Byrne, Edward Joseph (1872–1940), catholic archbishop of Dublin, was born 10 May 1872 at Longwood Ave., South Circular Rd, Dublin, son of Edward Byrne, farmer, and Ellen Byrne (née Maguire). Although living in Dublin, his father farmed at Killahurler, Co. Wicklow. He was educated at Belvedere College, Dublin, and Holy Cross College, Clonliffe, receiving many prizes and distinctions, and graduated BA from the RUI (1891). He then proceeded to the Irish College in Rome, where he completed his theological course, won prizes in dogmatic and moral theology, and was ordained (1895). Returning to Ireland he was appointed to a curacy in Rush, Co. Dublin (1895–8). He subsequently served in Kilsallaghan and Rolestown (1898–9), Howth (1899–1900), and Blackrock (1900–01), gaining wide experience of the Dublin diocese. In 1901 he was selected by Archbishop William J. Walsh (qv) for the vice-rectorship of the Irish College in Rome, a position he occupied until 1904, when he requested to return to a Dublin parish to work again among the poor. He served (1904–20) as a curate in the pro-cathedral, earning himself a reputation as an effective preacher. In 1920, on the death of Nicholas Donnelly (qv), titulor bishop of Canea and auxiliary bishop of Dublin, he was ordained titular bishop of Spigaz and appointed as auxiliary bishop of Dublin. It was considered unusual that a relatively young curate (he was forty-eight years old) should be promoted straight to the rank of bishop; he became vicar-capitular of the Dublin diocese in May 1921. He was appointed a commissioner of education in 1920. Despite his preference for parish work, he was appointed archbishop of Dublin in August 1921 after the death of Walsh four months earlier.
He became archbishop at a critical time in the new state's turbulent birth. Prior to the Treaty vote, privately he urged Éamon de Valera (qv) not to force a split and after the vote quickly stated in public his support for the provisional government. This stance earned him the lasting distrust of some republicans: when he was passed over for elevation to cardinal in 1925 Seán T. O'Kelly (qv) expressed himself ‘pleased that the honour did not go to my own city’ (Murray, 242). As civil war loomed, he and Laurence O'Neill, lord mayor of Dublin, tried to broker a peace by calling a conference of opposing leaders. Though no basis for agreement could be found, Byrne's efforts earned the respect of all parties. A close friend of W. T. Cosgrave (qv) – with whom he maintained a regular and cordial correspondence – he attempted to dissuade him from executing republican prisoners. He pleaded on Erskine Childers's (qv) behalf and visited Cosgrave on 7 December 1922 to ask him not to proceed with summary executions, which he regarded as ‘not only unwise but entirely unjustifiable from a moral point of view’ (Murray, 85). He also intervened in the cases of hunger strikers, but to little effect. He went on to have generally cordial relations with the governments of both Cosgrave and de Valera, advising them on the issues of divorce and the constitution respectively. Unlike the other bishops, he was prepared to agree to the omission of any specific reference to the catholic church in the 1937 constitution. His pastorals reveal some of the typical hierarchical concerns of the period, condemning immodesty and evil literature (1924) and communism in a series of pastorals during the 1930s. He was, however, cautious in lending moral sanction to emergency legislation.
Byrne ruled the metropolitan see with a quiet dignity, and his pastoral role always took precedence over his involvement in public and political affairs. Much of his time was devoted to public ceremony, and he presided over many religious occasions including the celebrations marking the centenary of catholic emancipation. As sponsor of the 32nd eucharistic congress of 1932, he supervised its organisation and ultimately its success, although various committees of laymen and clerics carried out most of the work. Known as ‘the great church builder’, he oversaw the construction of nineteen new churches, mostly erected in the city's growing suburbs. In 1930, perhaps enthused by the atmosphere of celebration around the emancipation centenary, he bought Merrion Square and started a fund to build a new cathedral to replace the pro-cathedral, which he considered a symbol of the pre-emancipation church. This scheme was subsequently thwarted by the condition of diocesan finances. He championed the work of various charitable organisations and actively supported Fianna Fáil's slum clearance policy in the 1930s. He was a strong advocate of the Society of St Vincent de Paul and a very active patron of the Catholic Young Men's Society which he viewed as a potential vehicle for ‘catholic action’ in Ireland. On the other hand, he adopted a hostile attitude to the Legion of Mary: he distrusted its founder, Frank Duff (qv), and his record in general suggests that ‘attempts on the part of the laity to stray into the clerical domain of thought and leadership were not welcomed’ (Hartigan, 240). He was happier to encourage traditional lay devotional practices, unveiling a full-size replica of the Lourdes grotto in Inchicore (1930) and responding favourably to the growing cult of Matt Talbot (qv); he initiated an inquiry into Talbot's life in 1931.
In 1932 he was made a knight grand commander of the order of Malta and appointed archbishop assistant at the pontifical throne in recognition of his achievements at the congress. He suffered from serious ill health throughout his episcopate, however, and was forced to curtail his work for the last eight years of his life. During this latter period the diocese was in effect managed by a clique of influential clerics – his secretaries and various vicars general – leading to some disarray and discontent: one commentator has stated that by 1940 Dublin was ‘less a diocese than a number of ecclesiastical statelets’ (Feeney, 13). This was certainly a factor in the succession of John Charles McQuaid (qv) – who was seen as neutral – despite the fact that Francis Wall (1866–1947) had been appointed Byrne's auxiliary in 1931. He died 9 February 1940 at his residence, Archbishop's House, Drumcondra. His death elicited widespread mourning, and after lying in state for a period of three days his body was buried in the vaults of the pro-cathedral. His papers are held at the Dublin Diocesan Archive.