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Home Uncategorized Citizens of the Republic, Jewish History in Ireland

Citizens of the Republic, Jewish History in Ireland

Manus O'Riordan

Recently published books referred to in this article:

Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce: A Socioeconomic History, byCormac Ó Gráda, Princeton University Press, 320 pp, £22.95, ISBN: 978-0691127194

German-Speaking Exiles in Ireland 1933-1945, (ed) Gisela Holfter, Editions Rodopi B.V, 300 pp, £44.29, ISBN: 978-9042020337

Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Volume V: 1937-1939, (eds) Catriona Crowe, Ronan Fanning, Michael Kennedy, Dermot Keogh and Eunan O’Halpin, Royal Irish Academy, €45, ISBN: 978-1904890218

Limerick Boycott 1904: Anti-Semitism in Ireland, by Dermot Keogh and Andrew McCarthy, Mercier Press, 163 pp, €20, ISBN: 978-1856354530

Dublin’s Little Jerusalem, byNick Harris, A & A Farmar, 229 pp, £10. ISBN: 978-18991899047901

Why should a new history of the Irish Jewish community be of any great interest? March 2007 has seen the release of preliminary results for the Republic of Ireland’s 2006 census of population. Out of a total population of 4.2 million, a mere 1,900 are Jewish, barely above that community’s level of 1,600 in 1991. By way of contrast, the Muslim population over the same fifteen years’ period has increased ninefold from 3,900 to 35,500, while the number of Eastern Orthodox Christians has shot up from a tiny presence of less than 400 to reach 20,800. Even the ethnic composition of the majority Catholic faith has changed, as the current Irish population also comprises 63,000 Poles and 25,000 Lithuanians.

The changing religious and ethnic composition of Ireland’s population is, of course, a product of the significant net immigration that has been associated with the Celtic Tiger phenomenon, in other words the very rapid economic advances made by Ireland from the 1990s onwards. Hitherto Ireland had essentially been a country of net emigration. Indeed the territory of what is now the Republic of Ireland had seen its total population continuing to decline from 3.9 million in 1881 to a low point of 2.8 million in 1961. Yet it was during the earlier period of such overall population decline that its Jewish population shot up from less than 400 in 1881 to 1,500 in 1891. It doubled further to 3,000 in 1901 and continued growing during the next decade to reach 3,800 in 1911. The 1946 census showed a total Jewish population of 3,900, but it then fell back to 3,300 by 1961. There was to be an even more rapid decline thereafter, before it stabilised in 1991 at 1,600, or just under half the Irish community’s size thirty years previously.

Notwithstanding how small it has now become, a study of such a community formed by an earlier period of concentrated, if short-lived, immigration is nonetheless of interest, and might possibly indicate some lessons to be learned by both the host society and the more recent immigrant communities in Ireland. What aspects of mutual accommodation manifested themselves and what qualities of leadership were displayed in bringing it about? The study of any nation’s Jewish community, no matter how small, is also of interest in its own right. What had its origins in common with Jewish immigration to other countries, or what differences were there? And was the reality of the community in Ireland accurately reflected in the best-known Jewish character in Irish literature, Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses? These, then, are some of the questions prompted by the new work by Cormac Ó Gráda of University College Dublin’s economics department, Jewish Ireland in the age of Joyce: A Socioeconomic History.

Ó Gráda’s new history of Ireland’s Jewish community is so questioning of fixed positions that it also invites some further challenges to stereotypes and misconceptions, some of which are, while others are not, touched on in this book. Take for example the following set of circumstances that have not previously been highlighted. In the turbulent early years of the Irish Free State, 1922-23, two people who had been listed in the 1911 census as neighbours on Dublin’s Lennox Street met violent deaths at the hands of Free State army officers, one a Catholic and the other a Jew, one a civil servant and the other a tailor. Confounding the stereotypes, it was the Irish republican leader Harry Boland who was both a Catholic and a tailor, while the Jewish victim – Ernest Kahan – was a civil servant in Ireland’s Department of Agriculture.

Or take the following narrative: in the early decades of the twentieth century there was a sustained three-pronged campaign against Jewish moneylenders in Ireland – cultural, political and paramilitary. Its literary dimension took the form of a novel, with a title – The Moneylender – that went straight to the heart of its subject matter. This book was to go through as many as five editions between 1908 and 1931. What first arrests the eye of the reader, however, is the fact that it is adorned with a cover that would not have been out of place among the racist stereotypes that peopled the cartoons of Nazi Germany’s chief organ of anti-Semitism, Der Stürmer. That cover of The Moneylender graphically portrayed a very dark, bearded and hook-nosed Jew, surrounded by a shower of cascading coins. Meanwhile, one particular Irish politician, later to be twice chosen as Lord Mayor of Dublin, was waging his own campaign in the Dáil to stamp out what he called “this rotten trade”. To some it will no doubt be suprising that both the crusading novelist and the politician in question were themselves Jewish.

Jewish immigration into Ireland from the 1880s onwards had, like that to so many other countries of destination, its origins in the Tsarist Russian Empire. But, in the Irish case, the place of birth of more than 90 per cent of these immigrants had been in a particular corner of that empire, Lithuania. The self-designation as Litvaks by this core majority of the Irish Jewish community was primarily to distinguish themselves from both di Englishe, the earlier-established small, English-speaking Jewish community, and the Polaks, a much smaller number of Polish Jewish immigrants, who – though also Yiddish-speaking – weren’t yet considered full members of that tight-knit club that had originated in a clustered network of neighbouring Lithuanian shtetls or villages. In their new country of residence these Jewish immigrants also tended to be concentrated in settlement. Of the 3,000 Jews in the present territory of the Republic of Ireland in 1901, Dublin accounted for 2,100, Cork for 400 and Limerick 200. There were a further 900 in what is now Northern Ireland, of whom 700 were concentrated in Belfast.

