This sibylline title hides the encounter of two paradoxically often ignored peoples of the Diaspora: the Irish and the Jews. In the popular mind the former are often considered as the drunk and brutish lout, spending most of their time quarrelling. Through the various forms of anti-Semitism the latter were the object of the worst phantasms and the target of the most loathsome attacks in the past centuries (and alas sometimes nowadays still!).
The oral character of the druids’ tradition would be opposed to a culture of writing, for which Jews were and remain excellent grammarians. These reductive clichés opposing these two peoples being absolutely false, the Irish and the Jews share much more than appears.
Let us start with emancipation. An Irish word, now used in French which in itself defines the Republic of Ireland but is very often associated with Judaism too.
Francis Bacon was right by encouraging his fellowmen to destroy four types of interior idols1 and particularly, the most insidious out of them for whoever studies: « the idol of the theatre » (i.e. inaccuracies, blindness, nonsense and errors spread by the various authors having preceded us). The very famous sentence of the Earl of Beaconsfield is often quoted in response to an anti-Semitic aggression
« Yes, I am a Jew and when the ancestors of my honourable adversary were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.
This answer marked the beginning of the public argument between Benjamin Disraeli, an emancipated Jew who converted into Christianity and Daniel O’ Connell, historical liberator of Ireland who provided the foundations of the catholic emancipation and gave to the few hundred Irish Jews a strict equality of rights since 1830
As a sign of a declining community the Dàil does not comprise nowadays any Jewish member and the last kosher butcher of Ireland has definitively closed its doors. Even if the documents concerning the Jews of Ireland are scarce, their presence on this island dates back from ver ancient times. Since 1079 the presence of sephardic Jews coming from Rouen is mentioned in annals of Innisfallen. Youghal was probably the first town of Western Europe to have a Jewish lord mayor. The first synagogue of Ireland goes back to 1660, but Jewish immigration in the island coming from Central Europe really started after the Napoleonic wars. The strongest wave of immigration was mostly composed of Lithuanian Jews fleeing the pogroms perpetrated in their native villages at the end of the 19th century. The greatest number of them wished to flee from eastern Europe for the new world but were properly disembarked in the Irish ports. It didn’t take too much time for them to realise they had not left Europe and they were very far from the American shores!
However these new immigrants perfectly mixed with their new homeland. Although the community was never very important in numbers, still it gave lawyers, doctors, a Supreme Court Judge, several members of parliament and six mayors to this nation, without speaking about Chaim Herzog son of the Rabbi of Dublin and president of the state of Israel.
The Jewish presence in Ireland is close to none in the French literature. Only Jean Markale in « Dolmens et Menhirs » makes a rapid reference to the incredible saga of the stone of Tara. Tara was the legendary crowning place of the former kings of Ireland. On this site on October 8, 1843 Daniel O’ Connell organised his famous meeting where one million people were expected. Due to an amazing phonetic similarity between the words Tara and Torah, the site of Tara was sacked by excavations between 1899 and 1902 to find there the Ark of the Covenant! Markale, accustomed to historical approximation does not hesitate to state that this archaeological expedition was carried out by English Jews, whereas it was the work of « british israelites » a Protestant millenarian sect claiming thus to prove in an undeniable way a foolish theory of theirs according which the Anglo-Saxons were a lost tribe of Israel !
Although the Jewish community of Ireland remained mostly peaceful and neutral during the war of independence, some of them engaged in the ranks of the IRA. Famous » Captain Swift », the organizer of the weapon traffic from the United States to the IRA, comrade in arms of Michael Collins, friend of the president Eamon de Valera, historical founder of Fiànna Fàil, was no other than Robert Briscoe son of Jewish orthodox immigrants of Lithuania, and future mayor of Dublin.
The victory of Robert Briscoe to the town hall of Dublin in 1956 had an international impact in particular in the United States, historical allies of Ireland in the fight for independence. As a guest to the mayor of New York during St Patrick’s day , Bob Briscoe as the lord mayor of the capital city of a catholic state, revealed to the world the possible accession of a Jew to one of the highest charges in Ireland as well as the existence of a practically forgotten community.
In 1958 the American television channel CBS make a movie « The Fabulous Irishman » recalling the life of Bob Briscoe.
Anti-Semitism was low in Ireland with the notable exception of the pogrom of Limerick of 1904. Nobody was killed or seriously injured but the city emptied its community. In those days, this event strongly disturbed the relations between Jews and gentiles, and does not cease to be commented nowadays. In a recent article published in the « Irish Examiner » in May one could read
As Ireland strives for its intellectual freedom and tries to get away from the coat-tails of British colonialism, we have much to learn from the Jews with their storytelling tradition and their ability to preserve their identity, art and culture.
[… ] In addition, Moses is also a heroic figure for both Christians and Jews and therefore provides an avenue towards a reconciling of our differences..[.. ] Should not the government, on behalf of the Irish people, commemorate this anniversary by commissioning a Jewish artist to create a piece of sculpture for Limerick, dedicated to the brave, unknown Irish Jew?
