Ireland, a mystical place, is the land of fairies, folklore, flower-filled fields, white sandy beaches and haunted castles. Influential writers and poets from W.B. Yeats to James Joyce found their inspiration from the streets of Dublin to the craggy cliffs of Slieve. I landed in Dublin, an emerald-green city bathed in summer sunlight. History touched me from the moment I arrived, as my hotel, the Merrion, elegant in every way from the rooms to the tea service, was the place where Arthur Wellesley, the first duke of Wellington was born.
Brushing jet lag aside (okay, after a threehour nap), I headed out to explore Dublin Castle. The city gets its name from the dubh linn or black pool (dubh = black) which is on the site of the present castle gardens.
It was originally built as a defensive fortification for the Norman city of Dublin and later evolved into a royal residence. In 1938, the first president of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, was inaugurated in the castle, and now it continues to host this ceremony, as well as many other governmental affairs.
Irish history is rich, complicated and dramatic. While the Jewish population is not large, never more then 6,000, influential figures, such Chaim Herzog, the sixth president of Israel, were born in Ireland, and have made an impact in international as well as Irish politics.
The earliest reference to a Jewish presence was in 1079, when scholars believe merchants arrived for a short visit. However, the first Irish Jewish politician was William Annyas, elected mayor of Youghal, County Cork in 1555. The tradition continued, albeit a few hundred years later, when Gerald Goldberg became lord mayor of Cork in 1977.
Not to be outdone, Dublin also boasts two Jewish mayors, a father and son, Robert Briscoe, twice lord mayor of Dublin (1956- 1957 and 1961-1962) and his son Ben Briscoe in 1988.
Dublin, home of the writer James Joyce, is charming and a manageable city to navigate. Many locations Joyce writes about in Ulysses, which his famous Jewish character Leopold Bloom frequents, such as the restaurant/bar Davy Byrnes, on Grafton Street, are still open for business and marked with metal plaques.
Joyce himself frequented Bewley’s Oriental Café, a European-style coffee house, where the atmosphere is easygoing. It is a great place for any meal, and it’s filled with Irish stories. One famous Jewish artist, Harry Kernoff – whose paintings are in the Irish National Gallery – would often eat at Bewley’s, and in exchange for his meal would do a drawing on the bill.
Another famous Irish author, Oscar Wilde, was showcased at the nearby Gaiety Theater, with the performance of The Importance of Being Earnest starring Stockard Channing. It’s a charming place to see a show; the performance was brilliant, the entire audience filled the theater with laughter.
Besides laughing in Ireland, I simply felt smarter, especially as I walked down the cobblestoned campus of Trinity College, established in 1592. The campus hosts the famous Book of Kells, which is an ornately decorated version of the Christian gospels dating from the ninth century. The Vikings looted the book in 1007 for its jeweled cover but left the manuscript behind.
The 680-page book is known for its unbelievably intricate artistry and some historians believe it contains all the designs found in Celtic art. Part of the exhibition includes the majestic library, aptly named the Long Room; it is 65 meters long and 13 meters wide, and holds about 200,000 of the three million volumes in Trinity’s collection.
Trinity College also has a Jewish connection. The Weingreen Museum, donated by Prof. Jack and Bertha Weingreen, who taught Hebrew at the university, consists mainly of pottery and other artifacts from the ancient Near East. The collection encompasses the entire Mediterranean world from North Africa to Mesopotamia and from the ninth millennium BCE to the Crusades and is open to the public by appointment.
Ireland also boasts a Jewish Museum. Once a synagogue, it was established in 1984. It was opened by Chaim Herzog, whose father, Isaac, was the first chief rabbi of Ireland. The ceremony was held in 1985 during his state visit. The museum is filled with photos, paintings and Judaica and it chronicles the last 150 years of Irish Jewish communities and their contributions to the country.
I wandered over to the Dublin Hebrew Congregation. Call it dumb luck or
good travel karma, I arrived just as Saturday morning services were
ending, and stopped to chat with Stuart Rosenblatt, the preeminent
scholar of Irish Jewish genealogy who created an enormous database of
more than 42,000 Irish Jews, their family histories and their global
connections dating back to 1664.
He and his friend, Anne Lapedus Brest, a photographer, who emigrated to
South Africa, were kind enough to spend some time talking to me – and
they even invited me to share a meal. Talk about warm Irish hospitality.
WHILE I appreciated meeting the locals, secretly I was determined to see
a ghost or a fairy; after all, in a land known for its literary tall
tales and magical happenings, anything was possible, right?
One of the first places where the possibility existed was Newgrange. A
grass covered enormous round structure, it is a legendary megalithic
passage tomb, older than both Stonehenge and the pyramids of Giza, and
is a World Heritage Site. It was specifically constructed so every
winter solstice a beam of sunlight shines through the entrance to a
passageway to illuminate the chamber inside.
The knowledgeable guide explained the possibilities of Newgrange:
perhaps a burial chamber or a place for ritual purposes. However, she
told us, our guesses were as good as hers, as no one really knows what
happened in those chambers.
However, with no fairies to be found, I headed towards the Castle Leslie
estate in County Monaghan. My tour guide was the senior occupant, Sir
John Leslie, fourth baronet, who is now 93. Sir John never married,
never had children, but is a man of movement, so when he is not
entertaining the many guests who stay on the premises, he goes disco
dancing every Saturday night at the local club.
Wandering through the castle was a treat. Room after room, twisting and
turning upstairs and down, I was sure to meet a ghost. (Many guests who
stay in the castle have claimed to see a woman walking through the
halls.) Adorning the walls were exquisite family portraits, photos of
dignitaries and historical trivia such as Winston Churchill’s
christening clothes. The old-fashioned kitchen is still intact, next to a
modern-day version which is used when people book parties and weddings
at the castle.
Perhaps the most famous wedding was Paul McCartney’s ill-fated marriage
to Heather Mills. Mick Jagger and many celebrities and royalty have also
spent time on the estate.
Moving forward with my adventure, one of the most magical places, I
experienced in Ireland is Glenveagh National Park, a Scottish-style
castle surrounded by thousands of acres of mountains, lakes, glens and
woods. The garden is divided into a few sections, one appropriately
named the Pleasure Gardens. Glenveagh is known for its rich collection
of southern-hemisphere trees and shrubs as well as a diverse
The castle changed ownership a few times, and was eventually was given
to the government so tens of thousands of people can enjoy the majesty
of the gardens, which are free to enter.
Enchanted with the colorful gardens, fragrant flowers and ornate
statues, it made sense that all the great Irish authors found magic in
their midst. The blue tinted light and the cool crisp air enveloped me,
and off in the distance I spotted what seemed to be a small creature
flying toward me; whether it was a ghost or a fairy, I’m not sure. It
sprinkled something in my eyes, and left me even more captivated with
the exquisiteness of Ireland.