In contrast with the position in so many other countries, Ó Gráda’s conclusion is that the immigrant experience of Jews in Ireland was overwhelmingly positive. There had, of course, been a particularly nasty exception that proved the rule, in the shape of those acts of demagogic rhetoric and economic boycott, mixed in with a small amount of violence, against the Jewish community in Limerick in 1904. This was an issue considered to be still so sensitive at the end of the Second World War by the Irish Jewish community’s own first historian, Bernard Shillman, that he made no mention of it whatsoever in his 1945 Short History of the Jews in Ireland. However it was to be gone into in quite some detail in the far more substantial work of the community’s next historian, Louis Hyman, in his 1972 magnum opus, The Jews in Ireland from Earliest Times to the Year 1910. It was Hyman’s pioneering research that filled in the biographical details of the Jewish names mentioned by James Joyce throughout the text of Ulysses.

While Hyman referred in passing to a protest against anti-Semitism by the partly-Jewish protagonist of Joyce’s novel, Leopold Bloom, he did not otherwise go into any deeper examination of the character of “the citizen”, whose intensely bigoted anti-Semitic outbursts Bloom has been forced to endure.

  • 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 I belong to a race too, says Bloom, that is hated and persecuted …
  • Are you talking about the new Jerusalem? says the citizen.
  • I’m talking about injustice, says Bloom …
  • A new apostle to the gentiles, says the citizen. Universal love …
  • We know these canters, says he, preaching and picking your pocket …
  • Your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me.
  • Gob, the citizen made a plunge back into the shop.
  • By Jesus, says he, I’ll brain that bloody jewman for using the holy name. By Jesus, I’ll crucify him so I will.

Hyman’s chapters on Limerick and Joyce, nonetheless, largely inhabit parallel universes. Beyond a passing reference, Hyman did not explore in any detail if there was something more than coincidence involved in chronicling that racist outburst during a Dublin public house argument on a date – June 16th, 1904 – when the Limerick boycott of its Jewish community still remained a current and burning issue. This connection was addressed in a 1974 article which I wrote to mark the seventieth anniversary of what had become known as “Bloomsday”. I further explored the theme in subsequent years when detailing the significant political support given to Limerick’s anti-Semitic preacher, Father John Creagh, by Arthur Griffith – founder of Sinn Féin in 1905, Vice-President of the Irish Republic in 1919 and founding father of the Irish Free State in 1922.(1)


There was, however, a flaw in my overall evaluation of the link between Joyce’s treatment of anti-Semitism in the Ireland of 1904 and the prevailing political perspectives of that time. True, I had given full credit to two no less substantial nationalists who had courageously spoken out against the anti-Semitism of both Creagh and Griffith. These advocates of tolerance were Michael Davitt MP, founder of the Irish Land League in 1879, and Fred Ryan, first secretary of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and subsequently a founding secretary of the Socialist Party of Ireland in 1909. But far from ignoring the biblical injunction of seeing only the mote in my brother’s eye and ignoring the beam in my own, my historical explorations of this subject between the years 1974 to 1984 had in fact been primarily driven by the urge to subject my own Catholic Irish community to the severest critical scrutiny. Thus it was the nationalist anti-Semite “the citizen” who received my particular attention.

Like almost everybody else, I had also quoted the other significant anti-Semitic character in Ulysses, Mr Deasy, as gleefully declaring that the only reason why Ireland had the honour of never persecuting the Jews was that she never let them in. But to the best of my knowledge, with only one exception, all who have quoted these Deasy lines, from my own 1974 Bloomsday article right down to the latest Ó Gráda book under review, have totally ignored Deasy’s particular politics. Deasy was anything but a Catholic nationalist. He was in fact a self-proclaimed Tory and Protestant Orangeman. Significantly, when he addresses Joyce’s own persona of Stephen Dedalus as “you Fenians”, a race memory is triggered in Joyce no less painful than that triggered in Bloom by “the citizen”.

Glorious, pious and immortal memory. The lodge of Diamond in Armagh the splendid behung with corpses of papishes. Hoarse, masked and armed, the planter’s covenant. The black north and true blue bible. Croppies lie down.

The exception is to be found in what is perhaps the most scholarly examination that has yet been written of the Joycean treatment of anti-Semitism, a 1982 paper to mark the centenary of Joyce’s birth by one who subsequently became the first and only Jewish Lord Mayor of Cork, the late Gerald Goldberg. Goldberg made a particular point of firmly locating Deasy’s set of prejudices in the political and religious milieu from which they emerged. His identification of Deasy as a unionist did not, however, make him any less resolute in exposing the anti-Semitic writings of Griffith and other prominent nationalists.(2).

He was equally effective in disputing the mistaken identification of the anti-Semitic character of the citizen that had received widespread acceptance due to the assertions of Joyce’s principal biographer, Richard Ellmann, from the 1959 publication of his James Joyce onwards. Ellmann insisted that Joyce’s model for the citizen had been Michael Cusack, founder of Ireland’s most popular sporting organisation, the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association). Despite Goldberg’s persuasive arguments to the contrary, Ellmann’s error still surfaces to this day, requiring repeated correction.(3)

Cormac Ó Gráda’s book is not written as a contribution to Joycean scholarship. In his introduction he writes: “Leopold Bloom’s creator lived between 1882 and 1941. The main analytical focus of this study is the economic history and demography of Dublin’s and Ireland’s Jewish community between the 1870s and the 1940s – hence ‘the age of Joyce’.” Bloom is not at all typical of Dublin’s Jews. As the book’s editors point out on the dustjacket: “James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom – the atheistic Everyman of Ulysses, son of a Hungarian Jewish father and an Irish Protestant mother – may have turned the world’s literary eyes on Dublin, but those who look to him for history should think again. He could hardly have been a product of the city’s bona fide Jewish community, where intermarriage with outsiders was rare and piety was pronounced.”

