrative of Ireland, as he was a Constitutional Nationalist – not a Republican – and didn’t support the Easter Rising.

Some in Fianna Fáil were “openly contemptuous” of Byrne, said White.

The fact he was an independent candidate may have contributed to his lack of a legacy, though Cumann na Gael did support him during his lifetime.

Looking after the poor

Byrne’s constituency was the harbour constituency, which straddled north and south of Dublin. 

He grew up in a big family in a small house, and left school at 13.  In his teens, he had three jobs, and eventually saved up enough to buy a pub at the age of 26, but he never forgot his roots.

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“He always looked after the interests of the poor,” said White. 

There was humour around Byrne too – postcards after his American tour of 1945 depicted people with broken arms, such was his penchant for shaking hands with everyone.

“Here is a truly inspirational politician,” said White. “Somebody who is a self-made man who was an extremely decent and kind person, who was hugely popular.”

It wasn’t just Dublin where he made his mark – by the end of his career, “there wasn’t a town in Ireland that hadn’t given him a civic reception”, said White.

He even helped during a fire brigade call-out in Dundalk at one point. “That’s the kind of man he was – he had a fundamental decency about him.”

At the Little Museum, they hope that people of all ages will engage with Alfie’s story.

“I hope people agree that this guy is worthy of celebration, that he is worth remembering,” said White. “There was something very special about this man.”

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Amongst the posters, photos, and newspaper articles are letters from men who wanted Alfie to help them find a woman to love.

Then there is the chocolate box, one of hundreds that would have been distributed to children at the parties he held for underprivileged young people at the Mansion House.

When Byrne’s body was brought to be buried, groups of women knelt on the side of the road, reciting the rosary.

Today, he is most often remembered as the name sake of Alfie Byrne Road in Clontarf. But perhaps this exhibition will help place him back on the political and historical map in Ireland once more.

All images courtesy of Little Museum of Dublin

Read: More than his left foot: New archive shows the real life of Christy Brown>

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