It could carry the inscription: « Dedicated to the brave, unknown, Irish Jew to commemorate an injustice that was done to Limerick’s Jewish community in 1904 and to express our gratitude for the valiant role played by the Jewish community globally in securing Ireland’s freedom. »
Only one Irish Jew lost his life in Belgium because of the Shoah, and very few Jews of the continent found refuge in the country during the Second World War, and the neutrality of Ireland during the darkest period of Judaism continues to feed a passionate debate.
The Jewish community reached 5000 members at the end of the Second World War, to decrease approximately to 1800 individuals nowadays. Decrease is due to the aggravation of the economic conditions of the country and to an immigration to the United States and to Israel. Thus leading the Irish Jews to the paradox to belong to a double Diaspora: Irish and Jewish !. By visiting the town hall of Dublin, it is amazing to observe the Briscoe’s coat of arms: a star of David associated with a Gaelic motto « SAOIRSE-COTHROM-FOIDNEAMH » meaning « Justice Freedom and Patience ».
Robert Briscoe by designing himself his coat of arms as a Lord mayor, explained their symbolic reading. He used this star which shamefully distinguished the Jewish people during the war, as the example of tolerance in his country and made the choice of this motto. What would Justice be without freedom and tolerance?. By an extraordinary chance, Hebrew and Gaelic translate tolerance by the word patience, which perfectly represent the itinerary of this tiny community. The Irish themselves knew very little about their own Jewish community, until a last year unexpected best seller helped them rediscover this part of their common history. Nick Harris sold 3500 copies of his extraordinary book « Dublin’s Little Jerusalem » saving from disappearance the life of the Jewish community of Dublin and also transmitting a remarkable picture of the culture, the rites and the festivals of one of the Irish minorities. This tiny minority, in the heart of a catholic and Protestant country, questions us in many ways. It is a great lesson about integration, tolerance and differences and questions us about our prejudices concerning the relations between Jews and Catholics. If neither Jews nor Irish left any memorable architectural monuments behind them, they made an extraordinary contribution to the structuring of the ideas in Europe, in the history of freedom and emancipation. The role of the Irish monasteries as intellectual refuges and link between antiquity and the middle ages is often ignored. No one can say what the history of Europe would have been without the exceptional contribution of the Celtic church of Ireland, commenting on and safeguarding the majority of the ancient philosophical writings. The Jews are often in the heart of one of the most extraordinary paradoxes. to have and to share with all human being probably longest collective history through « Tanakh, » and to be very often unable to trace their individual and family history beyond one or two generations. It is in the heart of this paradox that live a majority of the Irish Jews. The Shabath, literally the « suspension », places the Jews by its « forbiddance to act » in an ability to think about a world into perpetual becoming and then to complete the creation of god while engaging in the realities of the world. Shabbat is also sometimes associated with emancipation, and to the exit of Egypt. This explains certainly the exceptional capacity of the Jews to absorb and integrate in the cultures and to take part in the construction of their various host countries without denying their specificity.
Jews and Irish share a lot of common concepts , an immoderate fervour of freedom, an attachment to their traditions, a quasi sensual love with their land, both revived the old languages of their ancestors. The Diaspora, literally the scattering in Greek is quite a bad translation of the Hebrew term « Galout » meaning exile. Exile inducing a return to the promised land. Irish and Jews while building from their own tradition gave birth to two modern states: Israel and the Republic of Ireland where they can preside over their own collective destiny for the first time of their long history. What can the future be of the Jewish community of Ireland? Nick Harris concluded his book by asserting both orthodox and progressive Judaism will survive in Ireland in the years to come., but that progressive congregation will increase in number mainly because of conversion of one of the two parents and desire to raise their children in the Jewish culture. This assertion coming from an orthodox Irish Jew questions us as member of a progressive community to a broader thought out of the bounds of this article.
Jean-Marc Cavalier Lachgar.
Robert Briscoe For the life of me. (out of print)
Nick Harris Dublin’s little Jerusalem
Irish Examiner Edition électronique du 11/06/03
Mairéid Carew Tara and the Ark of the convenant.
Chapitre « Tara-recuscitated Jerusalem or capital of an Indépendent Ireland? »
Jean Markale: Dolmens et Menhirs p 161
Thomas Cahill How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (Hinges of History, Vol 1)
Francis Bacon Novum Organum 1620.
Movies: The fabulous Irishman CBS 1958 &
« Shalom Ireland » Valérie Lapin 23rd Jewish film festival of de San-Francisco
1 There are four classes of Idols which beset men’s minds. To these for distinction’s sake I have assigned names, calling the first class Idols of the Tribe; the second, Idols of the Cave; the third, Idols of the Market Place; the fourth, Idols of the Theater.[…]Lastly, there are Idols which have immigrated into men’s minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration. These I call Idols of the Theater, because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion. Nor is it only of the systems now in vogue, or only of the ancient sects and philosophies, that I speak; for many more plays of the same kind may yet be composed and in like artificial manner set forth; seeing that errors the most widely different have nevertheless causes for the most part alike. Neither again do I mean this only of entire systems, but also of many principles and axioms in science, which by tradition, credulity, and negligence have come to be received.