Ó Gráda’s achievement is in providing a snapshot of Dublin’s “little Jerusalem” neighbourhood of South Circular Road, Portobello and Dolphin’s Barn, abstracted from the details of the 1911 census of population. This is reinforced by the author’s more detailed dynamic analysis of a limited number of selected streets in that area that also draws on the previous 1901 census; and all of this detail is further accompanied by monitoring the year-by-year changes in the residents of those same selected streets, as shown by Thoms Commercial Directory. The author is thereby able to illustrate significant upward mobility, by tracking the movements of particular families from small to bigger and better houses in the same neighbourhood. Indeed, Ó Gráda provides not only descriptions of such mobility, but photographic evidence as well of the immense variety of housing types within such a small area. Some minor slip-ups in the analysis are inevitable, but I will here focus on just a couple in respect of some of my own writings which Ó Gráda generously acknowledges. As regards interaction between the denominations, he quotes my work as the source for the following account: “On Saint Kevin’s Road in Portobello, home of the Levitas family, the boys all played together. Spanish Civil War veteran Maurice Levitas’s father, Harry, a tailor’s presser, learned how to read and write English from a young next-door Catholic neighbour who was studying for the priesthood.”(4) In what Ó Gráda himself categorises as “the hierarchy of streets”, the Levitas family did not actually live on St Kevin’s Road, which was far more upmarket than where they actually lived, in cramped accommodation as sub-tenants on St Kevin’s Parade. This, incidentally, was in the same house that, two decades previously, had been the home of Moses Herzog, the one-eyed Jewish character who flits across Joyce’s Ulysses. Nevertheless, Max, Maurice and Sol Levitas would also have played on St Kevin’s Road – at a distance of some ten minutes’ walk on the opposite side of the South Circular Road – as this was the street where their cousins lived. It was not, however, during their two years in St Kevin’s Parade, but during the Levitas family’s previous decade of residency as sub-tenants of an artisan dwelling house on Warren Street, that Harry had in fact received those neighbourly English literacy classes from the student priest living next door.

One can appreciate why Ó Gráda focused on those streets where the maximum amount of year-by-year information could be extracted from successive Thoms directories. Such directories, however, provided no such information whatsoever regarding the residents of the artisan dwellings of Martin Street (two-thirds Jewish) or Warren Street (one-third Jewish). Ó Gráda was indeed fortunate in receiving some of the richest – at times hilarious – anecdotal evidence about Martin Street and the neighbouring Lennox Street synagogue from Michael Brennan (son of the immigrant Wolf Brener – “Ay Jewman, where dija ever ger a name loik Brennan?”). It is, however, unfortunate that he excluded these streets from the admittedly more limited dynamic analysis that would have been possible from decennial 1901-1911 intercensal comparisons. Moreover, because the Martin Street/Warren Street blocks of artisan dwellings also occupied part of Lennox Street, this is yet another street that receives only limited analysis from Ó Gráda. Its synagogue – one of two neighbouring ones within two streets of each other (the other being on Walworth Road, where the Irish Jewish Museum is now located) – was where, in my childhood of the late 1950s and early 1960s, I would sometimes perform the shabbas goy (sabbath gentile) function of switching off the lights on a Friday night, in order to spare the overnight electricity costs.

Harry Levitas, namesake and fellow Lithuanian villager of Maurice’s father, but no relation, was shamas (or beadle) of the Lennox Street synagogue. He answers one of the questions that Ó Gráda himself only half-asks, observing that “given the Jewish reputation for learning, Jewish literacy levels in Dublin in 1911 are perhaps lower than expected … Only 70 percent of Jewish husbands and 56 percent of their wives claimed that they could read and write.” It is true that he tentatively enters a caveat that “some respondents who were literate in Yiddish or Hebrew are likely to have interpreted the question on literacy as referring to literacy in English only”, but attaches no great significance to it. The point is that literacy in English was the only interpretation that was tolerated by the census authorities, and any attempted rebellion with an alternative interpretation was countered with the humiliation of such a respondent. For when Harry Levitas of Lennox Street signed his census return in Hebrew and answered that he could read and write Hebrew, while his wife and daughter could read and write Yiddish, these answers were all crossed out and His Majesty’s officials substituted the classification of “cannot read and write”.

I have previously cited Levitas’s census return for 1911 as one of the reasons why the pioneering socialist leader James Connolly – who would be executed in 1916 as a leader of the Easter Rising – had issued an election leaflet written in the Yiddish language to the Jewish voters of Dublin’s Wood Quay ward in 1902. But it was also a dynamically changing language situation. Intercensal returns for the Martin and Warren Street area demonstrate keen parental pride in recording the acquisition of English literacy by those immigrants’ own children, and very often by the parents themselves. “No Yiddish on the street!” is what Max Levitas, the older brother of Maurice, told me had been the standard parental injunction to those immigrants’ children, in order that they might quickly integrate and play with the neighbouring Christian children.

Some Yiddish words, of course, survived several generations, resulting in an amusing incident during my early childhood of the 1950s when a bemused Jewish neighbour on Victoria Street inquired of my mother if she knew that I was speaking Yiddish. Her children were the very first of our playmates to possess a television set in the home, and she was constantly pestered by childrem on the street wanting to come in to view The Cisco Kid. Her father was, however, a much softer touch, so that whenever I was certain he was inside, I would lift up the letter box lid and shout in: “Zeydeh, Zeydeh, please can we come in to watch TV? Please, Zeydeh, open the door!” And it worked. So it was that she explained to my mother that this was not, as I had assumed, her father’s first name. I had, in fact, been addressing him as my own grandfather – but in Yiddish.

Irish-born Jewish children had already been in the process of shedding the Eastern European stamp of their immigrant parents when an accidental fire caused by four of those children – who had been far too eager to bring the Sabbath to an early close so that they might proceed to play on the street – would have destroyed the Lennox Street synagogue in 1925 had it not been for the timely intervention of the shamas. The culprits were three future leading activists of the Communist Party of Great Britain and a future president of Israel – Max, Maurice and Sol Levitas, together with Chaim Herrzog, son of the Chief of Rabbi of Ireland, Dr Isaac Herzog.

