Alfred Byrne

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For his son, see Alfred P. Byrne.

Alfred Byrne (17 March 1882 – 13 March 1956), also known as Alfie Byrne, was an Irish politician, who served as a Member of Parliament (MP) in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and as a Teachta Dála (TD) in Dáil Éireann. As Lord Mayor of Dublin he was known as the "Shaking Hand of Dublin".

Alfred Byrne on O'Connell Bridge

The Shaking Hand of Dublin[edit]

The press called him the "Shaking Hand of Dublin",[1] Alfred the Great,[2] and The Lord Mayor of Ireland.[3] But most people knew him simply as Alfie. One of the most popular Dublin-born politicians of the 20th Century,[4] he did not write a memoir.

Early life[edit]

The second of seven children, his childhood home was at 36 Seville Place, a terraced house with five rooms just off Dublin’s North Strand.[5] Byrne dropped out of school at the age of 13, and was soon juggling jobs as a grocer’s assistant and a bicycle mechanic.[6] Eventually he used his savings to buy a pub on Talbot Street.[6]

Early political career[edit]

Alfred Byrne Purchasing Newspaper

Byrne became an Alderman on Dublin Corporation in 1914. He was 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.Byrne was elected as an MP at the age of 33,[7] and later to the Dáil as an independent in favour of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.[6] Without the benefit of a party machine, he soon realised that attending to constituents’ needs was the only sure way to retain his seat. In several elections he secured more votes than any other politician in the country.[4] His personal archive, which is on view in The Little Museum of Dublin, includes many letters from men who thought he could find them a wife.

Byrne's constituent Philip Shanahan had legal problems following the Easter Rising. Shanahan consulted the lawyer and Nationalist politician Timothy Healy. Byrne attended this conference between Shanahan and his Parliamentary colleague. Healy commented:

The rapid decline of the Irish Parliamentary Party and the rise of Sinn Féin, even in the formerly immensely safe Dublin Harbour constituency, followed the Rising. Byrne was defeated by Shanahan as Sinn Féin candidate in the 1918 general election. Byrne continued his political career in independent Ireland. He was elected as an independent TD for the Dublin Mid constituency in the election to the Third Dáil in 1922.[8] From 1923 to 1928, he represented Dublin North. He was an elected a member of Seanad Éireann, for a six-year term, in 1928. He vacated his Dáil seat on 4 December 1928. He resigned from the Seanad on 10 December 1931. Byrne returned to the Dáil in 1932 and sat there until his death in 1956. He represented Dublin North (1932–37) and Dublin North–East (1937–56).[9]

Lord Mayor (1930–39)[edit]

Alfred Byrne

Byrne was elected as Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1930,[10] serving in the post for nine consecutive years.[11] When cycling or walking around the city he dispensed lollipops to children, who were often seen chasing him down the street. With a handshake and a few words for all, his eternal canvassing soon earned him the first of his nicknames: the Shaking Hand of Dublin.[5]

Married with eight children, Byrne treated the people of Dublin as his second family.[12] Every morning he would find up to fifty people waiting for him in the Mansion House. None had appointments. All were met. Byrne answered 15,000 letters in his first year as Lord Mayor.[13] Many were from Dubliners looking for a job, a house, some advice or a reference. One morning in 1931 a journalist watched the Lord Mayor attend to his correspondence. Within an hour he accepted “seventeen invitations to public dinners, one invitation to a public entertainment and eight invitations to public functions.” Then he dictated forty-three sympathetic letters to men and women looking for employment.[13]

Writing in The Sunday Times, museum director Trevor White says, “Like Tony Gregory in a top hat, he represented the poor with particular zeal, highlighting problems in housing, jobs and the treatment of young offenders at a time when others were indifferent to such concerns." [14]

In 1937, children between the ages of eight and eleven years old were being sentenced to spend up to five years in Industrial Schools. Their crime was stealing a few apples from an orchard. When Byrne said such sentences were “savage,” a judge responded with a defence of the Industrial School system, urging an end to “ridiculous Mansion House mummery.” [15] Byrne stood firm: “For the punishment of trifling offences the home of the children is better than any institution.” [16]

Presidential candidate[edit]

In 1938 Byrne was favoured by the press for the presidency of Ireland, a ceremonial role created in the new Constitution, but he was outgunned by the political establishment.[17]

