Who Ever Heard of an Irish Jew?
“Who ever heard of an Irish Jew?” It is a question that has been employed over time as an insult, an unlikely conversation starter, and the title of a celebrated short story collection. It is also a question I have been asked constantly since the publication of my own Irish-Jewish novel, “Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan.”
The truth is, growing up in Dublin, I had never heard of an Irish Jew. It wasn’t until I moved to the UK at age eighteen that I really met any Jews, many of whom would go on to become my dearest friends. Over the course of our university careers we exchanged tales of our respective upbringings, joking that Catholic South Dublin and Jewish North-West London sounded strangely alike. There was the same insular, gossipy sense of community; the same emphasis on cultural rituals regardless of religious dedication; there were the mothers – oh the mothers — on that we could all agree. Hanging out in Hampstead Garden Suburb and being furiously plied with food (and opinions) certainly made it feel like a home away from home!
Then, as a naïve twentysomething, I began to ponder on more general similarities between the Irish and Jewish peoples. Both groups boast huge diasporas, spread out across the globe; both have been persecuted minorities over the course of history; both have a disproportionately strong literary history, a real emphasis on family, a prevailing self-deprecating humor. So one day, I simply Googled whether you could in fact be Irish and Jewish – whether these two strong cultural identities could be combined. And so began the next five years of my life.
According to the most recent census, there are only about a thousand Jewish people still living in Ireland. At the peak, there was about five times that, spread mostly between Dublin and Cork. These cities were where I began my novel research, meeting for tea with various members of the depleted community to hear their fascinating and totally unfamiliar tales. Most of them started with the same anecdote — that their ancestors had been fleeing the Eastern European pogroms at the turn of the twentieth century on boats bound for America, only to be dropped off in Ireland instead. The story goes that they might have heard “Cork, Cork” and thought that the captain was saying “New York, New York” – a story most likely untrue, but one that has been subsumed into their history and passed down through generations.
A story that, let’s face it, is a gift of an opener for a novelist.
Of course, any novelist thinking about writing a book about Irish Jews will inevitably be met with two words: “Leopold” and “Bloom.” But even long before Poldy and his Dublin perambulations, Joyce’s fascination with the Irish-Jewish connection had begun. As early as 1907 he delivered a lecture entitled “Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages” in which he traced the Semitic descent of the Irish people via the Phoenician roots of the Gaelic language. Elsewhere, Joyce identified with Jewish ideas of wandering and intellectual inquiry, while for him, the theme of exile — a theme particularly pertinent to the pre-independence Ireland in which he was writing — again united both groups.
Joyce also drew comparisons between Moses and the Irish revolutionary leader Charles Stewart Parnell, who, like his biblical predecessor, succeeded in bringing his followers to the brink of freedom: “Like any other Moses,” Joyce wrote, “[Parnell] led a turbulent and unstable people from the house of shame to the verge of the Promised Land.” This analogy was not actually of Joyce’s own creation, since Irish Nationalist leaders like Wolfe Tone and Michael Davitt had long observed associations between the respective plights of the Irish and the “chosen race,” and adjusted their political rhetoric accordingly.
Unfortunately, these analogies turned rather sour after the discovery of Parnell’s extramarital affair and his subsequent denouncement by the Catholic Church. Suddenly this Moses figure instead became representative of the Jews’ supposed dark, disloyal tendencies, such that anti-Semitic articles, posters, and incidents began to appear. This culminated in January 1904 (mere months before “Ulysses” is set), when the Redemptorist priest Reverend James Creagh delivered a vicious anti-Semitic diatribe to his Co. Limerick congregation, leading to riots, boycotts, and what is now regarded as Ireland’s only ever pogrom. After that, the Irish government brought in the 1905 Aliens Act, radically reducing the number of immigrants welcome on Irish shores, even as the Irish tradition of emigration continued to flourish.
I had never known about the Aliens Act, or the 1904 pogrom. In fact, the more research I gathered for my novel, the more uncomfortable truths I discovered about Ireland’s relationship with its Jewish communities. For example, I had known that Ireland was neutral during World War II –—in fact, my country’s neutrality was something I’d always been relatively proud of — but I had never fully appreciated the implications of such a stance.
For many, the refusal to take part in the fight against Hitler’s Germany was justified by the fact that we had only recently finished a war of independence, followed by an even bloodier civil war. There had been enough casualties already. On top of this, the notion of joining up on the same side as the Brits seemed counterintuitive, given we had just gained our freedom from them. (It is worth mentioning here that Ireland never actually referred to the war in Europe as a “war” at all, dubbing it instead “The Emergency.”) Dubious though such a defense might be, what is much harder to stomach is the fact that during this time Ireland refused to take any refugees whatsoever, our “neutrality” apparently eclipsing our humanity or capacity for empathy.
As with most things, this fact was really brought home when I saw it in writing. Another pit stop on my research tour was the small but immensely charming Irish Jewish Museum, located in the heart of what was once known as Dublin’s “Little Jerusalem” neighborhood. A former synagogue, here a plethora of Irish-Jewish memorabilia sits crammed into overcrowded display cases, from shamrock-emblazoned kippot to photographs and newspaper clippings dating back as far as the nineteenth century.
