Category Archives: Irish America

Ireland in Five Easy Pieces I: Famine, Church and Society

Explaining modern Ireland must start with the impact of the Great Famine in the middle of the 19th century.  Certainly around the Irish countryside you will see a lot of remnants of older times, from the megaliths of the Boyne and tall Norman towers of the early medieval period to the squat late 18th Martello towers that dot all but the northeast coast to warn the British of any Napoleonic invasion.

However it is the Great Famine between 1845 and 1851 that laid the foundation on which modern Ireland was built socially, economically, politically and in many ways psychologically.

We start with Ireland on the eve of the Famine.  For the bulk of the population it was a tough but free wheeling existence, deeply rooted in its Gaelic language, culture and traditions.  The potato crop grown in small plots was nutritious enough to sustain a family.  That allowed early marriage and high fertility rates. It required repeated subdivisions of the land to accommodate and feed the growing population that would reach well over eight million by the eve of the Famine (the island’s population today is six million). By all accounts it was a healthy diet, providing strong bodies and many a stout recruit for the British Army.

Hedge schools convened outdoors by wandering schoolteachers, a tradition from Penal times when Catholic education was outlawed, provided much of the basic education.  The Gaelic peasants spoke Irish and enjoyed a rich oral tradition of songs, poems and Homeric-style tales from older, even ancient, times.

Wandering musicians, poets, story tellers and dancing masters, all orphaned by the loss of the Gaelic aristocratic courts since the Flight of the Earls in 1607, mixed and mingled with the peasants, earning enough to live on through sharing their lore and skills and recalling the great days when Gaelic chiefs ruled.

Old beliefs and superstitions founded on pre-Christian belief systems – sometimes disguised as Christian saints – still competed with Catholic orthodoxy.  The parish priest would have had to contend with this and without a clear social role would not have enjoyed great local authority or status.

The potato had proven an unreliable crop subject to over twenty recorded prior failures due to weather or disease.  One damp morning in 1845, the peasants awoke to a sickly sweet smell wafting from their potato drills.   This time the crop was struck by blight, a fungal infection, which had begun in North America, crossed to devastate the crop in Europe and had arrived in Ireland to a uniquely vulnerable population. Even tubers that were fine when freshly dug soon rotted. Reserves were used, even the seed potatoes held for next year’s crop; what goods were to hand were sold to buy food, for food was plentiful other than the potato.  Some who had money or capital sold up and sailed to England or America.

The following year, the crop failed again as it would for successive years.  By 1851, the pre-Famine population of eight million had lurched downward with one million dying of starvation and disease and another million leaving, most taking ship to England and America.  Those who crossed the Irish Sea flocked to cities like Liverpool, Manchester and London.  Those that survived the journey across the Atlantic disembarked malnourished and barely clothed, taking shelter in whatever base accommodation they could find in Boston, New York and other east coast ports. The soil of Ireland had let them down; they would make their new lives in cities.

The conveyor belt of emigration was now in train and would endure to this day as a response to poor economic opportunities at home.  By the 1950s, the population in the south of Ireland would fall below three million.

British culpability in turning an ecological event into a humanitarian disaster was clear enough; the economic ideology of the time was that market forces must rule supreme even if it meant exporting food at a time of starvation, that dependency on charity be avoided at all costs, that the system of peasant landholding was demonstrably unsustainable and that the population had to be allowed to crash to a new equilibrium.

Ameliorating actions were taken at various levels by landlords and charities but too little and too late. Would the callous adherence to ideology have prevailed if starvation stalked England? The Great Famine was for many Irish the confirmation of the evils of imperial rule, a belief seared deep into the hearts of those forced to leave.

As the immediate tragedy passed in the 1850s, its social and economic impact created new imperatives for land holding and marriage that would fundamentally reshape Irish society. The subdivision of land to provide a smallholding for the next generation came to end and small landholdings were consolidated into larger units.  Unsustainable holdings were cleared by death and emigration, consolidated often by the local Irish agents of the absent Anglo-Irish landlords, descendents of the English who had conquered Ireland in the 17th century.  The Catholic ‘strong farmer’ class was being born by the revolution in land holding.

