The Jews of Ireland – Jason Feingold

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The Irish Jewish Museum is located in the once highly Jewish populated area of Portobello, around South Circular Road, Dublin 8.

I would never have expected that there was a cohesive, identifiable Jewish community in Ireland. I would have thought, and perhaps this is the dull light of my cynicism shining through, that what few Jews there are would have been quiet Jews practicing a quiet and apprehensive Judaism within their homes, appearing outwardly no different from their Irish counterparts, vague about the things they would have to be vague about.

Oddly enough, that sums up the last fifteen years of my life lived in the rural American South.

I saw the sign that pointed to the Irish Jewish Museum from a taxicab on my way in from Heuston Station. At that point I had been traveling for eighteen hours and I had not slept for much longer, so thoughts were going through my head which were quick and fleeting and irrelevant like Bloom at the funeral of Paddy Dingham in Ulysses. It is just as well because the book I was reading remained safely on the airplane, air sickness bag nestled between its pages to mark my place, destined, no doubt, for the refuse bin, because my read of the flight crew suggested that they wouldn’t be interested in a book called Basic Judaism.

The former Walworth Road Synagogue, which could accommodate approx. 150/160 men and women consisted of two adjoining terraced houses. Due to the movement of the Jewish people from the area to the suburbs of Dublin and with the overall decline in their numbers, the Synagogue fell into disuse and ceased to function in the mid-1970’s. The premises remained locked for almost ten years and was brought back to life again with the establishment of the Irish Jewish Museum Committee in late 1984.

Dublin, along with Paris and Prague, is one of the few European capitals that was not bombed into a fine powder during World War II. As such, there remains much to see: Dublin Castle, Halfpenny Bridge, the Temple Bar, as well as the simple pleasure of walking down side streets and gazing at 17th century edifices undisturbed by 20th century politics.

The one thing I want to be sure to see, however, is the Irish Jewish Museum. This disturbs Andy, my host, who had never really considered it in planning an itinerary for my trip to Ireland. I can’t really blame him. When we were best friends in college, Judaism and things Jewish were not high on my list of priorities, not nearly as high as drinking beer and trying to pick up women, the latter something I wasn’t nearly as good at as the former. A good socialist, Andy was, at best, anti-religion, which is better than where I was, which is to say, totally unconcerned.

The Museum was opened by the Irish-born former President of Israel Dr. Chaim Herzog on 20th June 1985 during his State visit to Ireland. It is managed by a Committee of dedicated people, varying in numbers from 20 – 30, who voluntarily give of their time.

The museum preserves an important, though small, part of Ireland’s cultural and historic heritage.

On Saturday morning, Andy gets it into his head that this is the day we should go and see the museum. I tell him that, since it is the Sabbath, the museum may not be open. Both he and Siobhan insist that the Sabbath occurs on Sunday. I elucidate. They both seem offended somehow that the standard of the larger culture is not catered to. Capitulation is easier than arguing about it.

Since there is no telephone number listed, we walk to the museum to settle the question, following the signs which we discover, were placed for motor traffic rather than pedestrian, thus taking us a mile out of our way. The Museum is closed Saturdays and holidays. I am inwardly satisfied. Andy is grumpy and Siobhan totally unreadable. A few beers with lunch lightens everyone up.

“In a way, I’m glad they were closed,” I say, taking a bite from my toasted cheese and onion sandwich.

“Why?” says Andy, testy.

“It makes it easier for the few who take these things seriously anymore.”

“Huh?”

I think. “Say O’Shapiro, the average Irish Jew, says to his boss ‘I have to be home by sundown on Friday and I can’t work all day Saturday.’ His boss says ‘Why?’ O’Shapiro says ‘It’s the Sabbath.’ The boss says ‘But the museum is open. If they can work, so can you.’”

“I guess,” responds Andy non-committally.

“I see what you mean,” Siobhan chimes in helpfully.

The Museum contains a substantial collection of memorabilia related to the Irish Jewish communities and their various associations and contributions to present day Ireland. The material relates to the last 150 years and is associated with the communities of Belfast, Cork, Derry, Dublin, Limerick, & Waterford.

Siobhan begs off the second excursion. Nothing personal, she just wants to sneak off and buy Andy’s birthday present. Andy and I take the bus this time, our obligatory wandering fulfilled. I wait outside, watching Andy finish his cigarette. I realize how tired I am of watching him and Siobhan smoke. It’s partly my fault. I smuggled two cartons of cigarettes in for them.

Before we have a chance to ring the bell, a kindly-looking man with a red face opens the door.

“Hi!” I say, expansive and American.

“Good afternoon,” he replies. His eyes slide from me to my friend who, I realize suddenly after many years, dresses like a Nazi. Black turtleneck, black pants, black combat boots, a black leather motorcycle jacket with flight wings pinned onto one of the epaulets. He steps back and seizes the door with his other hand, preparing to slam it, no doubt, and call the Guard.

“Coming?” I say to Andy over my shoulder as I step into the doorway. He already is coming, of course, but I feel the need to signal the man that we are together. I wonder if it makes any difference. Do I look Jewish? Does anybody? And would it be enough to get the SS through the door?

“Are you here to see the museum today?” the man asks. Or blow it up, I think, finishing his thought.

“Yes, we are,” I reply.

The Museum is divided into several distinct areas. In the entrance area and corridors, there is a display of photographs, paintings, certificates and testimonials.

The ground floor contains a general display relating to the commercial and social life of the Jewish community. A special feature adjoining this area is the kitchen depicting a typical Sabbath Festival meal setting in a Jewish home in the late 19th/early 20th century in the neighbourhood.

