Alfred Byrne, Irish politician who serves as a Member of Parliament (MP), as a Teachta Dála (TD) and as Lord Mayor of Dublin, dies in Dublin on March 13, 1956. He is known as the “Shaking Hand of Dublin.” He holds the distinction of being the only person to serve as Councillor, Alderman, Lord Mayor of Dublin, MP, TD and Senator.
Byrne is born on March 17, 1882, the second of seven children born to Thomas Byrne, an engineer, and Fanny Dowman. His childhood home is at 36 Seville Place, a terraced house with five rooms just off the North Strand in Dublin. He drops out of school at the age of thirteen and is soon juggling jobs as a grocer’s assistant and a bicycle mechanic. Eventually he uses his savings to buy a pub on Talbot Street. He marries Elizabeth Heagney in 1910.
Byrne becomes an Alderman on Dublin Corporation in 1914. He is a member of the Dublin Port and Docks Board, a significant position for a politician from the Dublin Harbour constituency. In the records of the Oireachtas his occupation is given as company director. He is elected as MP for Dublin Harbour as a candidate of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) in a by-election on October 1, 1915, following the death of William Abraham. The Easter Rising in 1916 is followed by the rapid decline of the Irish Parliamentary Party and the rise of Sinn Féin. At the 1918 Irish general election he is defeated by a Sinn Féin candidate, Philip Shanahan.
Byrne is elected as an Independent TD supporting the Anglo-Irish Treaty for the Dublin Mid constituency at the general election to the Third Dáil in 1922. From 1923 to 1928 he represents Dublin City North. In 1928 he is elected for a six-year term as a member of Seanad Éireann. He vacates his Dáil seat on December 4, 1928. He resigns from the Seanad on December 10, 1931, and returns to the Dáil in 1932. He remains a TD until his death in 1956, representing Dublin City North (1932–37) and Dublin North-East (1937–56). In several elections he secures more votes than any other politician in the country.
Byrne is elected as Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1930, serving in the post for nine consecutive years. When cycling or walking around the city he dispenses lollipops to children, who are often seen chasing him down the street. With a handshake and a few words for all, his eternal canvassing soon earns him the first of his nicknames: the Shaking Hand of Dublin. Married with eight children, he treats the people of Dublin as his second family. Every morning he finds up to fifty people waiting for him in the Mansion House. None have appointments. All are met. He answers 15,000 letters in his first year as Lord Mayor. Many are from Dubliners looking for a job, a house, some advice or a reference. One morning in 1931 a journalist watches the Lord Mayor attend to his correspondence. Within an hour he accepts “seventeen invitations to public dinners, one invitation to a public entertainment and eight invitations to public functions.” Then he dictates forty-three sympathetic letters to men and women looking for employment.
In 1937, children between the ages of eight and eleven years old are being sentenced to spend up to five years in Industrial Schools. Their crime is stealing a few apples from an orchard. When Byrne says such sentences are “savage,” a judge responds with a defence of the Industrial School system, urging an end to “ridiculous Mansion House mummery.” He stands firm: “For the punishment of trifling offences the home of the children is better than any institution.” In 1938, he is favoured by the press for the presidency of Ireland, a ceremonial role created in the new Constitution, but he is outgunned by the political establishment.
When, in 1935, Byrne becomes the first Lord Mayor of Dublin to visit North America in 40 years, he is granted the freedom of Toronto, and The New York Times hails the arrival of a “champion showman.” He often extends a hand of friendship to Britain. He also improves relations between Dublin, until recently the centre of British authority, and the rest of the country. One night Dublin Fire Brigade gets an urgent call for assistance from Clones, County Monaghan. As Lord Mayor, he feels obliged to join the men on top of the fire engine as they set off on the 85-mile journey in the middle of the night.
In August 1936, Byrne addresses the inaugural meeting of the anti-communist Irish Christian Front, some of whose members later express anti-Semitic views. In 1938, as Lord Mayor, he presents a gift of a replica of the Ardagh Chalice to Italian naval cadets visiting Dublin on board two warships, who had been welcomed by the Irish government despite the protests of Dubliners. A photograph exists of Byrne giving a fascist salute along with Eoin O’Duffy, commander of the Blueshirts, around 1933.
In 1954, Byrne is elected as Lord Mayor for a record tenth time. This time he does not live in the Mansion House, but stays in Rathmines with his family, taking the bus to work each morning. He is just as devoted to the job. When flooding damages 20,000 houses in Fairview and North Strand, he rises from his sick bed to organise a relief fund. His final term as Lord Mayor comes to an end in 1955. Shortly afterwards, Trinity College Dublin awards him an honorary Doctorate of Law, describing him as a “champion of the poor and needy, and a friend of all men.”
Byrne dies on March 13, 1956. His funeral is the largest seen in Dublin for many years. The Evening Herald reports that “Traffic in O’Connell Street was held up for almost 20 minutes to allow the cortege of over 150 motor cars to pass, and at all the junctions along the route to Glasnevin people silently gathered to pay tribute to one of Dublin’s most famous sons.” The members of the Dáil stand and observe a short silence as a mark of respect. A telegram is sent to his widow from the Mayor of New York City, Robert F. Wagner Jr., expressing deepest sympathy, and stating “that Ald. Byrne had attained high office of Lord Mayor many times, but he never lost contact with the poor and the underprivileged, whose champion he was.”
The by-election caused by Byrne’s death, is won by his son, Patrick Byrne. Two other sons, A. P. Byrne and Thomas Byrne, are also TDs for various Dublin constituencies. Alfie Byrne Road in Clontarf is named after him. The Dublin Bay North branch of Young Fine Gael is renamed “Alfie Byrne YFG.”