Alfie: The Life and Times of Alfie Byrne
by Trevor White (Penguin Ireland, €20.00)
Almost alone, Alfie Byrne survives in the larger public memory as the quintessential Lord Mayor of Dublin, almost a ‘Mr Dublin’. The chance play of politics meant that he filled the office for a decade, between the three man commission that ran the city when the city council became too dominated by Sinn Féin for the patience of the Free State government and the return to the older system of a mayor being elected by the city council to serve a single year at a time, largely on the basis of “Buggins’ turn”.
Dublin never had a Mayor like those of New York, Boston or Detroit who, having actual executive powers, became in themselves national power brokers. No one in Government Buildings has ever wanted that.
So though he had no actual political power to speak of, Alfie Byrne became a greatly loved public figure, who filled the office with a native grace and good manners. He was popular without having to be controversial.
He became for Dubliners between the wars, the generations of our parents and grandparents, a folklore figure, the subject of stories and tales.
Certainly my own mother had a story about him taking her aside at a reception in the Mansion House to show her the famous silver cradle in which his grandson slept.
Now at last this very representative Dubliner has got an ideal biographer.
Trevor White is the energetic and imaginative director of The Little Museum of Dublin, which has been one of the great cultural successes of recent years, not only among visitors, but among native Dubliners too.
It is a delightful place, and leads to complete strangers having long and energetic chats about the items and their own recollections of “the good old days”.
For many they were not such good days at all. Alfie Bryrne was well aware of this, and as an independent politician worked to achieve what changes he could.
This is not just a biography. As the subtitle suggests, it is also an attempt to tell the story of Dublin largely between the two wars, or rather between the ‘War of Independence’ and ‘The Emergency’ – Irish history is rightly out of sync in its descriptive terms with the rest of Europe.
This book manages both to be amusing, instructive and insightful, which is quite an achievement. It is to be hoped that author White will find another Dublin character to write about and go on enlarging the average Dubliner’s knowledge of his own city state in such an accessible book.