I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

The Irish Jew

 

Maurice Earls writes: The Irish Jew, a comedy by John MacDonagh, had numerous successful runs in Dublin in the early 1920s. It was extremely popular, with performances usually twice a night. Billed as ‘Ireland’s Greatest Comedy’ and described as ‘easily the most successful play presented on the Irish stage during the present generation’, it was performed in venues such as the Queen’s, the Gaiety, the Tivoli and the Olympia. These were popular theatres in the older Dublin theatrical tradition, where the tone was a good deal less earnest than that of the Abbey and where the idea of the theatre as a place of entertainment held sway. The famous entertainer Jimmy O’Dea had his stage debut as Councillor Woods in The Irish Jew.

Being outward-looking and contemporary in his thinking, MacDonagh, a nationalist and brother of the 1916 signatory Thomas MacDonagh, was not attracted to the view that writers should look to the Celtic past and peasant life for inspiration. He had himself been an officer in the Volunteers and served with his brother in Jacob’s factory during the uprising. Afterwards he was imprisoned, but unlike his brother, he was not executed. Before 1916 he had been involved in the world of stage and cinema, and among other achievements, wrote the script for DW Griffith’s The Fugitive (1910). In 1914 he was appointed first manager of The Irish Theatre Company which was set up in opposition to the Abbey, with the strict undertaking that it would not stage peasant dramas. Following his release from prison MacDonagh returned to the world of cinema but also supported the War of Independence. He filmed Michael Collins issuing republican loan bonds and was involved in other cinematic work of a nationalist character. He was also the author of many songs, including ‘Did Santa Claus come from Ireland?’.

The Irish Jew, set in Dublin before 1916, is an unsophisticated tale of municipal corruption leavened with both romance and farce. In the play the recently appointed lord mayor and hero of the piece is the Jewish Abraham (Abe) Golder, a patriotic Irishman comfortable in his Jewish identity. As lord mayor he must deal with the corrupt nationalists of the Irish Parliamentary Party who pretend to be his friends and supporters.

In the opening scene we meet Golder in the Mansion House preparing for his inaugural banquet. A portrait of Disraeli, just removed from the wall, has been replaced by one of Robert Emmet. Golder explains that Disraeli might have been a Jew but that they would have disagreed concerning Ireland. His plan is to recite Emmet’s speech from the dock in period costume during the celebratory banquet. His IPP ‘friends’ try to dissuade him, arguing that his approach is ‘too national’. Golder will have none of it and sticks to his plan. He is beginning to make enemies among the mealy-mouthed nationalists who suspect he has gone across to the ‘extremists’.

A more mercenary issue later emerges. IPP councillors are trying to engineer the purchase of a building for a picture gallery where money will be made on the side and a contract awarded to a favoured builder. Once again Golder, described by The Freeman’s Journal as ‘a Hebrew without blemish who defies and studies the guile of Christian Corporators’ and who is not ‘easily scared off’, triumphs and protects the public interest.

Golder is himself a businessman who owns a ‘Moving Picture House’ which, on the night of the banquet, is burned down by a mob alleging immoral pictures are being screened. The mob has been got up by the mayor’s political enemies. Once again Golder triumphs, he donates the site to the city for use not as a picture gallery but as a play area for all the city’s children, including those from the slums.

There is significant, albeit implied, contemporary political content in the play. MacDonagh’s script reflects approval of the achievement of an independent state. There is also an implicit preference in the play for a democratic mode of governance, conducted with a high level of probity. The script further reflects an inclusive vision of Ireland, decidedly inimical to the antisemitism common on the European mainland. (The numerous slaughters of Jews in Ukraine from 1918-21 were well known and widely reported in Ireland.)

MacDonagh was, it seems, in the well-established liberal nationalist tradition which took generalised political form under O’Connell in the early nineteenth century. The play had numerous runs through the period of the Civil War. However, that conflict has no presence in the play. MacDonagh himself, like many Republicans, appears to have sat out the dispute. If it can be said that there is a view on the matter implicit in the play, it is that the conflict was something of an inconvenience, in that it was at odds with the play’s tone of new hope.

But more telling from a historical point of view is that the politics of the play can be loosely attributed to that large section of the Dublin public which enthusiastically flocked to numerous productions of the play over the early years of the independent state. The Irish Jew it seems, reflected an optimism at that time, or perhaps it was simply a hope, that the new state would see both an end to squabbles between nationalists and, with the benefit of good governance, successfully tackle the nineteenth century legacy of demographic, cultural and economic disaster. It was an optimism which ignored the rather obvious division which had emerged among the new nationalists.