The culture clash during religious services between the Eastern European mannerisms and speech pattern of that same Lennox Street shamas, Harry Levitas, and the Dublinese of the succeeding generation of unruly “worshippers”, was recorded as follows in the account provided to Ó Gráda by Brennan: “In the 1920s and the 1930s many Portobello Jews attended the Lennox Street shul (or synagogue) which was rife with discussion about such spiritual matters as the horse races in the Phoenix Park – especially among the gurriers in the back rows who would be warned by the shamas to be quiet (‘You veldt henimels of de strits!’) and who were quite likely to respond by enquiring whether the official might enjoy ‘a good belt on the snot!’.”

But the narrative of the Jewish community’s history in Ireland cannot always be so light-hearted. Ó Gráda also returns to the vexed subject of Limerick 1904: “Irish anti-Semitism existed, and traces doubtless still persist, but it was of a relatively mild variety. It reached its climax in Limerick in early 1904, when the rantings of a young Redemptorist preacher, Father John Creagh, led to the boycott that prompted the departure of several households in the city’s small Jewish community … The story of the Limerick ‘pogrom’ – which really does not deserve to be called a pogrom – has been told more than once.”

The first non-Jewish writer to write a comprehensive history of Ireland’s Jewish minority and incorporate into it much original research on Limerick was Dermot Keogh. In his 1998 work, Jews in Twentieth Century Ireland, Keogh was already writing somewhat equivocally:

Various writers have described as a ‘pogrom’ the events in Limerick of early January 1904. Is the retention of the term justified, considering nobody was killed or seriously injured? I believe it is, for the following reasons: based on their experiences in Lithuania, the word pogrom came immediately to the lips of Limerick’s Jews when they found themselves under attack in January 1904. This was pointed out to me by Gerald Goldberg, whose family lived there in 1904 and were obliged to leave the city as a consequence of the disturbances.

Yet nowhere in the course of Goldberg’s own previously-cited scholarly article had he himself ever used the word “pogrom”, not even once.

In 2005 Dermot Keogh revisited this subject matter in a new book co-authored with Andrew McCarthy. While incorporating material that had been in his 1998 work, this latest publication had the added bonus of providing marvellous facsimile reproductions of original documentation from that period. Moreover, Keogh had, in fact, also moved a step further from his more tentative reservations of 1998: “Ultimately, of course, it is for the reader to judge whether the events should be viewed as a boycott or a pogrom … The fact that we have chosen to entitle the book Limerick Boycott 1904 will indicate our preference, but nothing can detract from the terror experienced by the Jews of Limerick on the evening of Fr. Creagh’s first sermon.”

In my 1974 essay on the subject I had connected the Dublin public house argument of the Cyclops episode of Ulysses with the contemporary boycott of Limerick’s Jewish community. But five years later I failed to set Arthur Griffith’s propaganda against Jewish immigration into Ireland against the backdrop of anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom, which manifested itself in the 1905 Aliens Act. The vileness of Griffith’s anti-Semitic propaganda during 1904 had, of course, been as unconscionable as it was inexcusable: “The Jew in Ireland is in every respect an economic evil”, “they are – nine tenths of them – usurers and parasites”, while all “were aware from childhood that the Jews slew a much greater than St. Stephen or St. James”. Such statements by Griffith would also have remained permanently unforgivable if he had continued to sustain even one iota of that stance in subsequent years. But he did not.

In his 1997 biography, simply entitled Arthur Griffith, Brian Maye did much to rehabilitate his subject’s reputation on that score. Perhaps he might have been more successful had he not pulled his punches on more forthright condemnation of Griffith’s 1904 propaganda, with all its appeal to the 2,000-year-old charge of “deicide”. But a change was to undoubtedly occur from 1910 onwards, after Griffith first encountered Michael Noyk, a young Dublin Jewish solicitor, who was to become one of his principal aides, particularly during the War of Independence. Indeed, in that same year, one of the Dublin Jewish community’s most prominent members, the Master of the Rotunda Hospital, Dr Bethel Solomons, was to contribute to the purchase of a house for Griffith on the occasion of his marriage. So close did Griffith’s relationship with Noyk become that his own daughter would act as a flower girl at Noyk’s wedding. One is very much led to concur with Maye when he writes of Griffith that “perhaps a growing acquaintance, and an especially close friendship with one of that community, purged him of the prejudice acquired in his youth”.

Several other leading members of Dublin’s Jewish community joined with Noyk in actively campaigning and providing essential transport back-up for Griifith during the Sinn Féin electoral contests of 1917 and 1918. One of them even neglected his family business affairs to such an extent that his own brother dissolved their partnership. It is doubtful if such sacrifices would have been made on behalf of an inveterate anti-Semite. Griffith had come to appreciate that the Jewish community, no matter how recently established, was as patriotically Irish as any other, and he put his outrageous 1904 record well behind him.

But why had that community settled in Ireland in the first place? If Keogh would be now no longer too far removed from Ó Gráda’s contention that it is a misnomer to refer to the Limerick boycott as a “pogrom”, Ó Gráda ups the ante still further by also disputing Keogh’s contention that Ireland’s Jewish immigrants – who were mainly Litvaks or Lithuanian Jews – were fleeing for their lives from pogroms in their native land. Ó Gráda argues that most Jews coming to Ireland were in fact economic immigrants, and not refugees. He examines the whole question of folk memory and the continuing firm belief among Irish Jews that it had been their own direct experience of such pogroms that their grandparents were trying to escape. Ó Gráda does indeed indicate a certain sympathy for such folk memory: “The virtual annihilation barely half a century later of Lithuania’s Jewish community by the Nazis, aided and abetted by local murderers, adds point to such accounts.” But he also argues that it is bad history: “Between 1881 and 1914, as for centuries before, Lithuania was virtually pogrom free.” Here, however, his argument becomes somewhat forced, as he enters the caveat: “Pogroms elsewhere in the Tsarist empire in the wake of the anti-Semitic May Laws of 1882 may well have unsettled those living in the Litvak shtels.”