It should be said that the actual impact of the Famine is a matter of ongoing debate amongst Irish historians. Changing patterns of landholding had begun to emerge well before the disaster. But in my view the disaster accelerated them catastrophically and the social trauma vastly reinforced their economic rationale and created the kind of shock that would reshape social mores like marriage and inheritance.

Affinity with the land (where virtually every knob and hollow in the landscape has a name), the extraordinary salutary example of what the famine had wrought amongst the landless, and continuing uncertainty about tenure under the landlord system, fused to created a virtual obsession with land possession.

The emerging strong farmer held the land in lease arrangements from the landlords but would use their increasing political greater leverage to look for better terms over the coming decades.  As successive generations deepened their hold on the land, they would wage a long battle – sporadically violent, mainly political – to secure ownership, culminating in the Wyndham Land Acts of the early 20th century that gave them title to their land and sounded the death knell of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy.

The Famine dealt a near fatal blow to the Irish language not just because many of those who died as a direct result of the failure of the potato crop were native Irish speakers but because speaking English became a skill for survival, advancement and, for many, emigration: the Irish language was now burdened with the stigma of failure. Census returns would show the children of Irish speakers becoming bilingual and their children monolingual English.

Beyond its demographic impact, the Great Famine shaped Ireland through its impact on landholding and inheritance. The imperative was now to pass the farm on intact to one son, not subdividing it between two or more. If the non-inheriting sons were lucky and well educated they could get a job in the civil service or the bank, become a teacher or even a priest in the newly elevated Church; become a barman or shop clerk; join the British Army. If not, the emigrant ship beckoned. Women faced reduced marriage prospects because marriage now depended on inheriting the farm. They had far fewer local economic opportunities than males.   No surprise then that in the last quarter of the 19th century more women than men would emigrate.

In Ireland, a new Irish piety emerged, reflected in the iconography of the landscape (Churches and statues), of the home (Sacred Hearts, images of Christ and the Virgin Mary) and of the person (rosary beads, miraculous medals, scapulars). Mass going, recitations of the rosary, pilgrimages and reverent observance of Holy Days would condition the rhythm of life, reinforcing submission to Catholic morality.

Obedience to the Catholic Church’s sexual ethics was fused with the imperative of preserving the integrity of the family farm; an unexpected pregnancy and forced marriage would upset the careful sequence of inheritance. Family and Church interests were now firmly forged together. The impact of the new pattern of inheritance on male-female relations had myriad personal, familial, psychological and cultural consequences.

For men with limited chances of marriage or marriage at a late age when the farm came under his control, social life was to be focused on the pub. Land possession, church and pub formed a solid and enduring triangle that defined the parameters of economic, social, cultural and political life.

When they emigrated to America, the Irish would recreate in their new communities a similar structure, rapidly sponsoring the building of Catholic Churches, associated schools and of course frequenting a local the pub established by one of their own. Their deep sense of social reciprocation – born in an Irish village but now a vital coping mechanism in the New World – would evolve into and shape local politics, leading to the eventual development of the famous machine politics of Irish America.

The important role of the priest in rural Ireland was reciprocated by the farming classes who provided the funds for the erection of the classic high-walled rural parish church and who politically supported the British Government’s co-option of the Church as a partner in the provision of education and health.

The Catholic Church then, backed by the strong farming class, emerged in the latter half of the 19th century as a key national institution, pre-dating independent Irish government by half a century, and accruing the kind of status and power that would influence (or intimidate depending on your perspective) the fledging native governments for most of the twentieth century.

Once the question of landownership was settled by the end of the 19th century, attention turned to the politics of sovereignty. The strong farming class combined with the growth of the Catholic middle class and the evolution of the ideology of romantic nationalism to forge a renewed effort to reset relations with Britain that had been defined by the Act of Union of 1801.