The heyday of the play’s popularity was 1922-24. There does not appear to have been a production in 1925 and it seems there was only one in 1926 which did not lead to further stagings. By then The Irish Jew had run its course. 1926 was the year de Valera led the anti-Treatyites back from the wilderness and into the democratic process. From then on politics would be chiefly between factions of the new nationalists. There would be few laughs and plenty of rancour as the massive challenges of building a new state and economy capable of supporting the population became starkly visible.

In addition to implicit attitudes found in the play, there is one important subject directly highlighted and this is the level of acceptance Jews found in Ireland.

This is a large subject, and in commenting on it the ambition of the present piece extends no further than outlining some ideas primarily arising from a consideration of attitudes and events in Ireland in the early years of Independence.

A Review of The Irish Jew in The Cork Examiner included the following:

The author’s object in giving us a picture of a Hebrew Lord Mayor who taught a lesson of straight dealing to his shifty fellow councillors is a worthy one, suggestive of a much higher and more neighbourly view of the strangers within our gates than we have been wont to take. Although the Hebrew in Ireland has never been subjected to the kind of harsh treatment he has been subjected to in some other countries, where the measure meted out to him by so-called Christians has been a voiceless repudiation of their own Christianity and its Divine lessons of toleration and brotherly love, we have constantly failed to appreciate the splendid characteristics so ordinarily to be found in the Semitic peoples. There are, as well we, know, good and bad in every race. A bad Jew is only worse than a bad Christian, because as a rule he is cleverer; and a good Jew is as good as the best. One who has known how many kind-hearted, upright, honourable men are to be found among the descendants of Abraham will always be willing and glad to acknowledge his admiration for that talented and industrious race, who are in every country they inhabit to be numbered among its most loyal citizens.

This type of positive commentary was commonplace. The suggestion that the play is more positive about Jews than was reflected in popular attitudes is probably accurate, at least for some. It is nevertheless significant that audiences had no difficult with a play whose moral giant was Jewish. Antisemitism, of course, was far from unknown in Ireland, the Limerick boycott of 1903 being the outstanding example. However, it was not the norm.

Jewish commentators generally found their situation in Ireland to be a positive one, with negative attitudes barely registering, presumably because whatever negativity existed in Ireland was very far removed from the murderous racism experienced elsewhere. The Dublin-based Rabbi Abraham Gudansky, cantor in the Lennox Street synagogue, who is said to have helped Michael Collins hide from the Black and Tans, wrote to MacDonagh praising the positive depiction of the Jewish lord mayor.

Permit me to express to you my profound appreciation of your play, The Irish Jew, so nobly conceived, so brilliantly written and so splendidly performed. By portraying the principal characters of the play in the way you did you have proved yourself a most worthy upholder of the principles of right and justice to all which animated many of your illustrious compatriots in their struggle for freedom and liberty. You have brought home to the public at large the fact the Jew, if treated as an equal is capable of exhibiting the highest qualities of patriotism for the country of his adoption and that it is only prejudice, jealousy and falsehood which first create and then deepen the gulf separating the Jew from the Gentile. I understand that the play is about to make its appearance in the United States. It is badly needed there. May it meet with the success it so thoroughly deserves, and may it be helpful towards dispelling the miasma of anti-Semitism which has of late enveloped certain sections of the American people.

Commentary of this kind was not untypical. An attendee at the inaugural meeting of ‘The Irish Jews of America’ in 1927 spoke appreciatively of the good treatment Jews received from the people of Ireland and of the friendship of Catholic neighbours. Again, in January 1923, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Dr Hertz, visiting Cork, proposed a toast to the Free State. His comments were reported in the press:

even a few days in Ireland was a liberal education, and there was one thing that he liked to see – there was no discrimination of any sort against any man or any class or creed. In other words, there was justice in the Free State, and where there was justice there could not be hatred.

However, in the autumn of 1923 an event called the benign view of the Irish into question. A young Jewish civil servant, Ernest Kahn, was shot dead on Lennox Street in Dublin; his companion, who was also Jewish, was wounded. The murder caused great surprise and outrage. People, particularly Jewish citizens, wondered whether the motive was antisemitism. The Jewish Chronicle commented:

Thus, for the moment, the grim affair remains a dark mystery. It is impossible to say whether the murders were directed against Jews as such or whether it was merely accident that both victims were coreligionists, nor can it be said if the crimes were individual or the work of some organisation. But of this we can be certain, that the Free State Government will leave no stone unturned to discover the miscreants and bring them to justice, and that moreover, having regard to the character of the Irish people and their attitude towards their Jewish fellow citizens we may safely dismiss from our minds altogether any suggestion of anti-semitism as a cause for the deplorable occurrences which have shocked the people of Ireland without distinction of class or creed.

