The Rise and Decline of the Jewish Community in Ireland

There were three phases to the Litvak story in Dublin.  There was firstly the arrival and establishment of the community in and around Clanbrassil Street and the South Circular Road, beginning from the 1870s and peaking with a community of some 5,000 on the eve of World War II.  The second phase was its migration upward socially and economically and in parallel physically to the red-bricked and salubrious areas of Rathmines, Rathgar, and Terenure. 

The sense of vibrancy of the Jewish community in Dublin as it established itself is caught wonderfully in Asher Benson’s illustrated Jewish Dublin, Portraits of Life by the Liffey (Dublin, 2007).  In its vivid personalities and evocative photographs, Dublin’s leading Jews and their stories come to life:

Artists like Estella Solomon and Harry Kernoff.  Dr. Isaac Herzog, Chief Rabbi of Ireland whose son would make aliya and become a President of Israel.  Rugby player and Master of the Rotunda Dr Bethel Solomons. 

Of the Briscoe family, Benson writes “father and son represented the Fianna Fáil party in the Dáil for a continuous period of 75 years, from 1927 to 2002; in addition they served between them three stints as Lord Mayor of Dublin, in 1956 and 1961 (Bob) and 1988 (Ben)”. 1981 was an interesting general election, with four Jewish candidates: Dr Hazel Boland, Bren Briscoe, Mervyn Taylor and Alan Shatter, now our Minister for Justice and Equality and Minister for Defence.  All but Dr Boland were elected or in the case of Briscoe re-elected.  

Intellectual and academic Jack Weingreen, Professor of Hebrew at Trinity College Dublin 1939-79, who wrote a classic Hebrew grammar and whose devotion to antiquities was honoured with the establishment in 1977 of the Weingreen Museum of Biblical Antiquities at Trinity College. 

The Ellimans whom Benson lauds as ‘kings of Irish entertainment’ for the fun and glamour Louis Elliman’s cinemas, theatres and associated restaurants brought to Dublin in the middle decades of the twentieth century.  Thanks to Louis, who arrived penniless in Dublin in 1894, Dublin social life enjoyed De Lux cinema in Camden Street, the Metropole Grill, the Queen’s, the Savoy and the Corinthian.  He bought the Gaeity in 1936 and outright ownership of the Theatre Royal.  He not only nurtured Irish talent like Noel Purcell and Maureen Potter but brought international glamour to the Dublin stage with the likes of Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Nat King Cole and Jimmy Cagney.

Gerald Davis, grandson of Litvak immigrants, “painter, gallery owner, art collector, jazz enthusiast and sometime businessman” as Benson describes him.

Benson records and illustrates many more businessmen, lawyers, academics, philanthropists, musicians and writers that enriched Dublin life.  And he tells too the story of the institutions whose formation traced the fortunes of Dublin’s Jewish community, from the trades unions of tailors (the “Jewish” Union), Synagogues and schools to the Edmonston Golf Club (formed because of the difficulty Jews had joining existing clubs) and the Maccabi Sports Club in Kimmage.

 Ó Gráda sums up:

 “The uninterrupted increase in Ireland’s Jewish community between the 1870s and the 1940s was a measure of its prosperity and integration.  In those decades the community showed every sign of being viable and long lasting.  The suburban descendants of the pre-1914 generation were no longer ‘sojourners’ of the middlemen minority model, always ready to pack their bags and move on.  To be sure, the second and third generation clung to their religious faith and their Zionist convictions.  They also remained largely self-employed and their occupational profile was distinctive….  Some became heavily involved in the city’s political and cultural life….  Some invested heavily in manufacturing; others acquired skills requiring considerable acculturation and not so readily transferable abroad.  Lawyers, auctioneers, dentists and doctors mixed freely with their Gentile counterparts.”

The third part of the story is of course the decline of the Jewish community with emigration after World War II to Britain (mainly) , the US and Israel.  Back to O’Gráda for his take on the likely factors behind this: the underperformance of the Irish economy and its “snail-paced” growth; the avoidance of assimilation through intermarriage; the claustrophobia of Ireland of the 1950s; a sense of exile and wandering that would take many Jews to the new state of Israel. 

The decline in Ireland’s Jewish community, Ó Gráda notes, fitted the broader global pattern whereby low fertility and intermarriage eliminated small Jewish communities in favour of larger ones.  Thus the Jewish communities of Manchester and London have continued to prosper while small clusters throughout Britain have disappeared. 

So for what was a brief historical period, Ireland’s capital city was enriched by its Jewish community. Joyce’s fictional Leopold Bloom has fixed this presence in our collective imagination: However, Bloom is not the archetype nor could he be for such a varied and successful community of individuals.  

The vivacity of Dublin’s Jewish community’s social and religious life, its sparkling contribution to the city’s cultural and academic life, the dedication of its second and third generations to political life and to their chosen professions lives on in the Jewish community that remains (mainly) in Dublin and Belfast, in its dedicated architecture, in a number of history books and in the Jewish Museum in Dublin.  Future blogs will focus on Jewish life and activities in Ireland today and the links between Ireland and Israel that with your help we can develop and expand.

Eamonn

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