Relations with the United States and the United Kingdom[edit]

The Lord Mayor Leaves New York

When Byrne became the first Lord Mayor of Dublin to visit North America in 40 years, he was granted the freedom of Toronto, and the New York Times hailed the arrival of a “champion showman.” [5] Byrne often extended a hand of friendship to Britain. He also improved relations between Dublin (until recently the centre of colonial occupation) and the rest of the country. One night Dublin Fire Brigade got an urgent call for assistance from Clones.[18] As Lord Mayor, Byrne felt 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.[19]

Final term as Lord Mayor (1954)[edit]

In 1954, Byrne was elected as Lord Mayor for a record tenth time. This time he did not live in the Mansion House, but stayed in Rathmines with his family, taking the bus to work each morning.[20] He was just as devoted to the job. When flooding damaged 20,000 houses in Fairview and North Strand, he rose from his sick bed to organize a relief fund.[20]

Byrne’s final term as Lord Mayor came to an end in 1955. Shortly afterwards, Trinity College Dublin awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Law, describing him as a “champion of the poor and needy, and a friend of all men.” [21]


Alfie Byrne died on 13 March 1956. An obituary in the Irish Times noted,[22]

Byrne’s funeral was the largest seen in Dublin for many years. The Evening Herald reported 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.” [23]

The Irish Times noted that "one of the largest groups of people gathered at the Five Lamps, one of the few places at which Alderman Byrne always made a speech during his election campaign for Dublin North-East." [22]

The Irish Press reported a tribute by the Taoiseach, John A Costello, "He had great personal charm and was known for his old-world courtliness both at home and abroad.... We mourn in the passing of Alfie Byrne the loss of an honoured and distinguished Irishman whose place in the hearts of his fellow countrymen was unique and who gave a lifetime of unselfish devotion to their service." [22] The members of the Dail stood and observed a short silence as a mark of respect.

A telegram was sent to his widow from the Mayor of New York, 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.” [24]


The by-election caused by his death, was won by his son Patrick Byrne. Two other sons Alfred P. Byrne and Thomas Byrne were also TDs for various Dublin constituencies.

Fascist and antisemitic connections[edit]

Byrne was a member of the Blueshirts, a paramilitary far-right organisation. He presided over a large meeting of the Irish Christian Front (of which he was a member), a far-right organisation that consistently promoted virulently anti-Semitic views. This march was the largest far-right demonstration in Irish history. At this meeting, Jewish people were savagely blamed for all the ills of Europe.[25] Byrne was ultra-Catholic, believing that Rome's teachings should be legislated for in Ireland.[26]

Like other far-right politicians of the 1930s, Byrne was an admirer of Francisco Franco, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.[27] In 1938, while Dubliners on O'Connell Street demonstrated against the entry of Italian naval ships into Dublin port, Byrne personally gave a gift to the commander of the Italian ships as a token of his respect for Mussolini's regime.[28] Byrne was photographed giving a Nazi salute along with W. T. Cosgrave and Eoin O'Duffy (commander of the Blueshirts).[29]

Byrne was personally and politically very close to the fascists and anti-semites Oliver J. Flanagan, Patrick Belton, Charles Bewley, Gearoid Sean Caoimhin O'Cuinneagain and James Burke.[30] In public Byrne cultivated relationships with the Jewish community in Dublin. Privately Byrne appears to have used his influence to argue against Jewish immigration into Ireland, believing Jewish people to be especially inclined to democratic international socialism.[31] Byrne was aware that the vast majority of Irish Jews supported the Spanish Republican government against Franco's rebellion, a rebellion that depended on Nazi air and ground troops.[32] Byrne personally led far-right attacks on socialist meetings on Middle Abbey Street (Dublin) using his blackhorn stick to assault those who disagreed with his own fascist views.[33]

The Little Museum of Dublin[edit]

