Jews have made their home in Ireland for centuries, and many have risen to be successful and prominent figures in politics, business, and theology. Ireland produced Chaim Herzog, the sixth president of Israel, and Leopold Bloom, the hero of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” a canonical Irish text, is a Jew. However, the Irish Jewish community can hardly be called thriving, and Jews have not always been welcomed in this predominantly Catholic country. During the Holocaust, Ireland denied refuge to Jews in search of escape from the Nazis, and anti-Semitism has been a minor but persistent problem.
Persecution and Denial of Rights
Jews first came to Ireland in 1079, when a group of five merchants, probably from Normandy, petitioned for admission and were rejected, according to the “Annals of Inisfallen,” a chronicle of the medieval history of Ireland. There were some Jews in Ireland during the 12th and 13th centuries, but when Britain expelled all of its Jews in 1290, the Jews of Ireland, too, were forced to leave.
A Jewish community wasn’t reinstated until late in the 15th century, as refugees from the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal sought a safe haven. There were only a handful of Jews living in Ireland for the next three 300 years, most of whom immigrated due to persecution in other parts of Europe. For the most part Jews lived (and still live) in and around Dublin, but there was a congregation in Cork from 1725 to 1796, and another that was established around 1860. These communities were mostly populated by people in the import business, specifically wine imports.
Catholic missionaries had some success converting the Jews, and by the end of the 1700s the synagogue in Dublin was forced to close. Contributing to the closure may have been the government’s refusal to grant citizenship to Jews, despite other bills that gave citizenship to other foreign nationals.
In 1822 a small group of Jews arrived from Germany, Poland, and England and began to actively build the Jewish community. The Jewish population grew from 453 in 1881 to almost 4,000 in 1901. Small communities emerged in Limerick, Waterford, Belfast and Londonderry. As the community gained momentum, Irish clergy became wary. One priest in particular, Father John Creagh of Limerick, felt threatened by the Jews, and made several inflammatory sermons encouraging Catholics to boycott Jewish traders and in some cases to act violently.
It is thought that Creagh may have been influenced by the Dreyfus Affair while he was on a trip to France. Whatever his motivation, he was fairly successful in driving Jews out of Limerick. With boycotts stifling their livelihood and physical and verbal abuse threatening their safety, most Jews from Limerick fled the country. However, after a few years Creagh was moved to Belfast by his superiors, and the Limerick community reinstated itself during World War I.
Irish Jews and Irish Independence
Although the Irish Jewish community never officially took sides regarding the Irish-British conflict, it was generally known to be sympathetic to the Irish nationalist cause. The Easter rebellion of 1916 saw many Jewish homes sheltering rebels, and Robert Briscoe, Dublin’s first Jewish mayor (but not Ireland’s first Jewish mayor — that honor goes to William Annyas, elected in 1555), was himself a member of the Irish Republican Army. Former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Dr. Isaac Herzog, was a friend of Taoiseach (Irish for prime minister) Eamon de Valera. Additionally, a Jewish lawyer, Michael Noyk, defended members of the Irish Republican Sinn Fein Party and was friends with Michael Collins, the Irish Republican nationalist. The Irish constitution of 1937 recognized Judaism as a minority faith, and Jews were assured freedom from discrimination.
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