However, while the author may have indeed argued convincingly against the validity of any direct collective experience of pogroms in Lithuania itself, he underestimates the probability that there had nonetheless been direct Litvak eye witness experiences of such pogroms in the wider Russian Empire; and that such accounts had then been related back to those eye witnesses’ own families in the Lithuanian corner of that same empire as a warning of catastrophe looming on the horizon. Elsewhere Ó Gráda does indeed note the following 1906 account of the far-flung travels of the Jewish men of Okmeyan, from which district most of Ireland’s Litvak immigrants actually hailed: “It was characteristic of that town that for the greater part of the year … the men [were] away to all parts of the country, sometimes the farthest parts of the Empire, following their vocation as ‘Landkremers’ (pedlars) …”

The anticipatory fears of Lithuania’s Jews were not unfounded, nor had they to wait until the Second World War to experience “ethnic cleansing”. Ó Gráda writes that no pogroms had occurred in Lithuania before 1914, but it is a pity that he does not then relate what would immediately follow during the First World War. Martin Gilbert, in his 1995 work First World War – A Complete History, has recounted what in fact did happen in the Baltic region in March 1915:

Russian Cossacks, the traditional enemies of the Jews since the 17th century, forced them out of their homes and drove them through the snow. As many as a half a million Jews were forced to leave Lithuania and Kurland [Latvia].

Ó Gráda is, however, at his most impressive when it comes to analysing the changing economic circumstances of Ireland’s Litvak immigrants and the intra-communal tensions about what way of life should be followed by that community. From the very outset there had been those members of the community – engaged in general trading, tailoring or cabinetmaking – who strongly objected to those others who were engaged in moneylending. Gerald Goldberg’s father, Louis Goldberg, had at one time established a rival synagogue in Limerick, since he did not wish to have any association with moneylenders.

In his 1958 autobiography, For the Life of Me, the Jewish veteran of the War of Independence, Fianna Fáil parliamentarian and twice Lord Mayor of Dublin, Bob Briscoe, wrote of his own father, Abraham’s, loathing of unscrupulous moneylenders. Keogh has further described how from 1929 onwards Briscoe himself was to spearhead a private member’s Bill in Dáil Éireann that eventually came to fruition as the Moneylenders Act of 1933. In the meantime, however, taking full advantage of the fact that he himself was coming from a revolutionary republican tradition, Briscoe had also sponsored a “direct action” paramilitary campaign on the issue. This episode was first brought to contemporary attention by the historian Brian Hanley in his 2002 book The IRA 1926-1936. During the summer of 1926 the IRA raided the offices and homes of moneylenders in both Dublin and Limerick. Those who were raided were indeed predominantly Jewish, but the IRA explicitly stated that their attack was on moneylending itself, “not on Jewry”. Hanley writes: “They were supported in their claims by the prominent Jewish politician in Ireland, Robert Briscoe of de Valera’s Fianna Fáil Party. He argued that he did not see the raids as anti-Semitic, and wished it to be known that he and ‘many other members of the Jewish community’ abhorred moneylending and expressed his admiration for the IRA’s attempts to end ‘this rotten trade’.” By February 1927 the campaign had resulted in an agreement with the IRA that moneylenders would not use the courts to collect arrears but would avail of the services of Robert Briscoe and IRA leaders as conduits between lenders and debtors. After this had been followed up by Briscoe’s legislation six years later, Hanley noted: “Interestingly, however, oral testimony points to the relative popularity of Jewish moneylenders among working class Dubliners of the period, with non-Jewish moneylenders often regarded as far worse.”

But before such a relatively happy outcome there had also been a cultural struggle waged with some passion through Joseph Edelstein’s dark portrait of Moses Levenstein in his novel The Moneylender. Ó Gráda compares this work, first published in 1908, to the “equally scurrilous insider’s view” of The Rise of David Levinsky, a novel published in 1917 by the New York Yiddish writer and editor of The Jewish Daily Forward, Abraham Cahan. Ó Gráda is the first historian of Ireland’s Jewish community to treat in detail the complex phenomenon that was Edelstein. All previous historians – Shillman, Hyman and Keogh – stayed silent on his novel. Only in Nick Harris’s marvellous 2002 memoir, Dublin’s Little Jerusalem, is it openly stated: “He was a well-educated man and had written a number of books, including one about moneylenders which caused some controversy.”


Ó Gráda dedicates his book to both Nick Harris and the Irish Jewish Museum’s first archivist, Asher Benson, who died just as it was brought to completion. It is in line with the roles played by both Harris and Benson as “disturbers of the peace” in respect of too comfortable an approach to Irish Jewish history that Ó Gráda is now the first historian to give Edelstein his due:

Joseph Edelstein’s controversial and scurrilous The Moneylender… offers an insider’s very unflattering portrait of the fictional immigrant packman, Moses Levenstein, and his circle. Moses and his greedy friends prey on impoverished and gullible clients. There is no love lost on either side … Edelstein, at this time a Home Ruler, believed that the moneylenders poisoned relations between the immigrants and the host community … Edelstein’s aim was to integrate the Jewish community and protect it from the hostility and suspicion facing moneylenders. However, in the attempt he painted an unduly dark portrait of his compatriot moneylenders. The rates they charged, though high, were certainly no higher than those charged by non-Jewish moneylenders before their arrival, and probably not much higher than those by pawnbrokers, another major source of credit for Ireland’s poor.