The cultural definition of Irish identity and the contest between parliamentary agitation and militant republicanism would shape the struggle for independence and with it many of the identifying features of independent Ireland. We’ll look at that in the second piece.

Eamonn McKee


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Ireland in Five Easy Pieces

As a diplomat you are often called upon to speak on Ireland.  This usually focuses on the economy and the Northern Ireland peace process; sometimes too on aspects of Ireland’s literary heritage with Yeats the reigning star, followed by Joyce and Beckett.

Irish history can feature in talks too but compressing it into a presentation is always something of a challenge.  Explaining Ireland means of necessity compressing our history into a narrative that traces our development as a society in fairly broad patterns.

However the exercise can have a value in helping to organize our complex history. Many people around the world, charmed and intrigued by Ireland and Irish culture, delve into our history. However while they find episodes of our history fascinating and compelling, at times the overall historical narrative can be elusive and confusing, and joining the dots can become a real challenge.

I will blog over the coming weeks Ireland in Five Easy Pieces as a modest attempt to knit together a broad explanatory narrative.   It begins mid-19th century because that I think is when modern Ireland really takes shape.

The five easy pieces are ‘Famine, Church and Society’; ‘Ireland in the Empire’: ‘Revolution, Partition and Independence’; ‘Northern Ireland and British Irish Relations’; and ‘Economic Development’.

It is necessarily an act of compression, excision and simplification. It is too, obviously, a wholly personal perspective. All comments welcome.

I hope you enjoy them.


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Remembering 9/11

Twitter is a new medium, an immediate means of mass communication. It’s also highly personal in its subjective compression. The combination makes it the avatar of social media. Most of the time I retweet things that are interesting and relevant to Ireland and Irish Israeli relations – or just plain irresistible on occasion – but 9/11 prompted me to recall my posting to New York and my memories of that day. On the way to the Remembrance Day event in the Arazim Valley on the outskirts of Jerusalem yesterday, I tweeted a sequence of my most vivid memories and impressions of 9/11 (copied below); used like this, tweeting in its staccato brevity seemed to work like memory.

Talking about 9/11 last night, my son, who was seven years of age at the time, said he remembered the day. He was delighted that it was a half-day at school when his mother came to get him. He remembers his mother’s shocked incredulous reaction at the sight of a single tower where two had stood when she had entered the school only minutes earlier; a bystander’s laconic explanation to her that “it went down.” He guiltily wondered whether he caused 9/11 in some way because he had been hoping for something dramatic to happen to break the boredom of the return to school. It’s the kind of guilty conscience we all had as children on occasion, part of childhood innocence.

New York lost its innocence that day. This might seem a strange thing to say about a city that used to be known for its wealth, crime, ceaseless bacchanalia and iconoclastic art scene. However, there was in New York up to 9/11 a zest and love of life that made its residents proud of the city and drew so many to visit and live there. On the edge of the continental US landmass, sheltered by a vast ocean that separated it from the complications of Europe and the troubles of the Middle East, New York was a haven onto itself, Manhattan a crystalline island of success, glamour and good times. And then in a flash from some inexplicable malign force, two of those very highest crystals were shattered and some 3,000 innocents of the city lost their lives.

9/11 showed another side to New York and New Yorkers and what it made it great. If there is a broader sentiment in my memory, aside from the unreality of it all, it is the immediacy of how the city dealt with the attack. The city did not reel in shock but grappled with the immensity of the emergency head on. Firefighters did not think twice about rushing to the scene and entering the dizzy towers visibly being consumed by a ferocious living fire. Police officers and first responders did not flinch in courage or professionalism, even as bodies began to rain down from the heights above. Those leaving the area walked home with dignity, often through the night. Whoever could help did help; and more help came from all over the US.

