Alfred the Great: A Dublin Legend

Byrne Does The Work, We Want Alfie, We Want Byrne, Make Sure of Alfie First.

These pedestrian but clear slogans made quite clear what Alfie Byrne’s supporters wanted and express the collective feelings of Dubliners during his reign as “The Great Handshaker.”

The longest, successive Lord mayor of Dublin, he was elected to the office ten times, as well as having been a TD and a senator. For Alfie Byrne was that rare thing – a genuinely popular politician, while being a man of many parts.
From rags to riches and from tenacious politician to ultimate gentleman. His journey is fascinating and his personality complex.

The above slogans from his campaigns are one of many examples of archival details culled from meticulous research of documents and material by author Trevor White. He had an advantage as the founder of The Little Museum of Dublin and custodian of the permanent exhibition housed there about Byrne, the family having donated his personal archive to it in 2012.

The ‘life and times’ of the book’s subtitle is pertinent, as the entertainingly titled chapters show (The Bleeding-Heart Racket – complete with George Bernard Shaw quote.) They don’t just detail his life and rise to political fame but also the atmosphere and history of the city and his inseparable, intrinsic relationship with it. (NewsFour readers will be especially interested in his Port connections amongst others.)
Pigs run up streets, the same streets characters like Zozimus and Bang, Bang roamed. Shopkeepers are fairly well-to-do people and the tenement slums sit cheek and jowl with the grand buildings of O’Connell Street.
Byrne, who grows up amid the tumult of the city in times of great political and social change, stays close to it and its people and later as Mayor would still cycle through these streets. This is his success, his empathy with the poor and his friendliness which “only the bitterest of fanatics can withstand his friendliness; his friendliness is not mere show.” His humble beginnings and being “ ‘an absolute nobody’ unlearned, not big business, ‘not political’” was to be his unique selling point.

White has a winning style with some terrific one-liners and insights, commenting entertainingly in places with pithy observations and the book is a pleasure to read as much for its narrative pace and writer’s eye as it is for the historical content and interesting biography of a character who seemed to be able to balance that most difficult of things; To please everyone while doing exactly as he pleased.
It is poignant too when his reign comes to a much-lamented end, one reporter spots him and is ‘horrified’ to see him ‘naked without his chain.’ Meanwhile, the chattering classes sent newspapers verse on the subject.
His last act showed his innate sense of decency when he astonished everyone with anointing a rival, widow Kathleen Clarke to the post. Thus he ensured his legacy as Alfred The Great, Dublin’s best-loved son, who knew how to make an entrance and an exit. And a surprise awaits the reader: a whimsical coda that is a curiosity for them to ponder.

Alfie; The Life and Times of Alfie Byrne; Penguin Ireland; Hardback €22.99.

by Beibhinn Byrne