In amongst this rich and varied bric-a-brac there is a telegram from Isaac Herzog, former Chief Rabbi of the Irish Free State and later Chief Rabbi of Palestine. Sent in December 1942 to his old friend Eamon De Valera, then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland, it reads: “Revered friend, please leave no stone unturned to save tormented remnant of Israel doomed alas to utter annihilation in Nazi Europe.” In response, De Valera says simply: “I received your telegram. I know you will believe that everything we can do as a neutral state to prevent or alleviate suffering anywhere we shall do to the utmost of our power.” Again, generous estimates speculate that under De Valera’s government, around sixty refugees in total managed to sneak in over the course of the “Emergency,” and this despite Herzog’s heartfelt pleas; despite Ireland’s ongoing claims of affinity with the Jewish people; despite some sources reporting that Herzog had in fact once hidden De Valera in his own home while he was on the run from the Brits.
This had been a great day for research, but a terrible day for national pride. I realized just how misleading my Irish-Jewish parallels had been – how much they overlooked. I needed to rethink my approach (and, quite frankly, I needed a drink).
During the second half of the twentieth century, the Jewish population in Ireland began to dwindle. Many left for the UK — particularly London and Manchester — while, upon the establishment of Israel, many decided to make Aliyah. It seemed logical, therefore, that Israel should be the next stop on my research tour (and also, let’s face it, an excellent excuse for a holiday). I spent two weeks traveling around the country, meeting with the small but abundantly welcoming groups of Irish expats. I hung out in the Irish embassy in Tel Aviv, where the staff told me about their various reasons for deciding to move east (the weather, of course, played a key role); I drank pints in Molly Bloom’s Irish Pub as the owner proudly announced that he was the first person in the whole of the Middle East to serve Guinness on tap; I attended a talk in Beit Hatfutsot organized by the Israel-Ireland Friendship League (which, as it happened, was to discuss fundraising initiatives for the Irish Jewish Museum’s expansion plans). The Friendship League also told me about various events they hosted throughout the year, not least their wildly popular Paddy’s Day party, where, recently, the Irish ambassador had dressed up as a nun, with some locals admitting it was the first time they had ever seen such a garb in their lives!
Hearing these thick Irish accents ring out across the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem was a glorious experience, and the expats I met were all immensely willing to share their fond remembrances of life on the Emerald Isle. That said, they also admitted that part of their reason for leaving was a growing sense of hostility they had begun to feel, in part fueled by Ireland’s (and the Irish media’s) increasingly vociferous pro-Palestine stance.
This is a further complication in the Irish-Jewish narrative, since many in Ireland now seem more inclined to compare their nation’s historic plight not with that of the Jewish people, but with the situation in the Palestinian Territories. Such an affinity is borne out to the extreme in Northern Ireland, where a large number of Republicans actually fly Palestinian flags (and paint Palestinian murals), while the Loyalists, in return, fly Israeli flags, both sides choosing to ignore the inconsistencies and problems this analogy presents.
Even in Israel, though, the analogy seemed alive and well, as many of the Arab people I met would greet me with: “Ireland, Palestine – we are the same.” Others found the fact that I was traveling with my English best friend a beacon of hope and peace for them, whilst some simply offered: “Ah, Ireland – very troubled country,” which, given where I was, seemed mildly ironic.
Many have argued that Ireland’s recent anti-Israel sentiment is merely a side effect of the country’s more general anti-Semitism — an argument convincingly articulated by Ronit Lentin in her article titled after that all-important question: “Who ever heard of an Irish Jew?” A handful of Irish-Jewish figures do still occupy prominent public positions – the director Lenny Abrahamson; the politician Alan Shatter – although the latter was recently the victim of a slew of anti-Semitic emails for which the judge sentenced the perpetrator to little more than a stern telling off and some community service.
Such latent hostility has, unfortunately, caused many to move away, while the inevitability of intermarriage has also contributed to depleting numbers. As mentioned, Ireland’s Jewish community now boasts a mere thousand members, although this figure is only an estimate since on the last census form there was no specific box for “Jewish,” only for “Other.” As a result of the dwindling numbers, the Cork Synagogue – which I had toured and admired at the start of my research process – was forced to shut down in 2016, citing lack of funding and lack of use (it hadn’t had a minyan in years). Interestingly, the site has since been purchased by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, which now boasts seven hundred and fifty members across Ireland, and is growing every day.
For all these tales of doom and gloom, many remain hopeful that the community will find a way to survive. The Irish Jewish Museum continues to receive donations toward its expansion project. A group of academics from Ulster University and NUI Galway have just launched an exhibition entitled “Representation of Jews in Irish Literature” – the first major output of a five-year, four-hundred-thousand-pound research project. A collection of poetry entitled Jewtown has just been published to much acclaim. And Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan has also just come out, with the majority of reviews passing comment on the “chutzpah” of anyone who would dare to tread on Joyce’s sacred toes. But the fact remains that there is so much more to this wonderful community than some fictional cuckold named Leopold Bloom; so many fascinating stories that have been left untold; so many hidden truths.
The journey that writing the novel took me on was worth it alone. All I can now hope is that it means a few more people will have indeed “heard of an Irish Jew.”
Ruth Gilligan is a novelist, journalist, and academic from Ireland, currently living in London. A graduate of Cambridge, Yale, East Anglia, and Exeter Universities, she contributes regular literary reviews to the Guardian, LA Review of Books, Irish Independent, and Times Literary Supplement. She is the youngest author to make the Irish bestseller list. Her latest novel is “Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan.”