Sometime after the event, my wife and I had dinner with a friend, Irish journalist and writer Conor O’Clery, whose apartment overlooked the site of 9/11. He had seen what had happened that day and photographed much of it. We saw his snaps of the billowing cloud of dust and debris but he reserved other photos, too dreadful to share and out of respect for those it showed in their last moments. By now, the rubble had been cleared away and we could look into the vast cavern of the excavation, arc lights creating a fog of glare around the workers in the deep and infernal pit. With undaunted energy and application, New Yorkers were clearing to build anew: Perhaps less innocent now but always resilient, always forging ahead, always New York, New York.

If you are minded to, taking a trip to the memorial in Jerusalem in the Arazim Valley is worth a visit and a pause for reflection. Beneath a sculpture of a monumental American flag a piece of one of the towers is entombed behind glass and the names of the victims inscribed around the elegant amphitheatre. Information here

Shabbat Shalom


Remembering 9/11 on Twitter

Hard to believe 13 years since my family and I woke up on a beautiful New York morning and a day that would reshape our world.

After I dropped our young kids to the UN school, I recall glancing down Park Avenue and seeing a billowing grey cloud of dust.

As Press Officer, I had the only TV in the Consulate. Local staff were trying flickers to turn it on: something terrible had happened.

We stood around the TV images of smoke billowing from the Twin Towers, all of us wrapt and confused. A tower sank in a haze of thick dust.

We got a call through to HQ on a land line. We didn’t hang up for days. It was our lifeline to Dublin as comm systems crashed.

DFA cranked into gear as the SG created a crisis centre in the Grand Ballroom and assembled a consular team to fly to NY asap to support us.

My wife called. Should she get the kids out of the school? I said no, it was miles from the Twin Towers.

Rumors were flying: more planes were in the air about to strike DC: two were hijacked and flying from Heathrow heading straight for NY.

News reports came in about a plane hitting the Pentagon. I called Mary and said get the kids.

What followed was a blur of activity, piecing together what was happening, reporting to HQ, dealing with the press from Ireland.

We needed to figure out how many Irish were killed, injured or needing our help. The Irish media asked many ‘Irish were among the dead?’

But in NY how do you define Irish? Irish born? Child of Irish born? Passport holder? And what of Irish Americans going back generations?

Stairwell: Irish American firefighters going up meet Irish American financial traders going down. Story of the Irish. They died together.

As 9/11 unfolded, one of the biggest helps to the Consulate was the NYPD. Every other cop had an Irish name: the Irish pulling together.

During the crisis and its long aftermath, it felt surreal. Clichéd but true, at times it felt like a movie, not quite real.

The Consulate was manned 24/7: a great team running on adrenaline. Old friends arrived as part of the consular group from Dublin.

Our home was on East 37th St. My wife checked in when she could: kids home safe but confused by the news. People were streaming by on foot.

Evening 9/11: she said the air had a strange odor, a wretched mix of dust and burn. Save for emergency vehicles, city at a standstill. NY, city of spontaneous shrines.

We pilgrimaged to nearby Armory Building, festooned with notes, photos of those hopefully just missing.

The missing of 9/11 we knew later were dead, families forever bereft. As we remember them today, may they rest in peace.

My wife and I honoured to attend moving 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony, Jerusalem.


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Irish America, Tammany Hall (and the beginning of the Irish Jewish New York Relationship)

I was very lucky to have been posted twice to the United States, to the Embassy Washington in the early 1990s and to the Consulate General New York at the close of the decade.  There I developed a love for Irish America, its history and its community today.   The story of the Irish in America is a truly epic one, really biblical in its scope, complexity and significance.

As a young diplomatic officer, I was privileged to be part of the Embassy’s involvement in the high point of the St Patrick’s Day celebration of Irish America, namely the Taoiseach’s presentation of shamrock to the President in the White House, followed by the President’s attendance at the Speaker of the House’s St. Patrick’s Day luncheon.  (The only other time of the year that the President goes to Congress is for the State of the Union Address.)  But it is the St Patrick’s Day parades, large and small, across all fifty States that reveal the true reach of the Irish in America.