In 2015 a quantity of personal and professional correspondence and documentation, the Alfie Byrne Collection, went on display in The Little Museum of Dublin.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Frank McNally, “The Darling of Dublin - An Irishman’s Diary about Alfie Byrne,” The Irish Times, June 6, 2015, accessed July 29, 2015,
  2. ^ “Alfred the Great,” Dublin Opinion 9, no 105 (November, 1930).
  3. ^ “Lord Mayor’s Postbag: 15,000 Letters,” The Irish Times, February 13, 1931.
  4. ^ a b Anne Dolan, “Alfred ‘Alfie’ Byrne,” Dictionary of Irish Biography, ed. by Aidan Clarke, Ronan Fanning, K. Theodore Hoppen, Edith Mary Johnston-Liik, James McGuire, Maureen Murphy, and James Quinn, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 202
  5. ^ a b c Niall Curran, Alfie Byrne, Dublin’s longest serving Lord Mayor and Champion of the Poor, Dublin City FM Soundcloud, 2015,
  6. ^ a b c “Death of Alderman Alfred Byrne: ‘Much-Loved Friend of the Poor,’” The Irish Times, March 14, 1956, accessed July 28, 2015,
  7. ^ “Alderman Byrne Returned,” The Irish Times, October 9, 1915, accessed July 28, 2015,
  8. ^ "Mr. Alfred Byrne". Oireachtas Members Database. Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  9. ^ "Alfred Byrne". Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  10. ^ “Greater Dublin: The Three New Councils,” Weekly Irish Times, October 11, 1930, accessed July 28, 2015,
  11. ^ “He Was Lord Mayor of Dublin Ten Times and Friend to All,” Irish Pictorial, March 24, 1956, accessed July 28, 2015,
  12. ^ “Tribute Paid to Alderman Byrne at Service,” The Irish Times, March 19, 1956, accessed July 28, 2015,
  13. ^ a b "Busiest Man in Ireland", The People, February 1, 1931.
  14. ^ "Let's shake historic hand of Dublin's forgotten son," The Sunday Times, July 5, 2015, accessed July 29, 2015,
  15. ^ “Justices Will Probe Lord Mayor’s ‘Savage Sentences’ Allegations,” Daily Express, October 23, 1937.
  16. ^ “Lord Mayor’s Reply to Criticism of Speech: Courts and Children,” Irish Press, April 7, 1937.
  17. ^ "£15,000 a year," Evening Standard (London), April 8, 1938.
  18. ^ “Lord Mayor of Dublin Cheered at Clones,” The Weekly Irish Times, October 23, 1937.
  19. ^ Matt Cooper, The Last Word with Matt Cooper, TODAY FM,
  20. ^ a b David McEllin, “Legendary Lord Mayor Alfie Byrne,” In Leaders of the City: Dublin’s First Citizen, 1500-1950, ed. by Ruth McManus & Lisa-Marie Griffith, (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2013), 163.
  21. ^ HONORARY DEGREE FOR ALD. BYRNE," Dublin Evening Mail, July 5, 1955.
  22. ^ a b c “Death of Alderman Alfred Byrne: ‘Much-Loved Friend of the Poor,’” The Irish Times, March 14, 1956, accessed July 28, 2015,
  23. ^ “Alfie Byrne Obituary”, The Evening Herald, March 15, 1956, accessed July 29, 2015.
  24. ^ “Alfie Byrne Obituary,’” The Irish Press, March 15, 1956, accessed July 28, 2015.
  25. ^
  26. ^ Maurice Curtis, A Challenge to Democracy: Militant Catholicism in Modern Ireland (Dublin: History Press, 2010; Tom Inglis, Moral Monopoly: The Moral Monopoly: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Modern Ireland (Dublin: University College Press, 1998; John Henry Whyte, Church and State in Modern Ireland, 1923-1979 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1980)
  27. ^ Dictionary of Irish Biography, Alfred Byrne entry, authored by Anne Dolan, Cambridge University Press
  28. ^
  29. ^ The photograph of Byrne giving the Nazi salute is to be found at
  30. ^ Unpublished Autobiography Manuscript of James Burke, National Library of Ireland
  31. ^ National Archives of Ireland, Foreign Affairs Papers; correspondence to Oliver J. Flanagan; Correspondence with James Burke
  32. ^ Patrick Byrne, 'Memories of the Republican Congress 1934-83', Irish Democrat May 1984
  33. ^ Corkman in the Kremlin, 31 March 1980, see
  • Who's Who of British Members of Parliament: Vol. II 1886-1918, edited by M. Stenton & S. Lees (The Harvester Press 1978)

External links[edit]

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