If the public had voted, rather than politicians electing Douglas Hyde to the office, a trailblazing son of a Dublin docker, “The Lord Mayor of Ireland” could have been Ireland’s first president.
October will usher in the Irish Presidential election, 80 years since Douglas Hyde became Ireland's first president. Unlike 2018, back in 1938, there was no election to vote Hyde into the Áras, instead, a Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael agreement ensured there was no public vote. Had there indeed been an election it might have resulted in Alfie Byrne becoming Ireland's first president.
The Irish Constitution, drawn up by De Valera and his conservative cohorts in 1937, included Article 12 which established the office of the Irish president. A year later in the Spring of 1938 nominations opened for candidates and the first one out of the blocks was "the shaking hand of Dublin!"
Alfie Byrne was born, the son of a Dublin docker, on St. Patrick's Day, in 1882. He grew up in working-class surroundings but quickly rose up through society to become a middle-class businessman. By the 1930s he had become a well-known, well-recognized, Dublin politician.
Alfie's political career began in 1909 at the age of 27. He trail blazed his way through borough councils, city councils, Westminster, Dáil Eireann, and Seanad Éireann. By the 1930s his popularity grew beyond the pale and his title of Lord Mayor of Dublin was often called The Lord Mayor of Ireland!
Stage icon Jimmy O'Dea often told a joke about Alfie Byrne, the shaking hand of Dublin. A cyclist was stopped by a guard on O'Connell Street when he failed to use his hand signals turning right. The cyclist informed the guard "Be Jaysus if I put out me hand Alfie Byrne will shake it!"
When nominations for the Irish presidency opened on April 14, 1938, the press started floating ideas around social circles in Dublin that Alfie could take on the ceremonial role because he was a man who loved to indulge in pomp! But Alfie didn't need the press to flout his notions of higher office, he had such aspirations in his thoughts when the role was created in the 1937 Bunreacht na hÉireann.
The Irish Times ran an article, on April 20, stating Alfie's interest in transferring from Lord Mayor of Ireland to President of Ireland. A day later a secret meeting took place which ended Alfie's aspirations.
Eamon de Valera met his political rival WT Cosgrave in secret to discuss presidential candidates. Both men agreed on putting forward Dr. Douglas Hyde, the Gaelic scholar, thus shutting out Alfie Byrne. On April 22 Alfie issued a statement ending his presidential campaign, a campaign which lasted all but two days!
Dev's Fianna Fáil, Cosgrave's Fine Gael and William Norton's Labour Party all agreed to back Dr. Hyde for the highest office in the land. The reason for this rare show of unity among the parties lay in the fear they all had of Alfie becoming President.
The small statured man who wore Edwardian gentlemen’s garb and sported a dandy mustache was wildly popular among people. It was this popularity that pushed Dev and Cosgrave into choosing a candidate who was less well known, quiet in nature and more importantly, less popular than a party leader. There lay a fear also that a candidate who garnered large public support would then use the office of president beyond its curtailments. This was after all the 1930s, an age of dictatorships!
When the May 4 deadline for nominations came, there was only one candidate: Dr. Douglas Hyde. On June 15, he was inaugurated as Ireland's first president and among those present for the inauguration was the Lord Mayor of Dublin, no doubt seething with disappointment.
For years afterwards, Alfie refused to speak about the Fianna Fail and Fine Gael plot to keep him away from the Aras but, those who knew him understood he held a great bitterness about it.
When he died in 1956 at the age of 73, Alfie Byrne still harbored a great disappointment over the 1938 presidential deal struck up between Dev and Cosgrave, he could have been Ireland's first president but alas, his popularity proved to be his downfall.
Here is some incredible British Pathe footage of an interview with Alfie Byrne recorded in 1936:
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