Irish hearts and Jewish souls

The Israel Ireland Friendship League celebrates its 40th anniversary by opening its doors - and taps - to other Anglo groups.

Irish 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Irish 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine." With this now famous passage, Irish author James Joyce introduced one of the best known characters in 20th-century literature, whose wanderings and perambulations around the city of Dublin on June 16, 1906, comprise both the plot and principal focus of Joyce's monumental novel, Ulysses. Joyce's decision to make the novel's protagonist a Jew - with Bloom's character drawn from actual inhabitants of Dublin's "Little Jerusalem" Jewish neighborhood - entailed yet another milestone in the long and relatively little-known story of Ireland's Jews. The fact that Jews have a long history in Ireland may come as a surprise to many Israelis, especially those whose ancestors came from such well-documented focal points of the Diaspora as Egypt, Spain, Germany and Poland. Nevertheless, the Emerald Isle remains the much-beloved "old country" to some 350 members of the Israel Ireland Friendship League, and perhaps a greater number of family members, friends and "wannabee" Irishmen. It was precisely such an assemblage that turned out on the eve of last St. Patrick's Day at Murphy's Irish Pub in the Herzliya Marina to help kick off the League's 40th anniversary celebrations. Of the joyous, raucous crowd that came from all over Israel to attend the evening's festivities, roughly 55 percent were actually Jews from Ireland, while the other 45% were a "mixed multitude" of mostly English speaking immigrants or resident ex-pats from the UK, North America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, according to organizers of the event. All were there to support the League and enjoy a fine night of Irish revelry. After a few moments of welcoming remarks by Irish Ambassador Michael Forbes and Israel Ireland Friendship League chairman Malcolm Gafson, a spirited repertoire of Irish music was ably provided by Celtic Fusion, a group composed of Irish and Israeli musicians. A dance troupe called Scoil Rince Cill Easra was also on hand, flown in from Dublin to perform traditional Irish step dance. Members of the crowd applauded appreciatively, raised large glasses of Murphy's stout, consumed heaping bowls of chips, and downed more than a few shots of Jamison's whiskey. Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick's Day. The Israel Ireland Friendship League traces its beginnings to the euphoric months following the Six Day War in 1967. Riding a wave of popular support for Israel in Ireland, a mixed group of Christians and Jews formed the Ireland Israel Friendship League. The Israeli organization was formed as a sort of sister group shortly thereafter, in 1968, by the Irish olim community. The League here in Israel began to function mostly as a cultural organization - hosting notable visitors from Ireland as guest speakers, performers and political figures - as well as staging social events like St. Patrick's Day parties. These days, the driving force behind the League is its genial 55-year-old chairman, Malcolm Gafson. With his collar-length white hair and somewhat unkempt beard, this outgoing Dublin native looks much more suited to the role of eccentric Irish poet than his actual job as manager of the English language section of Atmosphere, El Al's in-flight magazine. In Israel since 1981, married to a native-born Israeli and the father of four, Gafson became active with the League during the late 1980s and served as its vice-chairman and public relations officer from 1995 to 2005, when he became its chairman. Gafson's major contribution to the League has been a policy of greater inclusion through broader appeal. "The League had previously been a somewhat closed organization of Irish people meeting amongst themselves. That was fine - without them there wouldn't have been a League. But I felt that it needed more widespread support. We needed to widen the League outward to include Israelis with no connection to Ireland at all." Gafson achieved this goal by organizing events with greater popular appeal, bringing over movies, entertainers, and even whole theater companies from Ireland; and staging live shows to packed audiences throughout Israel. Other innovations have included introducing Israelis to "Bloomsday," celebrated throughout the world by fans of James Joyce every year on June 16. "No one in Israel had ever heard of Bloomsday," Gafson recalls. "But we tried it out here, and it was a big hit. It even got Ulysses translated into Hebrew." The League has also assumed responsibility for the Eamon de Valera Forest, planted near Nazareth by the Dublin Jewish Community in 1966 and named in honor of Ireland's famously pro-Jewish third president. After decades of neglect, the League has undertaken the forest's restoration and care. Percentage-wise, Ireland's Jews boast the highest rate of immigration to Israel of any Jewish community in the world. Even more interesting is the fact that probably