The Irish-Jewish connection

Today, when we remember the feast of St. Patrick, we remember more than just the coming of Christianity to Ireland.

March 17, 2010 12:48
3 minute read.
St. Patrick's Day parade in Montreal.

St. Patrick's Day 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)


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At first glance, the Irish and Jewish peoples seem radically different. But scratch the surface and they begin to look like twins separated at birth. The stories of these two wandering tribes share many extraordinary parallels.

The Irish writer Brendan Behan once remarked, “Others have a nationality. The Irish and the Jews have a psychosis.” That may be putting matters a little harshly, but he was on to something: These two ancient peoples were destined to wander the world as outsiders,
knowing suspicion and derision wherever they went. Through it all, both maintained tight and close bonds with their own kin, even in the farthest corners of the earth.

Both have homelands that are small, sacred and contested. And very ancient: Ireland and Israel both boast monuments far older than the pyramids of Egypt. Some even dare to speculate that the Irish may be connected to one of the “lost tribes” of Israel. Certainly, stone
burial chambers called dolmens are found in both Ireland and Israel. These date from about 4,000 BCE. Yet any such mysterious common origins are now lost in time.

IN MORE recent centuries, the Irish and the Jews have inordinately swollen the ranks of genius. A disproportionate number of Nobel laureates have Jewish or Irish origins. Nor is it an accident that the central character in James Joyce’s Ulysses is an Irish Jew, notes Prof. Thomas Casey of the Gregorian University in Rome: “Surely Joyce was struck by parallels between the Jewish and Irish experience: persecution, a lost homeland, exile and a global diaspora.”

Both peoples suffered death and cruelty at the hands of oppressors. While many now live in the small, beautiful and intense homelands of Ireland and Israel, the greater portion of both tribes remain scattered to the four corners of the earth.

Both peoples most particularly found a home in the United States. From humble beginnings in America, these two ethnic groups rose to prominence by the middle of the 20th century. By the time of president John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960, Irish and Jewish Americans were
two wealthiest and most successful ethnic groups in the US.

When these two peoples melded together in the great melting pot of America, they collaborated in some part of the most extraordinary human achievements of all time: the space race, the moon landings and  he defeat of communism and Nazism. This latter enterprise is attested to in cold white marble at the American cemetery in Normandy, where many Irish-Americans and Jewish-Americans lie side by side.

TODAY, WHEN we remember the feast of St. Patrick, we remember more than just the coming of Christianity to Ireland. Embedded intrinsically within Christianity is the Jewish law, the sacred Ten Commandments, and the knowledge of the one God, which both peoples
hold in common to this day. We remember too that Jesus himself was a Jew.

In 432 CE St. Patrick brought the Nazarene’s teachings and the ancient Jewish law to Ireland. Here it was stored and nurtured it through the Dark Ages. While the rest of Europe lay in darkness, Ireland was known as “the land of saints and scholars,” a rainy European outpost of the religious teachings that had emerged from Israel.

From Ireland, missionaries then brought these teachings to Scotland, Scandinavia and Continental Europe. From there, Christianity and its core of Jewish law eventually travelled onward to America, Africa and Asia. In the span of human history, Israel and Ireland both played pivotal roles in disseminating to the world the moral teachings of ancient Israel.

As the Irish and the Israelis now strive to build lasting peace in their own homelands, it is heartening to note that in the tapestry of human life, we all share far more similarities than differences.

The writer is an Irish journalist. He specializes in political, legal and religious affairs.

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