Ó Gráda speculates that this 1931 edition had been published as a campaign boost for Briscoe’s Moneylenders Bill, and there is further speculation that Edelstein sometimes acted as a speechwriter for Briscoe. With the final enactment of the Moneylenders’ Act of 1933, the ultimate objective of the book can indeed be said to have been realised. Any further publication of Edelstein’s book, carrying that self-same racially stereotyped cover, would have moved into the realm of the unconscionable in the immediate aftermath of Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany that same year. It would certainly have played into the hands of the Nazi sympathiser Charles Bewley, Irish Minister to Germany during that period.

The publication of Volume V of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy now gives us the opportunity to read in full Bewley’s report of December 9th, 1938 concerning those all too real pogroms, accompanied by murder, that characterised Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht: “I am not aware of any such [cases of deliberate cruelty] towards Jews on the part of the German Government.” Yes, that is precisely how Bewley put it.

Up to his dismissal from his post by de Valera on August 1st, 1939, Bewley had played a particularly malicious role in Berlin, his anti-Semitic prejudices seeking to obstruct any and every genuine refugee application. Yet his influence should not be exaggerated to the point of inaccurate historical revisionism. On the eve of Dublin’s Holocaust Memorial Day in January 2007 The Irish Times published an article by John Ihle, charging that Ireland had provided refuge for only about thirty Jewish people during the Nazi era. It brought an immediate reply from Dr Gisela Holfter of the University of Limerick’s Centre for Irish-German Studies:

That number does not stand up to scrutiny. Though precise numbers of who passed through before the war might never be known, we can estimate safely that around 250 to 300 victims of Nazi persecution lived in Ireland for some time between 1933 and 1945, obviously a painfully small number in the international context. About 80 per cent would have been what the Nazis called “non-Aryans”. The refugees identified themselves as Jewish, Catholic, Protestant as well as non-religious. By minimising their number other important lessons from history are lost – especially the enormous contribution this first wave of immigrants to the young Free State made to Irish society and the wonderful efforts of the many people who worked tirelessly on their behalf. The number of people sheltered by Ireland was small, but among them were the first and second directors of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, Jewish entrepreneurs who set up or managed factories that provided employment for many Irish people, and many “ordinary people” surviving by giving German classes or anything else that opened up to them, and through the support of people from all religious backgrounds.

The estimate of 300 such refugees is that arrived at by Dermot Keogh for the 2006 book of essays edited by Gisela Holfter herself and entitled German-Speaking Exiles in Ireland 1933-1945. A particularly poignant essay is by the founding curator of the Irish Jewish Museum, Raphael V Siev, in which he relates the October 1938 suicide in Limerick of a Jewish refugee from Vienna, Elsa Reininger-Hoefler. Permitted to stay in the UK for no more than 48 hours, she and her husband had continued onwards to join their daughter who, with her own husband, had previously found refuge in Limerick. But overcome by depression at all that had been lost with the Nazi takeover of Vienna, Elsa wrote a note saying that “I am compelled to go to my death”, and shot herself in a hotel bedroom.

Siobhán O’Connor’s essay in the same book proceeds to set the Irish refugee policy of the 1930s in a wider European context, where countries as diverse as Denmark, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia and Luxembourg had specifically set out to close their borders to Jewish immigration:

It is in this context that the 1935 Aliens Act was created … As de Valera pointed out … ‘most modern states … reserve rights for the control of citizens’. This was very true … No country dared be seen as an easy target for fear of the always anticipated ‘influx’ of refugees assumed to be waiting to descend on and take advantage of a liberal approach to them.

O’Connor is nevertheless quite correct in highlighting the nefarious role of Bewley in gratuitously compounding human suffering beyond what – in the absence of the benefit of hindsight – was perhaps an inevitably restrictive refugee policy. Nonetheless, she also highlights some countervailing pressures. Her own original research has brought to light the November 1939 call by the Irish Trade Union Congress on the Taoiseach to adopt “a generous and constructive policy in regard to the men, women and children who are victims of persecution on grounds of race or religion”, and she also attributes to James Larkin Jnr, as general secretary of the Workers’ Union of Ireland, a July 1939 letter to the Department of External Affairs seeking a more generous refugee admissions policy.

That attribution is misdirected. The general secretary in question was in fact young Jim’s father, Big Jim Larkin himself, who had founded the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1909. Failure to give Big Jim credit where credit is due is all the more serious in the light of an unfortunate lapse of judgment by the author elsewhere in her essay. O’Connor reprints what is captioned as “Anti-Semitic Cartoon, Irish Worker, 26 August 1911”. Regrettably, however, the writer did not undertake any additional research in order to establish a more meaningful context than that surrounding the cartoon’s previous publication by Keogh in his 1998 history. The cartoon in question, entitled “Gentlemen of the Jewry”, satirises two hook-nosed Jewish businessmen, outside shopfronts variously named as “Aaron Go Brágh Store, proprietor Ikey O’Moses” and “The Emmet Emporium”. One of them is captioned as saying to the other: “Begob Ikey, ven vill us poor Irish get Home Rule?” Undoubtedly a cartoon in poor anti-Semitic taste, especially now that we have the benefit of hindsight, but a jocose graphic that stands out as relatively harmless in impact when compared with the unnerving cover of Joseph Edelstein’s novel that Keogh refrained from making the slightest mention of – never mind reproducing – as perhaps the most dangerous prevailing pictorial image of a Jew in Ireland, with the widest possible circulation over the course of several decades.

Researching Larkin’s Irish Worker in the required detail would have presented a far more complex picture than what is in effect Keogh’s own caricature. In the accompanying text that Larkin penned in order to justify the publication of that cartoon, he had in fact argued in that same issue of August 26th, 1911: “We have no objection to any man, Jew or Gentile, on account of his Nationality or Creed. What we do object to is the practice, which is becoming all too common, of Foreigners masquerading under Irish Names.”

