Dark Days in Dublin (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 25, March 30, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A new play is challenging the Irish to reexamine an unspoken episode in their history when priests spread anti-Semitism and nationalists flirted with the Nazis Harry Leon, a young Jewish poet from Dublin, refuses to listen to all those people who warn him to leave Ireland. Young, tall, arrogant, egocentric and passionate, Leon believes he's more Irish than the Irish themselves. He regards the religious and Zionist Jews around him as a group of fearful people, afraid of their own shadow and history and views his Irishness as an alternative to his Jewish identity and as a guarantee of a different and better future. "Should I be proud because I was persecuted? What kind of pride is that?" he defiantly asks his beautiful wife, Elsa, who had escaped to Ireland from the anti-Semitism of Central Europe, but doesn't feel any safer on the Irish island. "Ireland is neutral," he tries to convince her. "So was Poland!" answers Elsa, "We have to go while there is still time, don't you see? You know what happened to the Jews in Russia, you know what is happening to them in Germany and you know it will happen here too." But Leon refuses to leave Ireland and Elsa remains with him. As World War II begins, an Irish fascist group with close ties to Nazi Germany assassinates Éamon de Valera, head of the Irish government, one of the leading figures of Ireland's fight for independence and a strong proponent of Irish neutrality. Blue-shirted armed militiamen institute a reign of terror over the Island and take control of the streets, shooting, looting and burning at will. Irish Jews are interned in an overcrowded ghetto, then forcibly sent to concentration camps, constructed at the behest of the German ambassador to Ireland. Harry and his beloved, pregnant Elsa are shot dead in the Jewish ghetto of Dublin by fascist militiaman. Of course, in reality, these events did not happen. De Valera was not assassinated (and lived to become president of independent Ireland). Ireland did not succumb to a pro-Nazi regime. A fascist group, "The Blueshirts," did spring up, but was outlawed in 1933, just a few months after Hitler came to power in Germany. Ireland remained determinedly neutral throughout World War II. There were no ghettos or death camps on Irish soil and Ireland's small Jewish community survived intact. Harry and Elsa Leon never existed. Harry and Elsa Leon, together with the imaginary events, were invented by Irish playwright Conall Quinn for his newest play, "The Death of Harry Leon - The Story of the Man Who Disappeared." The play represents Quinn's attempt to shed light on an unspoken episode of Ireland's history, in which Irish nationalists were flirting with the Nazis; Catholic politicians and priests were spreading anti-Semitic beliefs and Ireland maintained a fiercely restrictive policy against Jewish immigration. Significantly, the play, produced by Ouroboros Theatre Ireland, Ltd., premiered at Dublin's Smock Alley Theatre on January 27, internationally observed as Holocaust Commemoration Day. But the Holocaust and Ireland's behavior before and during World War II are topics that the Irish prefer not to recall. Through this contentious play, Quinn is demanding that the Irish reexamine their collective national historical memory, after decades of concentrating their attention on the narrative of the Irish fight for independence, and the response has been emotional. The play was originally commissioned by The Abbey Theatre, the National Theatre of Ireland, but after reading the play, the Theatre directorate rejected it without providing any reason for their decision. Insistent on producing the play, Quinn and the Ouroboros Theatre moved their performance to the smaller, less prestigious and commercial, "Smock Alley Theatre" in the artistic Temple Bar quarter of the Irish capital. The play transforms a relative jovial Dublin, following from afar the dramatic events in continental Europe - Hitler's advances in Austria and Czechoslovakia as well as the civil war in Spain - into a city at war, with itself and with its Jews. With minimalistic staging and a strong and convincing cast of 8 actors, the performance of "The Death of Harry Leon" captivated the audience as it moved slowly and almost seamlessly from reality to fantasy, from Ireland's history to what Ireland could have become. By creating multiple spaces on the small stage, director David Horan enabled the cast to engage in dialogue with both the living and the dead, breaking down the borders in space and time, between fact and imagination. Quinn, 38, who had studied history and politics at college, began his career as a journalist. When assigned to report on an amateur drama festival, he tells The Report, he "fell in love with the theater." He had had little exposure to Irish drama when he started playwriting and, instead, drew his inspiration from the writers of pre- and post-war Europe, in whose work the fact of war is ever present. His work and thought have been influenced, he says, by Jewish Austrian writers Josef Roth and Stefan Zweig, among others. It intrigued him that Irish discourse was bound up in such a narrow view of Irish political history. "The 15 guys executed in 1916 [as part of the Irish struggle for independence] have completely dominated 20th century Irish history. Yet so many others died fighting for other governments, in other wars, and they've been almost forgotten," he says. "The Death of Harry Leon" is Quinn's third play, and is as political and controversial as his two previous ones: "Miss Canary Islands," a story of two veterans of the Spanish Civil War, and "The Unfortunate Machine-Gunning of Anwar Sadat," which, despite its name, deals with the Easter Rising, the Irish national uprising of 1916. Quinn says he felt compelled to study this period of Ireland's history because of the new waves of immigration to Ireland that began in the late 1990s as a result of the Irish economic boom and the parallels he sees between then and now. "Going to the past is a good way to think about the present. Nowadays we don't question the existence of synagogues, but that of mosques. When I look at the history of the Jewish community in Ireland and at the situation of the Muslim community here today, I can see a certain similarity in the attitudes of the Irish society." Before and during WWII, the Irish policy against the immigration of refugees, especially Jewish refugees from Europe, was particularly strict. As Hitler's power and influence increased in the 1930s, thousands of German Jews and others attempted to find refuge in Ireland. The Irish authorities were aware of the anti-Semitism of the Nazi state and of the fact that Jews were being outlawed in their own countries. Although no formal policy regarding refugees from Germany was worked out until 1938, when the Irish Coordination Committee for Refugees was created to manage the growing numbers of applications for entry to Ireland. Thus the Irish government of de Valera and the Irish Civil Service effectively limited entry of Jews as much as they could and refused to issue entry visas. Lynn Jackson, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust of Ireland, an independent non-profit national organization that aims to educate and inform people in Ireland about the Holocaust in order to combat anti-Semitism and all forms of racism and intolerance in Ireland, cites what she sees as the two main reasons behind Ireland's immigration policy. First, Ireland was already suffering from a high rate of unemployment and officials were concerned that an influx of refugees might completely destabilize the Irish economy. Second, many in government held the view that the massive arrival of Jews would result in a rise of anti-Semitism - so they effectively enacted an anti-Semitic immigration policy, claiming its purpose was really to "protect" Jews. Thus, when those Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia who did come to Ireland, largely between 1880 and 1920 to escape the pogroms and the poverty, attempted to save their family members by bringing them to Ireland, they were unable to do so. "It was not Ireland's proudest moment in history," Jackson observes dryly. But Gisela Holfter of Limerick University, whose research has focused on German-speaking exiles in Ireland between 1933 and 1945, says that she has found "the names of over 300 persons, who at some stage between 1933 and 1945 tried to get away from Nazi Germany and came here. It was quite a mixture of people - not all of them were Jews. But a good number of Jewish entrepreneurs started factories in numerous places in Ireland, often in the west parts of the country and provided employment to many Irish workers in those places." Extract from an article in Issue 25, March 30, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.