‘What is your nation if I may ask?’

Colm Tóibín

  • Jews in 20th-century Ireland: Refugees, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust by Dermot Keogh
    Cork, 336 pp, £45.00, March 1998, ISBN 1 85918 149 X

In 1965, when Eamon de Valera was President of Ireland, the Irish Jewish community decided to honour him. They chose a site near Nazareth and planted a forest of ten thousand trees named after him. They also commissioned a book of Celtic symbols. They made effusive speeches in his praise in both Ireland and Israel. Jacob Herzog, the political director in the Prime Minister’s office, whose father had been Chief Rabbi in Ireland, wrote that

Eamon de Valera’s leadership, integrity, deep humanity and sense of purpose have for many decades now left their imprint on the international community. In Israel, it is not forgotten that in the crucial years of struggle for independence, he evinced understanding and sympathy towards the restoration of Israel in the land of its fathers. The forest which will rise in his name in the Galilee will, I have no doubt, be a lasting symbol of friendship between Ireland and Israel.

Many such messages were sent, and de Valera was ‘deeply grateful’. But there was something missing in the generous tributes and in the references to the great friendship between de Valera and Isaac Herzog, who left Ireland in 1937 to become Chief Rabbi of Palestine and whose son, Chaim Herzog, later became President of Israel. There was a word missing, a three-letter word. There was no mention of the war.

The number of Jews in Ireland increased at the turn of the century. In 1881 there were 472; twenty years later, as immigrants from Russia and Lithuania settled in the area around the South Circular Road in Dublin, and others settled in Limerick and Cork, there were almost four thousand. By 1911, there were more than five thousand. Although some of the immigrants believed that they were in America when they landed in Ireland, a public rhetoric soon developed in which the Irish and the Jews were held to have a great deal in common: Ireland had never persecuted the Jews, not just because it didn’t let them in, as Mr Deasy says in Ulysses, but because of an Act of Grattan’s Parliament in 1796, four years before the Act of Union, which allowed foreigners to naturalise, and because of Daniel O’Connell’s consistent support for Jewish rights in the House of Commons.

As the Jewish population increased, however, a number of well-documented attacks on them began. On Easter Sunday 1884, a crowd in Limerick surrounded the house of Lieb Siev, threw stones and injured Siev’s wife and child. At the trial in which two ringleaders were sentenced to a month in prison with hard labour, the Mayor of Limerick stated that their behaviour could not be tolerated in a civilised society. As articles, editorials and letters to the newspapers attacked the influx of Jews, others also came to their defence, most notably Michael Davitt, the leader of the Land League. ‘The Jews have never to my knowledge done any injury to Ireland,’ he wrote in a letter to the Freeman’s Journal in 1893. ‘Like our own race, they have endured a persecution the records of which will for ever remain a reproach to the Christian nations of Europe. Ireland has no share in this black record. Our country has this proud distinction – freely acknowledged by Jewish writers – of never having resorted to this un-Christian and barbarous treatment of an unfortunate people.’

The argument and controversy about the Jewish presence in Ireland which ensued in these years when Home Rule seemed a serious possibility were essentially about Ireland itself, about whether the new society should become closed and Catholic and conservative. It is not a coincidence that the riots in the Abbey Theatre about the portrayal of Irish womanhood in The Playboy of the Western World and the pogrom in Limerick occurred in the same few years; they were both organised by the same forces. Nor is it a coincidence that Joyce made the hero of Ulysses a Jew in full possession of the streets of Dublin; Joyce understood perfectly that his book would be received, among other things, as an assault on an insular version of Ireland.

The pogrom in Limerick, which took place in 1904, was incited by the fiery preaching of Father John Creagh to the arch-confraternity:

The Jews came to Limerick apparently the most miserable tribe imaginable ... but now they had enriched themselves and could boast of very considerable house property in the city. Their rags have been exchanged for silk. They have wormed themselves into every form of business. They are in the furniture trade, the mineral water trade, the milk trade, the drapery trade, and in fact into business of every description, and traded even under Irish names.

Creagh went on to talk about moneylending and Jewish pedlars, and concluded on the question of religion: ‘I do not hesitate to say that there are no greater enemies of the Catholic Church than the Jews.’ He was a powerful preacher and his message, Dermot Keogh points out in his definitive history of the Jews in 20th-century Ireland, was interpreted as a call for a boycott. A boycott began, despite the protests of Michael Davitt and John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

Rabbi Levin of Limerick sought and got police protection. Crowds began to follow Jews in the city, however, hissing and throwing mud at them. Jews were then attacked in the streets. The correspondent of the Jewish Chronicle wrote:

The miserable cry ‘Down with the Jews!’ ‘Death to the Jews!’ ‘We must hunt them out’ is still ringing in my ears, and sends a cold shiver through my body. Today, Monday, the chief business day, Jews were attacked right and left. I myself witnessed one scene where a Jew was actually running for his life, and as he passed through one crowd he was actually hemmed in by another till the police came on the scene.

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