Not a good enough reason for such a prejudicial cartoon, it can be argued. Yet that self-same issue of “Irish names” was being raised by Jewish trade unionists themselves in the context of the class conflict then taking place within Dublin’s Jewish community. My own researches had already brought to light a leaflet issued unashamedly by the Jewish Cabinetmakers’ Union that subjected “J.F. Kelly and Co” to the following onslaught and exposure:

Fellow Workers, We beg to call your attention to the deplorable state of affairs existing at present in the Furniture Industry of Dublin. We have been reluctantly compelled to withdraw our men from one particular firm – namely, Messrs. Gorevich and Debouvich, who prefer to be known as ‘J.F. Kelly and Co’ … under which alias they joined the Dublin Industrial Development Association … Our Society have withdrawn our men, as we found it impossible to get a living wage from this firm of Kelly and Co. Unfortunately, our places are taken by Irishmen who are compelled to accept the awful working conditions of these unscrupulous employers. Our demands are not exorbitant. We are only asking for the conditions which exist in the Dublin Cabinetmakers’ Union. We have read with interest the circulars of our fellow-workers of the Dublin Cabinetmakers’ Unemployed Committee, and it is the determination of the Jewish Cabinetmakers’ Trade Union, in conjunction with the Dublin Cabinetmakers’ Union, to do all that lies in our power to abolish these Industrial Hells.

The law of the jungle was being even more ferociously experienced by Jewish immigrant workers employed in the clothing trade, and such workers were in fact to find that they had no greater champion than Big Jim Larkin himself. As the Irish Worker pointed out on March 23rd, 1912:

When people try to organise these poor persecuted wretches driven from Russia, ignorant of the conditions of life and willing to exist by any and every means, prepared to work for a mere existence, Trade Unionists say, oh no, leave them alone. You cannot leave them alone. They will not allow you. They must eat or die. Therefore organise and help them to fight for better conditions. Those who object to the Jewish workers here in this country should remember it was not Jewish employers who brought them over [but the] list of the gentlemen who buy sweated Tailoring. Put the blame on the right shoulders, not on the poor unfortunate wage slaves, Jews or otherwise, who are fighting for the basic principle of Trade Unionism – the Union Shop”.

A week later, on March 30th, 1912, Larkin’s Irish Worker further reported:

West End Clothiers Co. Ltd, Dame Street, Dublin have locked out their workers for daring to belong to a Union. This firm of cheap clothiers do not employ Tailors, that is, members of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors … The Dublin branch of the firm have at the present time locked out their foreign workers who make clothing under a system of sub-division of labour – a system not recognised by the Tailors Society of Ireland, and these foreign workers, the majority of whom are Jews, are locked out because they dared to organise themselves as Trade Unionists in a branch of the International Tailors and Pressers Society.

The reputation of Éamon de Valera’s propaganda chief Frank Gallagher – founding editor of the Irish Press and editor and director of the Government Information Bureau – has been tarnished by the novelist Roddy Doyle. Author of that powerful 1953 account of the War of Independence, The Four Glorious Years, Gallagher had heroically served the underground elected Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann, as editor of the Irish Bulletin during that same War. In Doyle’s 1999 historical novel, A Star Called Henry, he was to be caricatured in the shape of the character Jack Dalton, the rabidly anti-Semitic Bulletin editor/gunman behind the racist murder of the Jewish Mr Climanis – an incident that had no foundation in fact. It is to the credit of Dermot Keogh that, in both his 1998 history and his 2006 book of essays, he painstakingly related the strenuous – and ultimately successful – campaign organised by Frank Gallagher to rescue the Jewish Wortsman family from Nazi Germany, an account also echoed by O’Connor. In addition, the recollections of the half-Jewish German refugee Monica Schefold (née Hennig) portray with considerable warmth the welcome that she received in Gallagher’s home during her earlier years of childhood exile.

What of the circumstances of the Irish Jewish community itself? It is indeed a pity that a very informative essay like O’Connor’s had to open with the following gratuitous piece of “scene-setting”:

1933 was the year when both Adolf Hitler in Germany and Éamon de Valera in Ireland asserted their personal authority. At the beginning of this period Joyce in jest referred to the coming times as being the Devil’s Era – a play on the letters and sound of de Valera … In his attempts to dismantle the Treaty he brought Ireland into a period of economic stagnation.

While the term “economic stagnation” is an appropriate description of the Ireland of the 1950s, the very opposite is the case in respect of the de Valera record during the 1930s. In yet another comprehensive work, his 1994 book Ireland: A New Economic History, Cormac Ó Gráda showed how, at 199,000 in 1936, total industrial employment in the state’s economy had reached a level that was as much as 26 per cent above its 1926 level of 157,000, notwithstanding the Great Depression afflicting capitalist economies worldwide. Total employment in those industries enjoying tariff protection expanded from 45,000 in 1932 to 80,000 in 1939, and to 89,000 in 1947. Employment in the clothing industry alone expanded from 9,000 in 1932 to 21,000 in 1939, and to 24,000 in 1947.

In his latest work Ó Gráda now demonstrates how the Jewish community had particularly thrived during that same period of de Valera’s economic nationalism:

The Jewish community maintained its numbers in the interwar period, when the population of the country as a whole continued to decline … The attractions of setting up a business in an ever more protectionist Irish Free State were increasing. The post-1932 tariff regime even prompted the immigration from across the Irish Sea of some ‘tariff Jews’, as they were known in the Jewish community.

With regard to the clothing sector in particular, Ó Gráda further writes:

The protectionist tariff regime introduced by the Fianna Fáil party, which ruled uninterruptedly between 1932 and 1948, was a boon to clothing manufacturers, and Jewish immigrants with tailoring skills capitalised.

Nick Harris recalls in his memoirs:

When I was setting up in the early 1940s it was a boom time in the clothing business. The clothing trade was protected from imports, and Jewish firms dominated it by as much as 75 percent.

