‘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.

Father Creagh’s first sermon was on 11 January; a week later, as he prepared to speak on the subject a second time, the international press was in the church. This time he was careful to call on the congregation not to use violence, but to continue the boycott. ‘Keep away from them,’ he said, ‘and let them go to whatever country they came from.’ The Rabbi contacted the Catholic Bishop, who made no public statement, but pointedly did not visit the Redemptorists in the city – Creagh was a member of this preaching order, over whom the Bishop had no direct control – between January and the autumn. He also seems to have given tacit permission for two of his priests to attack Creagh’s sermons. When Creagh was moved to Belfast for a few weeks, in February 1904, his views received a unanimous vote of support from his six-thousand-strong congregation.

A debate began about the Jews. Arthur Griffith, who was to found Sinn Fein two years later, supported the boycott in his newspaper, the United Irishman. ‘No thoughtful Irishman or woman can view without apprehension the continued influx of Jews into Ireland and the continuous efflux of the native population,’ he wrote. The boycott was opposed in the letters columns of the nationalist Freeman’s Journal and the Unionist Irish Times. But it continued. The Jews in Limerick could not do business and, in some cases, were not served in shops.

On 5 April, the Jewish Board of Deputies wrote to Dublin Castle claiming that 20 of the 35 Jewish families in Limerick were now ruined and compelled to beg for sustenance. There were further assaults on Jews in the city. On 20 April, the Church of Ireland Bishop attacked the boycott and the General Synod of the Church drew ‘the attention of His Majesty’s Government and all Protestant Members of Parliament to the persecution of Protestants and Jews in Ireland.’ This statement did not help, and both Jews and Protestants were now denounced by members of Limerick Corporation and by local newspapers. The Munster News wrote that ‘the days are gone when a Papist, ridden over by a Protestant foxhunter, should crawl, hat in hand, to beg his honour’s pardon for having been in the way.’ The boycott continued into the autumn, despite the fact that the local clergy did not support Creagh. By 1905, Jewish families began to leave the city. According to Keogh, ‘virtually the entire Jewish community in the city joined the exodus.’ In 1906, Father Creagh, who had inflamed the only serious outbreak of active anti-semitism in Ireland, was transferred to the Philippines. The three local newspapers in Ireland congratulated him for what he had said against the Jews in 1904.

‘What is your nation if I may ask?’ the Citizen inquires of Leopold Bloom, to be told: ‘Ireland. I was born here. Ireland.’ Once the Irish Free State was established and the island partitioned, the Jews in Northern Ireland remained affiliated to Jewish structures in Britain, while in the South, Dr Isaac Herzog became the Chief Rabbi. He was, his son later wrote, ‘an open partisan of the Irish cause’. Herzog became friendly with both de Valera and W.T. Cosgrave, the President of the Executive Council of the Free State; he also became friendly with Joseph MacRory, later Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh. Herzog was a born diplomat. By the time of his departure for Palestine, he had ensured that, despite the odd anti-semitic outburst from diehard nationalists or Catholics, ‘the Jewish community,’ according to Keogh, ‘had achieved a position of respectability and a safe home in the Free State’.

In the early years of the state, then, the Government supported the small Jewish community and wider Jewish political aims. For example, it agreed to fund a Jewish school in Dublin. In 1933, when the President of the World Zionist Organisation came to Dublin, de Valera, who was in power, promised to have the issue of Jewish settlers in Palestine raised at the League of Nations. But there was always a difficult undertow. Among de Valera’s greatest supporters was Robert Briscoe, a Jew who later became Lord Mayor of Dublin (as did his son Ben Briscoe), but he was never a minister in any Fianna Fáil government because of what Keogh calls ‘an undercurrent of hostility towards Jews in the country which even de Valera disappointingly adjudged better left unprovoked’.

Although the Free State was almost relentlessly Catholic in its ethos, and anti-semitic rants appeared regularly in the Catholic press, Keogh insists that ‘anti-semitism was never permitted to become a defining feature of Irish Catholic culture.’ Frank Duff, who founded the Legion of Mary and was perhaps the most influential Catholic layman of the time, ‘was an able defender of the Jewish community’, as were some of his colleagues. Anti-semitism in Ireland was kept on the fringes of the Catholic Church. Events like the attack on the Jews in Limerick in 1904 did not happen again.