Upstairs, the original Synagogue, with all its ritual fittings, is on view and also the Harold Smerling gallery containing Jewish religious objects.

We wander from glass case to glass case, peering at the entombed memorabilia of ordinary people, people whose only distinction was that they were Jewish in a country where the Jewish population peaked at 5,500 out of 4,000,000 citizens. I wonder what it is like to be a Jew in Ireland. Certainly it is different than being a Jew in Russia, in Europe, and in Israel. But is it different than being a Jew in America? I recall Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog thinking that

                                    The children of the race, by a never-failing miracle,
                                    opened their eyes on one strange world after another, age
                                    after age, and uttered the same prayer in each, eagerly
                                    loving what they found.[1]

For Bellow, to be a Jew in one place was to be a Jew in all places, as long as the same prayers were recited and the same songs were sung. But those times have passed, and we both know that to be a Jew in Ireland is a different thing than being a Jew in America or, more to the point, Pittsburgh, where I grew up. I recall a scene from James Joyce’s Ulysses, a dialogue between its Jewish protagonist Leopold Bloom with a perhaps idealized but ordinary Irish citizen:

                                    -A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people
                        living in the same place…
                                    -What is your nation, if I may ask, says the citizen…
                                    -Ireland, says Bloom. I was born here. Ireland.
                                    The citizen said nothing only cleared the spit out of
                        his gullet and, gob, he spat…
                                    -And I belong to a race too, says Bloom, that is hated
                        and persecuted. Also now. This very moment. This very
                        instant…
                                    Robbed, says he. Plundered. Insulted. Persecuted.
                        Taking what belongs to us by right. At this very moment,
                        says he, putting up his fist, sold by auction off in Morocco
                        like slaves or cattles.
                        -Are you talking about the new Jerusalem? says the
            citizen?
                        -I’m talking about injustice, says Bloom.[2]

We are different, but no different than being a human being in each in each place.

Jews have lived in Ireland for centuries. The earliest reference is in the Annals of Innisfallen in the year 1079 which records the arrival of five Jews from over the sea. It is probable that they came as merchants from Rouen in France… Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, there was some Jewish immigration from Central Europe, but the main influx came between 1880 and 1910 when approx. 2,000 Jews came from Eastern Europe and settled in Belfast, Cork, Derry, Drogheda, Dublin, Limerick, Lurgan, and Waterford. They participated fully in all walks of life, in the professions, trades, and manufacturing.

In Ireland, I do not think much about being a Jew, except at the museum. When I give my surname to Andy’s and Siobhan’s friends, I do not try to detect a negative reaction in their faces or demeanors. I am surprised to learn later that, to an Irish person, I look German at first glance, because most of the people who affect beards in Ireland are German tourists. It is a delicious irony. However, for the most part, I am the American Tourist more than anything else, and I am content to play that role with my stupid-looking rain hat and camera slung around my neck, snapping pictures at the commonplace and calling it quaint.

Unlike most American tourists, however, I claim no Irish descent. My affinity for this place and for these people is one of spiritual kindredness, but from whence did it come? Although I have always been aware of the Famine in Ireland, I did not know its proportions until I went there. Now I understand that the Holocaust of my people was not the Holocaust, but one of many that have taken place throughout human history. In the last century, the Irish had their own Holocaust.

In the years 1845-48, the English oppressors of Ireland allowed market forces to dictate the export of almost all Irish-produced foodstuffs. The food commanded a higher price on the Continent than in Ireland. This, combined with the devastation of the potato crop by disease, caused mass starvation which in turn resulted in epidemics of cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and other diseases which decimated an already weakened population. Further, the Anglo-Irish landlords were forced to expel their resident peasants in an attempt to increase grazing lands, thus providing the vectors by which these diseases were spread all over the country. Through death and emigration, the population of Ireland was reduced from 9,000,000 to 4,000,000-5,000,000 over the period of three years. Thanks to continued emigration, which only recently has begun to ebb, the population remains around 4,000,000 today.

The Jewish population peaked at approx. 5,500 in the late 1940’s. The numbers have now declined to approx. 1,400 in southern Ireland and 400 in Northern Ireland.

I like to think that one of the things it is to be a Jew is to show those with whom I live that I am, like them, a human being, neither more nor less, and that to persecute me, to hate me because of my birthright does not diminish me or my particular community, but rather it diminishes the humanity in which we all share. It is perhaps for this reason that there were never very many Jews in Ireland. The Irish are already well-acquainted with the quality of human suffering, what it is to be oppressed, and, most importantly, they have learned, for the most part, from that oppression benevolence, kindness and justice.

Before I left the Irish Jewish Museum I asked the curator where the Irish Jewish community was disappearing to. He told me that many were going to Manchester, in England, where there exists a substantial Jewish community. My friend Andy took this as a sign that the Jews of Ireland were all a bunch of Tories, but I explained to him that it was, no doubt, because the community in Dublin had become so small it could no longer satisfy the dietary requirements of people who wished to keep strictly kosher, for example. It would also make it difficult to prevent interfaith marriages with a population so small, for another. He seemed to buy the argument.

I am not so sure. Why leave a place so unconcerned with the Jews for England, of all places? Does that need for community outweigh the possibility of present and future persecution? Not all all. Being picked on helps us to remember who we are. We need the pressure of the outside world to hold our religion and our culture together. It’s all we have.

[1]     Bellow, Saul. Herzog. New York, The Viking Press, 1961. 140.

[2]     Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York, Random House, 1913. 331-332.

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