The Republic’s Jewish population nonetheless halved between 1961 and 1991. Those areas of industry where they had securely established such a strong position under de Valera’s economic regime were those most vulnerable during the subsequent era of free trade and globalisation, coming at a time when a critical mass had not established itself to be demographically self-sustaining. Openings in the professions were not numerous enough to offset the decline in opportunities in the previously protected clothing sector. And because of the small size of the community, Orthodox Jewish teenagers had only the opportunity to date those who were effectively their own cousins of some degree. The search for marriage partners led to more and more emigration of the young – mainly to the UK, but also to North America and, to a lesser extent, Israel.

If Bloom’s confrontation with the drunken “citizen” had been his only encounter with anti-Semitism in all his day’s criss-cross wanderings around Dublin on June 16th, 1904, so also had the Limerick boycott of 1904 been the exception that proved the rule regarding the historical experience of what Ó Gráda has entitled Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce. Still less did any residual anti-Semitism underlie the decline in Jewish numbers. Quite the contrary. As those numbers reached their lowest point during the 1980s, an overwhelmingly Catholic electorate in successive Irish parliamentary elections chose as their representatives three Jewish TDs, and one of their number, Mervyn Taylor of the Labour Party, was Minister for Equality and Law Reform from 1992 to 1997.

For the Jewish generation that actually lived through it, it was not so much Ó Gráda’s “Age of Joyce” but what Joyce himself had mockingly designated as “the Devil’s Era” that is remembered with affection. Critics of de Valera often focus on his diplomatic action as head of the Irish government in formally expressing his condolences to the German minister to Ireland on the announcement of the death of Hitler as German chancellor. In a February 2005 letter to The Irish Times – published under the heading “De Valera’s Wartime Condolences” – the former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Dr Isaac Cohen, wrote from his present home in Israel:

During his years with the Irish Volunteers he (Éamon de Valera) developed a warm mutual friendship with a predecessor of mine, Rabbi Dr. Isaac Herzog, whom he visited in the Chief Rabbi’s residence in Dublin’s South Circular Road … Further to Manus O’Riordan’s letter regarding the late President de Valera’s message of condolence to the German ambassador in 1945, permit me to take the opportunity of elaborating on this subject … I discussed this question with President de Valera and he explained to me that, owing to the difficult situation in the relationship of the Irish Republic with Britain at the time, he felt unable to join Britain in the Allied war against Germany, and, like many other small nations, he chose to maintain a state of neutrality. He said he had severely condemned the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people and he had conveyed this to the German ambassador. His message of condolence on the death of Hitler was merely an official act which was required by diplomatic protocol and was no judgement on the righteousness of German actions … I understood his ‘troublesome’ diplomatic situation, and I accepted it.

I will conclude with the remarks of another Jewish correspondent particularly appreciative of that “Devil’s Era” – Monty Ross – who defiantly challenged media caricatures of De Valera by writing in the Irish Independent that same month:

I, as an Irish member of the Jewish community, believe that the President of Ireland [Mary McAleese] was absolutely right in not making an apology for Mr. De Valera’s signing of the book of condolences at the German embassy. He did what he thought appropriate at that time, as Taoiseach. The idea of apologising for the actions of a dead person is quite ludicrous and meaningless. I can also understand the resistance of the Government of that time to the idea of admitting numbers of Jews. Ireland is a Catholic country and for centuries the Catholic Church in Europe has demonised members of the Jewish faith. I know that there were, from time to time, some priests and others who tried to encourage anti-Semitic activities here, but somehow the basic kindness and generosity of the vast majority of Irish people ensured that it did not take root. I am amazed that Ireland is the only country in Europe where Jews were not systematically or periodically persecuted. My father arrived here circa 1913 to escape Eastern European persecution and I was born in 1926. Apart from the very odd occasion when we experienced the usual taunts suffered by minority groups anywhere, there is no other place where we would have wished to spend our lives. Whenever I have been asked if I would like to move elsewhere, my answer is always the same: yes, I will move, providing I can take the east pier in Dún Laoghaire with me.

1. “A National Question on Bloomsday”, Manus O’Riordan, Communist Review, Dublin, July 1974; “Anti-Semitism in Irish Politics – Arthur Griffith”, Manus O’Riordan, Dublin Jewish News, March-April 1979, and Morgn Freiheit,New York, 17 February 1980; “Sinn Féin and the Jews”, Parts 1 to 6, Manus O’Riordan, The Irish Communist, Dublin, March, May, June, July, October and December 1980; “Anti-Semitism in Irish Politics”, Manus O’Riordan, Irish-Jewish Year Book 5745, Office of the Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Dublin, 1984/85.

2. “Joyce and the Jewish Dimension”, Gerald Y Goldberg, The Crane Bag, Dublin, 1982.

3. For a detailed review of this and other related themes, see my paper “GAA Founder No Blooming Anti-Semite!” on http://www.anfearrua.com/story.asp?id=2126 – website of “An Fear Rua – The GAA Unplugged”.

4. Ó Gráda cites “Maurice Levitas: An obituary”, Manus O’Riordan, Saothar 26, Dublin, 2001, journal of the Irish Labour History. See also “Connolly Socialism and the Jewish Worker”, Manus O’Riordan, Saothar 13, 1988; Irish and Jewish Volunteers in the Spanish Anti-Fascist War, an Irish Jewish Museum lecture, Dublin, November, 1987, available on http://www.geocities.com/irelandscw/ibvol-MoR1.htm and The Jewish Tailors’ and Pressers’ Union, Manus O’Riordan, Dublin, June 2002, on http://www.siptu.ie/PressRoom/NewsReleases/2002/Name,2578,en.html

Manus O’Riordan is head of research at Ireland’s largest trade union, SIPTU (Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union). He has written extensively on the history of Ireland’s War of Independence and the Spanish Civil War, as well as on Irish and Irish-American labour history. A member of the National Economic and Social Council, he also serves on the Economic and Employment Committee of the European Trade Union Confederation.

This essay was originally published in the drb in the summer of 2007



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