Jewish life by the Liffey: A look at the Jewish community in Ireland

"The only country unsullied by any one act of persecution of the Jews."

Maurice Cohen, head of the local community in Dublin, stands outside the Irish Jewish Museum in the city (photo credit: Courtesy)
Maurice Cohen, head of the local community in Dublin, stands outside the Irish Jewish Museum in the city
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As the Irish Jewish Museum on Walworth Road in Dublin veered into view, I got a familiar feeling. It was a palpable sense of a blast from the Jewish past. It was the same knee-jerk reaction I had when I was on a year-long hiatus back in Blighty in the mid-’80s, when I worked for a while as a delivery driver, and made twice-weekly trips to the East End of London.
Back then, there were still a few Jewish residents of my late father’s generation, and even older. In the historic immigrant area of London from where my dad hailed, there was one kosher butcher, a couple of bagel shops, and a handful of Jewish-owned businesses dotted around the area, but the locals “of the faith” were well past their first flush of youth.
The aforesaid repository of Jewish memorabilia is located in the Portobello district of the Irish capital, not far from the center, and the leafy environs of St.
Stephen’s Green, off the South Circular Road. In the first half of the 20th century the area was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, which housed a large proportion of the close to 4,000-strong Dublin Jewish community, and was known as Little Jerusalem.
Like the East End of London, the Lower East Side of New York and the district of any major Western city which took in Jewish immigrants – primarily from Eastern and Central Europe fleeing antisemitism and pogroms – Dublin’s Jewish population appreciably swelled in the second half of 19th century and early part of the 20th century. There were several synagogues spread around the city, including the generously proportioned Greenville Hall Synagogue, and the nearby Adelaide Road Synagogue, which was deconsecrated in 1999 after over a century of mostly vibrant community service. The earliest recorded house of Jewish prayer was a far more modest affair, established on Crane Lane opposite Dublin Castle in 1660.
Members of the community with Robert Briscoe, the first Jewish lord mayor of Dublin, 1957 (photo credit: Courtesy)Members of the community with Robert Briscoe, the first Jewish lord mayor of Dublin, 1957 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The first Jewish cemetery dates from the early 1700s.
Like Jewish sections of all the aforementioned large cities, after a generation or so the immigrants managed to better their socioeconomic lot and began relocating to more desirable parts of town. In Dublin, that meant moving to the southern suburbs, while other local Jews emigrated, mostly to the US, the UK and Israel. Today, the Irish capital has a Jewish community of under 2,000.
I was welcomed to the Jewish Museum by the head of the local community, Maurice Cohen, who officiates as chairman of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland. A genial character, Cohen told me that the first Irish Jew of note, in fact, lived some distance away from Dublin, and that the first sizable Jewish presence in the country started long before the pogroms drove Jews westwards.
“We believe that Jews starting coming here after the Spanish Armada [in 1588] and even before that,” says Cohen. “A few Jews came here after the expulsion from Spain [in 1496].”
The latter immigrants settled in various regions of Ireland, including in Youghal, County Cork, near the south coast, and a few years later, one William Annyas was elected as mayor in 1555.
Cohen says there is no documentation explaining why fleeing Central European Jewry decided to set up house on the Emerald Isle. Naturally, being Ireland, there are several versions to the business. “What we guess is – we don’t know whether it’s a myth – that when they were dropped off the boat, they thought they were in America.
Everybody says, ‘oh, my grandfather didn’t speak any English and he was just dropped off here,’ but we don’t really know if that’s correct or not.”
Some of the incoming Jews may have had a smattering of English, but not enough to make critical distinctions between rhyming names. “There was a small community in Cork... but the story is that people thought they were in New York,” Cohen laughs. Cohen’s own grandparents got off the boat, from Lithuania and Poland, in Dublin around 1914.
Regardless of the side of the Atlantic they’d reached, either way the Jewish newcomers had made it to a safer place.
“I would imagine that a few people came, [and] found that compared to where they came from, there was no antisemitism here – certainly in those times there was generally no antisemitism to speak of. That was partly thanks to the efforts of an enlightened local politician by the name of Daniel O’Connell. He was a great Irish Protestant politician from County Clare [southwest Ireland], who was the [advocate of] leading Catholic emancipation, and became a member of the British Parliament. He inspired a lot of the Jews in the [Irish] Parliament and inspired British Jewish emancipation. There is a quotation [of O’Connell] that is worth looking up about Jews in Ireland.”
It reads thus: “Ireland has claims on your ancient race, it is the only country that I know of unsullied by any one act of persecution of the Jews.”
The Jews’ public profile in Ireland was given a further boost during the Great Famine between 1845 and 1852, when the local potato crop was ravaged by blight. Baron Lionel de Rothschild, a prominent British banker and philanthropist – who became the first Jewish member of Parliament – provided generous financial assistance to support starving Irish families.
Today, Irish Jews continue to live their lives without fear of racial hate. “I know that in the highest levels of government, and the highest levels of the municipal offices, we are always given time [by the authorities] if we need anything or want anything,” Cohen says.
That includes trying to persuade Jewish émigrés to return.
The community's heyday was between the 1930s and the 1980s (photo credit: Courtesy)The community's heyday was between the 1930s and the 1980s (photo credit: Courtesy)
“Three years ago there was a big marketing push by the Taoiseach (pronounced “Teeshok”) – that’s the Irish prime minister – called The Gathering, where he said Irish people should come back in. We did our own Jewish Gathering, and we had a couple of hundred people who’d left Ireland and came back [for the event]. Again, the state gave us tremendous facilities and help.”
Then again, there are politics.
“If you are talking about relations between Israel and Ireland, that’s a whole different ball game,” said Cohen, neatly sidestepping that particular minefield.
Be that as it may, the Walworth Road museum provides clear if somewhat dusty evidence of the achievements of local Jews, and of community life in Ireland over the past century and a half or so.
The community’s heyday was from the 1930s up to the 1980s. Clanbrassil Street, to the south of the River Liffey, was the hub of Jewish Dublin. There were kosher shops there, and Asher Benson’s delightful tome Jewish Dublin: Portraits of Life by the Liffey romantically and evocatively notes that the Jewish stores were frequented by “both its fashionably attired and more traditional garbed customers, their admixture of English and Yiddish, the pervasive aroma of schmaltz herring and other heimishe (traditional) delicatessen, together with the pungency of yeasty bread and freshly killed meat and poultry, combined to make Clanbrassil Street more reminiscent of 19th century Russia than of 20th century Ireland.”
The ground floor of the Jewish museum neatly catalogues the community’s contributions to life in Dublin and Ireland as a whole, and includes a recreation of a room in a typical Jewish home in the mid-20th century. There were leading Jewish photographers, entertainers, tailors, physicians, academics and even the odd politician. The first Irish Jew to secure a Cabinet post was Mervyn Taylor, who was appointed minister of the newly created Department of Equality and Law Reform. In 1995, he led a successful campaign to legalize divorce in predominantly Catholic Ireland. Other Jewish TDs – Teachta Dála or members of parliament – include Alan Shatter and Ben Briscoe.
Finally, Cohen and his co-congregants are, naturally, very proud of the fact that a former Dubliner – albeit born in Belfast – by the name of Chaim Herzog rose to prominence over here. Herzog served as Israel’s sixth president from 1983 to 1993, and was the son of Ireland’s chief rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, who held the same post in Mandatory Palestine, and became Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi after 1948.