When the shock subsided, it was generally agreed among Jews and others that the incident was not indicative of a widespread antisemitism in Ireland and was probably not in itself antisemitic. Yet Kahn’s murderers were exactly the sort of people responsible for the horrific and large-scale murder of Jews in Ukraine.

The perpetrators were a heavy-drinking maverick element within the Free State Army who were unwilling to accept that the new democratic state had little use for their methods and that their day was done. In 1923 it would seem they were operating both as bandits and as a death squad targeting former Civil War enemies. The 1920s saw this element lose out to historically embedded democratic forces. However, their defeat was not complete until the peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected government in 1932. It was a transfer which authoritarian elements had tried to prevent, including a senior police officer who had successfully frustrated the apprehension of Kahn’s murderers, despite the state’s strong desire to bring them to justice. The failure of this element to achieve political traction was ultimately owing to the strength of the liberal nationalist tradition. But had it prevailed, Ireland in the 1930s could conceivably have seen significant antisemitism emerge as part of an authoritarian ideological ragbag.

Broadly positive commentary from the Jewish community persisted, continuing into the 1930s and beyond. In his recently published memoir of life as a Jewish youth in 1930s Dublin Theo Garb, whose wider family lost 200 members to the Holocaust, is unremittingly positive regarding Irish behaviour toward Jews and equally celebratory of his Irish identity. The title he gives to his memoir is Emerald Ark. Garb’s title is telling. Like most Irish Jews his family moved to Ireland to escape antisemitism in Europe. But there is a sense in which Jewish commentators like Garb looked at Ireland through rose-tinted glasses, generally accurate regarding levels of antisemitism but less aware of the deeper patterns of negativity and mean-spiritedness that could lie behind the friendly smiles.

The public political character of Irish life –or at least much of it – was highly agreeable to Irish Jews. Traditional Irish liberal nationalist politics rested on the idea of universal human equality, which was the type of politics underlying MacDonagh’s play. Irish Jews naturally endorsed this concept. And Jews generally also liked the Irish politics of liberty and release from bondage, echoing as it did, their own struggle.

But the deeper Irish malaise referred to was also real and existed as an embedded cultural pathology, generally outside the realm of the politically articulated. Its presence existed chiefly at the level of private life. Ulysses, published in 1922, is the great record of this phenomenon. The Dublin of Ulysses is by no means a happy or positive place. Mean-spiritedness is found throughout. It could be said Joyce’s Dublin resembled more a sinking ship than an ark.

It is hardly surprising that Jews, escaping persecution, did not adopt and interiorise the everyday Irish negativity which issued from the multiple disasters of the Irish nineteenth century, and whose most salient cause was the seemingly inescapable spiral of demographic decline and economic mediocrity. Irish Jews had, after all, their own set of historical demons with which to contend. This lacuna sometimes resulted in an overly positive depiction of the Irish.

Joyce’s Jewish hero, Leopold Bloom, doesn’t quite get the Irish malaise and embodies the – perhaps hopeless – vision of an Ireland characterised by achievement rather than stasis and by kindness rather than meanness. As Joyce explained, his hero had to be an outsider, ‘only a foreigner would do’.

On the question of antisemitism, he commented. ‘The Jews were foreigners at that time in Dublin. There was no hostility toward them, but contempt, yes, the contempt people always show for the unknown.’

Many Irish Jews who did not interiorise the national malaise and who did not look askance at positivity and energy in personal life, responded with vigour to the experience of feeling safe. This perhaps, at least in part, explains the remarkable contribution and successes of Irish Jews through the twentieth century in the areas of politics, the arts, sport, the professions and business.

But no doubt Jewish positivity and energy at times provoked an eyeroll if not a sneering response, but this was even-handed and directed at whoever exhibited unencumbered positivity and personal ambition, whether Jewish or native. Some years later Louis MacNeice commented on the general phenomenon:

I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel – which I quite like too.

Joyce, like MacDonagh, was in the liberal nationalist tradition but he did not have the latter’s optimism. Asked, in connection with the Irish struggle for independence if he did not look forward to an Irish state he is reported to have responded, ‘So that I may declare myself its first enemy’.

Perhaps his many years probing the shaded aspects of the Irish soul left him with the view that the new Irish political class, no less than the old, would require committed critics. If so, it could be said he knew whereof he spoke.

12/2/2024

 

 

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