IRELAND’S JEWS: A FADING TRIBE ON THE EMERALD ISLE
In Ireland, more than three centuries of Jewish life is drawing to a close. Emigration, an aging population that hasn’t replaced itself, intermarriage and assimilation have all taken their toll, reducing the community from nearly 6,000 in the 1940s to just over 1,000 today. Within a generation or two, only a handful of Jews are likely to remain in Ireland.
The present Jewish community of Ireland dates from the 1880s, when immigrants from Lithuania fleeing pogroms and Russian oppression landed in Dublin and Cork. Before that, there had sporadically been small Jewish communities from the mid-17th century on. Jews have never been persecuted in Ireland, probably because they have always been such a tiny minority in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Most Irish Jews are comfortably middle-class; many are professionals or in business. Many are third- or fourth-generation Irish-born. Dublin’s original Jewish cemetery has graves dating back to the early 18th century, and a second cemetery, at Dolphin’s barn, was opened in 1898, and a third, Woodlawn, in the early 1950s. The dead in Ireland far outnumber living Jews.
It’s almost impossible not to be taken by the physical beauty of Ireland and the friendliness of the people. The cities are small, old and charming, with streets that are safe at all hours. There’s little evidence of “progress” in the form of high-rises or modern architecture. Dublin, where the majority of Ireland’s Jews live, is still very much an 18th and 19th century city. The pace of life is unhurried and people will strike up conversations with you on the street and in stores. Cork, a seaport city some 150 miles southwest of Dublin, has a synagogue and a handful of Jews who actively participate in its upkeep. The Jewish population is estimated at 20 to 30 in this city of 135,000.
The Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin was founded in 1985 and opened by Dublin born Chaim Herzog, then president of Israel. It is housed in the former Walworth Road Synagogue at 3 and 4 Walworth Rd., which was opened in 1916. The Museum houses a large collection relating to the history of Jews in Ireland, and maintains the synagogue sanctuary intact. Raphael Siev, the Museum’s founder and curator, spoke of “three hemorrhages” that reduced the Jewish population of Ireland from its peak of nearly 6,000 in the 1940s to 1,200 today. “Starting in the late 1940s, young Jews became assimilated, and there was a great deal of intermarriage. In those days, the Church insisted that the non-Catholic had to convert. That,” said Siev, who is also a member of the Irish diplomatic corps, “was the first major hemorrhage.”
The founding of the State of Israel in 1948 prompted an exodus from Ireland. “Irish Jews have always been very Zionistic,” explained Siev. “In fact, today there are more Irish-born Jews living in Israel than in Ireland.” The third hemorrhage, ongoing from the 1960s, is emigration for better economic and social opportunities. “The young leave because there’s no Jewish life for them here, and because the good jobs are overseas,” said Siev. Parents practically force their children out of Ireland, to England, Israel or the U.S., so they can meet and marry other Jews.
iev’s statistics on the Jewish population outside of Dublin aren’t very heartening: one Jew each in Limerick and Waterford, a single family in Galway, two-dozen in Cork, and two hundred in British-controlled Northern Ireland.
When I visited Ireland during the summer of 1996, Dublin had been without a rabbi for over two years. That August, Rabbi Gavin Broder came from England to fill the Chief Rabbi’s post.
The Judaism of Ireland is nominally Orthodox, but is a more liberally interpreted version than in the U.S. Dublin’s two remaining Orthodox synagogues are merging, and there is a Progressive temple that is comparable to Reform. There are other signs of the dwindling of the Jewish community. The formerly all-Jewish Edmondston Golf Club on the outskirts of Dublin has had to accept Gentile members to stay afloat.
Dublin’s enormous main synagogue, the Dublin Hebrew congregation, located at 37 Adelaide Road, remains open, but the future for the building, erected in 1982 and designed to hold up to 1,000
worshippers, remains uncertain. The dark richly furnished interior is notable for its central bimah, and the large brass candle sticks which surmount it. Another large synagogue, Greenville Hall, with its imposing exterior Corinthian-columns, dates from the 1920s and was closed in the mid-1980s. It was almost sold for use as a mosque, but is now the headquarters of a high technology company. Stars of David are still visible on its windows. Dublin’s kosher bakery, The Bretzel, has been owned by non-Jews for two generations, and a mashgiach comes in daily to oversee kashruth. Until the 1950s, there were enough Jews in Dublin to support eight kosher butcher shops and a dozen synagogues.
Despite their small numbers, the Jews have had a significant influence on Ireland. There are currently three Jewish members of the Irish Parliament, and both Dublin and Cork have had Jewish mayors. Chaim Herzog, the former President of Israel, grew up in Dublin, and Herzog House is one of the city’s Jewish monuments. Of course, the most famous Irish Jew of all is fictional: Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. A plaque marks “his” house at 52 Clanbrassil Street in Dublin.
Ireland is a country with a future, but not for the Jews. It is one of the unspoiled countries of Europe, and the economy has improved dramatically with Ireland’s entry into the European Union. Possibly, Jews from other European countries will be attracted to Ireland because of the favorable economic climate, or expatriate Irish Jews will return home for the same reason. However, it seems unlikely that there will ever be enough Jews in Ireland again to prevent the virtual disappearance of the community within a few decades.
Photojournalist Paul Margolis frequently writes on Jewish subjects. His report from Cuba appeared in the last issue Jewish Heritage Report.