no one aside from the Jews of Ireland is even remotely aware of this. Indeed, despite the best efforts of the Israel Ireland Friendship League, as well as the Irish Embassy, relatively few people in Israel are aware of Ireland's Jews at all. And yet, the story of this somewhat off-the-beaten-track corner of the Jewish Diaspora is both interesting and instructive. Although never comprising a large community, the Jewish presence in Ireland has been long and significant. The first historical record of Jews in Ireland dates from the year 1079 when, according to the Annals of Inisfallen, five Jews "came from over the sea" with gifts for Tairdelbach, king of Munster and grandson of Brian Boru, the previous High King of Ireland. Historians believe that these visitors were likely to have been merchants from Normandy. Whoever they were and from wherever they may have come, these Jews apparently did not sojourn in Ireland for very long. The Annals record that after coming from over the sea and presenting their gifts to the king, "they were sent back again over the sea." Nearly a hundred years later, English accounts mention a certain "Josce Jew of Gloucester," as having financed an expedition from England to Ireland in defiance of a prohibition by King Henry II, who forbade the expedition and later fined "Josce" 100 shillings for bankrolling it. A genuine community appears to have been up and running by 1232, when King Henry III granted Peter de Rivall the office of Treasurer and Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer, supervisor of the king's coasts and ports, as well as custodian of the "King's Jews" in Ireland. The grant stipulated that henceforth all Jews in Ireland would be responsible to de Rivall as their "keeper in all things touching the king." While no direct evidence is known to exist, historians believe that when the Jews were expelled from England in 1290, they probably had to leave Ireland as well. Jewish people were back in numbers at the end of the 15th century, however, as the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, and then from Portugal in 1496, brought some of them to Ireland's southern coast. A descendant of these refugees, William Annyas, was elected mayor of the County Cork town of Youghal in 1555 - the first of several Jewish mayors in Irish history. Ireland's first synagogue was established in Dublin in 1660; the first cemetery in the early 18th century. A series of bills were introduced in the Irish House of Commons throughout the 18th century seeking to naturalize Ireland's Jews and accord them full citizenship. When transmitted to England, however, they all failed to receive the necessary royal assent. Legal impediments to Jewish citizenship were finally abolished in 1846. Daniel O'Connell, champion of Catholic emancipation and civil rights, also found time to advocate in favor of Ireland's Jews. He said, "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." Jewish immigration to Ireland continued sporadically throughout the 19th century. On the eve of the Russian pogroms of 1881, the country's Jewish population amounted to 453 people. Immigration from Eastern Europe quickened thereafter, with most of the Jewish arrivals - like those to South Africa - coming from Lithuania. By the time of Leopold Bloom's fictional odyssey around Dublin on that long June day in 1906, the number of Ireland's Jews stood at roughly 4,800. Despite their small numbers, the Jews of Ireland have played a noteworthy role in their country's history and politics. Robert Briscoe, for example, was a prominent member of the Irish Republican Army during Ireland's War of Independence from Britain. He was later twice elected to serve as Lord Mayor of Dublin, in 1956 and 1961. His son, Ben Briscoe, was similarly elected to the office of Lord Mayor in 1988. There have been Jewish Lord Mayors of Cork and Belfast, as well as government ministers and members of parliament. Chaim Herzog, Israel's sixth president, was born in Belfast and grew up in Dublin. Since reaching a peak of 5,500 people in the late 1940s, the Jewish population of Ireland has steadily decreased, due largely to absorption and intermarriage, as well as to the departure of younger Jews to larger communities in England, Israel and elsewhere - primarily in search of marriage partners. It is often said that Jewish parents practically push their children out of Ireland so they can meet and marry other Jews. The present number of Ireland's Jews stands at roughly 1,500. With this continuing, relentless decline in population, the future of the Jewish community of Ireland is seriously in doubt. Many of Ireland's Jews are pessimistic and predict the virtual disappearance of the community within the next two generations. Others more sanguinely express the hope that Ireland's current economic boom might attract new Jewish immigrants, who will revitalize the Jewish community and continue a tradition of Jewish life in Ireland dating back almost a thousand years. For more information about the Israel Ireland Friendship League, call Chairman Malcolm Gafson at telephone: (050) 822-1732