The most influential anti-semite in the early years of the state was Charles Bewley. He was a Quaker convert to Catholicism, a senior counsel and diplomat. In 1921 he went to Berlin as Irish Consul. Within a year he was causing trouble. In a Berlin café he insulted Robert Briscoe, who was visiting, and the Jewish owner, and was ejected. Briscoe sought to have him removed from his post, but Bewley had powerful supporters in Dublin, including Ernest Blythe, the Minister for Industry and Commerce, who later ran the Abbey Theatre into the ground – he and Briscoe had fought on opposite sides in the Civil War. Eventually, Bewley returned to Ireland, but in 1933 (with de Valera in power) he was sent back to Berlin to represent Ireland’s interests. In a newspaper interview he made clear his support for Hitler’s regime. For the next six crucial years he became one of the main sources of information for the Irish Government on what was happening in Europe. He attended the Nuremberg rallies. He believed that Jews were involved in ritual murders and sent literature about this to the Irish Government. He did not report on what was happening to the Jews in Germany. While there is no evidence that he had any direct influence on policy, the sheer foolishness and vacuity of his reports may have fed into the prevailing complacency in the Free State. Bewley was also allowed a great deal of discretion on who received visas to leave Germany for Ireland, and in this capacity he was certainly responsible for the deaths of many Jewish people.

In 1935, the Dáil passed legislation pertaining to citizenship and the status of aliens. The Aliens Act was to be administered by the Department of Justice, the equivalent of the Home Office. ‘The aliens policy administered by the Department of Justice was “not liberal”, according to Tom Woulfe, a former civil servant in the department,’ Keogh writes. ‘That was practised understatement ... There was little support within the Departments of Justice and Industry and Commerce for any relaxation in the laws covering entry into the country.’

Ireland was careful not to attend an international conference on refugees in 1936 and careful to make no commitments at a similar conference in France two years later. A pattern began to emerge in the Irish handling of the refugee problem. The Department of Justice was inflexible and would only bend under direct pressure from the Taoiseach’s office, and the Taoiseach’s office dealt only with cases which were brought to its attention. In 1938, the Minister for Justice wrote to Robert Briscoe:

There has never been in this country any feeling against Jews on the scale which has shown itself in some other countries but there are anti-Jewish groups in the country which would only be too glad to get an excuse to start an anti-Jewish campaign and those groups could get no better slogan than that the native Irish worker was being ousted by cheap imported labour.

What of de Valera’s position? He was, after all, Taoiseach between 1932 and 1948, and again between 1951 and 1954 and once more between 1957 and 1959; between 1959 and 1973 he was President. He was also Minister for External Affairs during the war years. In all this time, there is no evidence of anti-semitism on his part. He was proud of his friendship with Herzog. During the drafting of the Irish Constitution, adopted in 1937, he consulted Herzog about a passage in Article 44 specifically recognising the Jewish congregations of Ireland. On a number of occasions, he personally sought to soften the Department of justice’s stance on Jewish refugees. His wife signed a petition to allow entry to a Jewish refugee in 1939. He seemed, like many politicians, deeply divided between his personal sympathy and his inflexibility as a policymaker. In 1938 the secretary of his department reported his view ‘that every possible precaution should be taken to prevent an influx of persons who could subsequently not be removed from this country’. This meant that German nationals applying for visas should be judged on whether they would be likely to be let back into Germany; if this was unlikely, then they should be turned down. The person who decided this was Charles Bewley.

In Berlin, Bewley was making no secret of his pro-Nazi sympathies. In April 1937 the Irish Times reported his interview with the Berlin evening paper Uhr Blatt: ‘My Government will always do everything to promote the old friendship between Ireland and Germany. Undoubtedly our growing patriotism helps us to find recognition, especially in countries in which people are willing to stake their lives for liberty and honour. That your Reich and its leaders have many admirers among our youth is a well-known fact.’

Keogh writes that Bewley’s observations were ‘purely personal’ and ‘a source of professional embarrassment to de Valera, who was Minister for External Affairs’. Why, then, did de Valera not fire him? It should be remembered that, from the mid-Twenties, de Valera was reinventing himself. He entered the public imagination as one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, who was not shot by the British because he had been born in America. He went on to lead the losing side in the Civil War. He was, in the public mind, a mixture of hotheaded dreamer and Machiavellian operator. Like all those who took the Republican side in the Civil War, he had been briefly excommunicated from the Catholic Church by the Irish bishops. He knew that if he wanted to consolidate his power base, he would have to adapt his image, and seem more conservative, Catholic and cautious, as well as tough and pragmatic. There was always a gap between his beliefs and his behaviour. His sympathies may have been with the Jewish cause, but he was not prepared to lose a single vote on the matter and certainly not to have his new image dented by opening the country to foreigners and non-Catholics.