If the Great Famine of 1845-1851 shaped Ireland today, those who fled it to the US profoundly altered the course of America politically, socially and culturally.  Tremendous work has been done to tell that story but I am not convinced it has been fully told yet.

That is partly to do with the sheer scale of the impact of the Irish in America.  It begins in earnest with the Protestant ‘Scots-Irish”, the unsettled settlers from Ireland, (and prior to that Scotland), who began to arrive in the American colonies the mid-1700s, restlessly moved westward, helped form the ideology of the American revolution and stirred the early agitation against British suzerainty.  The bifurcation between them and the masses of starving Catholic native Irish fleeing the Great Famine a century later disrupts the historical narrative of the Irish in America.

The full story also suffers, I suspect, partially from the fact that the Irish arriving en masse in the 19th century were a “disruptive” energy that challenged the Anglo-American establishment, an establishment that still retains much influence through its formative shaping of the American historical narrative of itself.

The situation has not been helped by the characterization of the Irish in America; consider how quickly certain cultural tropes spring to mind when mention is made of ‘Irish America’; the fighting Irish, the roguish gangster, the tough cop, the ambitious white-laced mother, the morose blue collar father, the alcoholic writer and the stern priest presiding if not ruling over his unruly flock. It is probably the fate of all newly arrived immigrant groups to quickly garner stereotypes that are hard to shake off and which occlude a proper assessment of their contribution and role in society.

Tammany Hall looms large in the formation of the notions about the Irish as purveyors of a unique style of political manipulation and graft.  It is great, therefore, to see its history subject to historical revision in Terry Golway’s Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Making of Modern American Politics.  Let the debate begin.

In the interests in full disclosure, I am happy to say that in my time in New York I came to know Terry and to enjoy his company, which is witty, erudite and passionate about Irish America.  His has written extensively on Irish America: Irish Rebel: John Devoy and America’s Fight for Ireland’s Freedom (St Martin’s Griffin, 1999); a history of the New York Fire Department in which the Irish contribution looms so large, So Other Might Live, A History of New York’s Bravest, the FDNY from 1700 to the Present (Basic Books, 2003); and For the Cause of Liberty, a Thousand Years of Ireland’s Heroes, (Simon and Schuster 2012).

In his latest work, Terry tells me that “the book really is the first attempt to look at Tammany as a profoundly Irish institution, with roots in the Emancipation movement and the elections of 1826 and 1828. I was in Dublin several years ago researching those elections in the papers of Thomas Wyse and Daniel O’Connell. But I also show how the trans-Atlantic Anglo-American community used Tammany as an argument against Irish home rule, and used Irish politics as an argument against Tammany. The overall point: The Irish could not rule themselves.”

His analysis of Tammany Hall is really an exploration of the Irish approach to politics which was grounded in the imperatives of the society that they had come from; colonial and oppressed, the native Irish operated beneath the radar of British rule and put a high emphasis on personal reciprocity as means of support and survival.  Concealment and gaming the rules of the British system were necessities for survival and therefore considered virtues.

If this was true of life in Ireland it was all the more so true for emigrants arriving in the alien environment of urban America; here they needed support to get started, particularly when faced with the hostility of Anglo-Protestant establishment and the ‘Know-Nothings’.

The idea of politics as a reciprocal arrangement between the voters and those whom they elect was the founding notion of Tammany Hall and the ‘machine’ politics that would do so much to influence and ultimately forge the Democratic Party.  It injected into public discourse the idea that Government was meant to be about the care of the citizen and not simply the regulation of the markets and the preservation of stability in the name of the elites.

I asked Terry about the Irish Jewish relationship in New York and he wrote “I have quite a lot on Tammany’s relationship with the city’s Jewish community, another forgotten part of the story. It really begins with the imminent election of the city’s first Irish-Catholic mayor, W.R. Grace, in 1880. When he was attacked because of his religion….Jews on the Lower East Side held a rally for Grace, during which a lawyer named Albert Cardozo, father of a future US Supreme Court justice, said that if Catholics were attacked like this, Jews would be next, so they should stand together. In the early 20th Century, Tammany’s Irish leaders developed close relations with the city’s Jewish population.”

