Alfie Byrne was born in Dublin on March 17, 1882. He was the son of a docker, who died when he was only 13 years old. Alfie sold theatre programmes and worked as a barman before buying his own pub, The Vernon in Talbot Street. He entered politics at the age of 27, being elected to Dublin Corporation for North Dock ward with a large majority.
He was elected MP to the British House of Commons for Dublin Harbour in a by-election on October 1, 1915, but lost his seat in 1918. In the 1922 elections, the first to be held in Ireland after the Treaty, he was elected to Dáil Éireann for the Dublin Mid constituency. From then until his death he was an Independent TD, except from 1944 until 1948 when he was a member of the Seanad.
Alfie Byrne was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin a record ten times between 1930 and 1955. The by-election caused by his death was won by his son Patrick Byrne.
He was a well known figure around Dublin, partly because of his style of dress which was considered to be old-fashioned. He always carried sweets in his pocket and gave these out to all the children he met. He made a habit of shaking hands with everybody he met on the street. Such was his notoriety for shaking hands that the Dublin comedian Jimmy O’Dea called him “Alfie the Shaker”. John Ryan, the editor of Envoy magazine, referred to him as the perennial Mayor “of the immaculate cutaway coat and waxed moustache.” One of Maureen Potter’s stage costumes was based on the suit he wore.
However there was a serious political side to him and he treasured his independant status, but this meant he could be voted down by the established political parties. He failed to be nominated by his fellow politicians to run for the Irish Presidency. More importantly he failed in an attempt to amend a new Children’s Bill in 1946 which, prophetically, would have offered more protection to the children being sent to Industrial Schools.
On New Year’s Day, 1933, he made what became known as the Mansion House appeal for the establishment of a new political party. He had supported the Treaty and was politically close to WT Cosgrave, and his appeal was for a party made up of all parties other than Fianna Fail. He laid out four priorities: an end to the Economic War, friendly relations with Britain, the full working of the Treaty, and the unity of the country. Although welcomed by The Irish Times, the move was unsuccessful.
Alfie Byrne died on March 13, 1956. His funeral attracted thousands, especially from the ranks of the poor in the inner city and docklands who believed, in spite of his old-fashioned style of dress, that “his heart was in the right place.” 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. In 1956 his grandson, Paddy, on Alfie Jnr’s death, standing as an independent, had the distinction of defeating Charles Haughey by 4,000 votes in Dublin North East.
Alfie Byrne Road, linking East Wall Road and Clontarf Road, has been named after him.