Yet it is still astonishing that he allowed Bewley to remain in Berlin. Bewley’s reports went from bad to worse. In November 1938 he was asked by the Department of External Affairs to report on anti-semitic laws in Continental Europe. The ‘vast majority’ of Communists in ‘each country have been Jews ... The Jews had acquired so dominating a position in the financial world that they were in a position to control public policy ... It is a notorious fact that the international white slave trade is controlled by Jews ... The German stage was the most indecent in Europe; it was a Jewish monopoly.’ He was not dismissed for this report, but remained as the only Irish representative in Berlin until August the following year. Keogh offers convincing evidence that he ‘sat on’ visas which had been granted to various Jewish individuals by Dublin, as well as having extraordinary powers to turn down applicants.

As the situation in Germany worsened, Ireland remained inflexible. Lily Briscoe, the wife of Robert, who was a member of the ruling party and close to de Valera, wrote to the Minister for Justice in April 1939:

My brother-in-law, Bob’s brother in Paris, wishes to get permits for his wife’s brother and sister-in-law who are anxious to go to America but cannot leave Czechoslovakia without a visa. Would it be possible for the Irish Government to grant them visitors’ visas for those months, in all probability they would not remain for the full duration of this period and as they are very comfortable people would in no way cause any difficulty.

This was refused.

Perhaps the most disgraceful intervention of all came not from a politician or a civil servant, but from the 1916 Veterans’ Association, who passed the following motion on 20 November 1938: ‘That we hereby register our emphatic protest against the growing menace of alien immigration, and urge on the Government the necessity of more drastic restrictions in this connection.’ Others joined the chorus, including, in 1943, Longford County Council and Tipperary South Riding County Council, who both passed the same resolution: ‘That the attention of the Government be directed to the fact that several foreigners, mainly Jews, have succeeded in having their names changed to names of Irish origin.’

In December 1942, de Valera received a telegram from Chief Rabbi Herzog of Palestine: ‘REVERED FRIEND PRAY LEAVE NO STONE UNTURNED TO SAVE TORMENTED REMNANT OF ISRAEL DOOMED ALAS TO UTTER ANNIHILATION IN NAZI EUROPE GREETINGS ZIONS BLESSINGS.’ Herzog followed this in January 1943 with a long telegram which referred to ‘five million threatened with extermination’. De Valera contacted the Irish High Commissioner in London, who spoke to the director of the Agudas Israel World Organisation, who in turn offered some practical suggestions, including the granting of blocks of unassigned visas to Irish consuls in neutral European countries, and the use of Irish shipping to take refugees from Bulgaria and Turkey to Palestine.

The Irish authorities dithered and made enquiries; in general they did nothing, as further telegrams, even more alarming, came from Herzog. In 1944, the US envoy in Dublin, David Gray, discussed President Roosevelt’s War Refugee Board with the Irish Government and expressed the US Administration’s delight when the Irish Government agreed in principle to take 500 Jewish refugee children. When there was a question of accepting another 500, the secretary of the Department of External Affairs wrote to de Valera: ‘There is a great deal of pro-Jewish activity in Administration quarters in the United States at the present. For example, they have recently encouraged the new Zionist movement in favour of the restoration of Palestine as the Jewish homeland. The British reviews suggest that this phase is due to the approaching Elections.’ In other words, the secretary was hinting that it would be in the interests of the Irish Government to cosy up to the US by allowing in the refugees. That very day de Valera made the formal decision to admit the first 500 children.

As more telegrams arrived, Irish officials made further enquiries. Keogh, whose careful judgment and balanced narrative of these events do stark justice to their gravity, is rather more generous to the Irish Administration that he might be, but he is forced in the end to conclude that ‘de Valera at no time introduced extraordinary measures to rescue Jews. He did not, for example, agree to a mass distribution of Irish passports to the Jewish refugees stranded in Vittel’ – about whom Herzog had telegrammed. ‘Irish policy towards the Jews remained reactive rather than proactive throughout the war.’

‘Were Jews the target of especially illiberal treatment by the Department of Justice during the course of the war?’ Keogh asks. He goes on: ‘It is difficult to interpret certain references in official correspondence in any other way.’ S.A. Roche, the secretary of the Department of Justice, ‘outlined the position very clearly’ in a letter to Maurice Moynihan, the secretary of the Department of the Taoiseach, in 1946: ‘Our practice has been to discourage any substantial increase in the Jewish population. They do not assimilate with our own people but remain a sort of colony of a worldwide Jewish community. This makes them a potential irritant in the body politic and has led to disastrous results from time to time in other countries.’ During the war years the number of Jews allowed into Ireland ‘may have been as few as sixty’, according to Keogh. On the death of Hitler, de Valera, who had quietly assisted the Allies during the war – after 1942, for example, stranded Allied air crews were sent straight to Northern Ireland, while Germans were interned – visited the German minister in Dublin to offer his condolences. The fact that he was a long bundle of unresolved ambiguities does not help to explain his action.

Attitudes towards Jewish refugees did not change after the war. In 1953, when de Valera was back in power, the tireless Robert Briscoe sought refuge for ten Jewish families. A minute on the matter was prepared by Peter Berry from the Department of Justice, who was later to become one of the most powerful Irish civil servants:

There is a strong anti-Jewish feeling in this state which is particularly evident to the Aliens Section of the Department of Justice. Sympathy for the Jews has not been particularly excited at the recent news that some thousands are fleeing westwards because of the recent round-up of a number of Communist Jews who had been prominent in governments and government service in Eastern Europe.

A struggle ensued within government, with de Valera on the side of letting the families in. Finally, it was agreed to admit five.

Slowly, however, in the years that followed, the Jewish community in Ireland began to decline. There was much talk about the extraordinary contribution the small Jewish community had made to Ireland as doctors, lawyers and politicians, writers and painters. Harry Kernoff and Estella Solomons were important Irish painters; Kernoff’s woodcuts and portraits of Irish writers still have great freshness and individuality. He died in 1974. The novelist David Marcus was literary editor of the Irish Press during the Seventies and Eighties. He published a page of fiction and poetry every week, and this is where many Irish writers, including Neil Jordan, Desmond Hogan and Ita Daly, published their first work. His brother Louis Marcus has been one of the guiding spirits of the Irish film industry. Estella Solomon’s brother, Bethel, was a distinguished gynaecologist and master of the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin. During the Forties he was president of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland. Herman Good, Hubert Wine and Henry Barron became influential members of the Irish judiciary. Gerald Goldberg became Lord Mayor of Cork in 1977, as Briscoe father and son had become Lord Mayors of Dublin and Otto Jaffe had become Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1899 and 1904. In the Eighties and early Nineties, there were three Jewish members in the 166-member Dáil. The Minister for Law Reform in the last Coalition Government, Mervyn Taylor, who is Jewish, steered the successful referendum on divorce through the polls. On the other hand, it was not hard to shine in the deeply cautious and conformist atmosphere of early independent Ireland.

Eventually, certain figures in public life realised how shameful Ireland’s record had been. Mary Robinson accepted this, as did the last Taoiseach, John Bruton. At a commemoration for the liberation of Bergen Belsen in 1995, Bruton admitted that Ireland’s doors ‘were not freely open to those families and individuals fleeing from persecution and death’, and acknowledged ‘the consequence of this indifference’. He went on: ‘As a society we have become more willing to accept our responsibility to respond to events beyond our shores.’ But 1995 was the wrong year for an Irish leader to talk about Ireland accepting its responsibilities. As the country became more prosperous, more and more refugees sought asylum here. Anyone entering Ireland now can witness the officers at ports and airports, and even border crossings, watching out sharply for non-whites. They are merely following instructions. They work, of course, for the Department of Justice. And anyone who has been through the system of seeking asylum in the Republic of Ireland in recent years will know that the rigidly illiberal mindset in the Department has not changed. Keeping Jews out has been replaced by keeping blacks out.

The beautiful synagogue on Adelaide Road closed earlier this year, so the entire Jewish community in Dublin worships now in the synagogue in Terenure. The numbers are less than a thousand. In the last year several families moved to Manchester, and there are fears that more still will go. Their dwindling presence represents one of the great failures of independent Ireland.