I sincerely hope that someday Terry puts pen to paper on the Irish Jewish relationship in New York!

Happy St Patrick’s Day!


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Why did Lithuanian Jews come to Ireland when the Irish were going to America?

I am old enough to remember Danker’s antique shop on Clanbrassil Street as I often cycled from my home in Clontarf to my grandparent’s house in Kimmage.  I had little reason to stray into the streets behind it, which along with the South Circular Road and environs formed the hub of Dublin’s Jewish community of which Danker’s was a part.  As I passed through Harold’s Cross and Terenure, I was unknowingly tracing the migration of those Jews to leafier suburbs as they prospered and gentrified.  I had heard of the Briscoes and of course Leopold Bloom (who ‘lived’ in Number 52 Clanbrassil Street) but knew little else of the Jews of Dublin.  Where did they come from?

The number of Jews in Ireland historically was very small indeed: Some traces of Sephardic Jews after their 15th century expulsion from Spain and Portugal, Jews from Holland and of course a number of Anglo-Jews.  Portuguese Jews established the first Synagogue in Dublin in 1660.  Taken together, Jews in Ireland up to the mid-19th century never comprised more than a few hundred.  It was only in the 1880s that the Jewish population in Ireland suddenly began to grow, hitting four digits and eventually about 5,000 by the 1930s on the island as a whole.

The following traces the background to Jewish emigration to Ireland and draws some comparisons and contrasts with Irish emigration in the same period. It is based mainly on Ó Cormac Gráda’s scholarly and charming Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce (Princeton, 2006), a typical little masterpiece of his work that combines hard data, eloquence and the human dimension.  I have also drawn on Chaim Herzog’s biography Living History (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1997) and Kirby Miller’s Emigrants and Exiles, Ireland and the Exodus to North America (Oxford, 1985).  See also Dermot Keogh’s Jews in Twentieth Century Ireland: Refugees, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust and Holocaust Education Trust Ireland here

The influx of Jews – at least an ‘influx’ comparative to the earlier Jewish presence – came mainly from one area in what is today Northern Lithuania.  They were therefore Litvaks as Jews from Lithuania were called.  In fact the shtetls in Kovno province from which they came were all within 50km of each other.  They began arriving in Ireland in the 1870S but only in numbers in the 1880s.  They came mainly to Dublin (by design), Cork (reputedly by accident) and Belfast (because of its industrialization).  But Dublin remained the preferred option, for the Jewish population declined in Cork subsequently and the numbers in Belfast never exceeded those in Dublin despite the disparity in economic opportunity.

Why did they leave Lithuania?  With Ó Gráda’s trademark parsing of the evidence, it is clear that the stories of pogroms and oppression mythologized the decision to emigrate.  The primary motivation was economic, with diminishing opportunities acting as the push and prosperity further west, particularly in America, acting as the pull.

This is not to completely discount persecution as the spark for emigration.  The pogroms in Russia and the Great Famine in Ireland certainly generated an immediate wave of respectively Jewish and Irish emigration.  However, the soaring levels of European migration and emigration in the following decades pointed to much more powerful economic forces at work.  In Ireland’s case, the reshaping of farm ownership brought about by the Famine – single holdings only inheritable by one son – and the failure to create an urbanized industrialized economy (outside of Belfast) meant that only emigration offered prospects of economic betterment.

In the creation of this lore of persecution the Lithuanian Jews had something in common with the Irish.  For the Irish emigrants too mythologized themselves as exiles from British oppression rather than being mere economic migrants.  In another parallel only a fraction, less than 1%, of either group ever returned home.

In contrast, where the Jews did not lament the homeland left behind, the Irish did and created a canon of songs lamenting their plight and longing for the old country.  (The often painful and lonely adjustment psychologically and culturally of the Irish to America is too often unacknowledged in Ireland; but it was in this adjustment that Irish America took shape and defined itself; see Kirby Millar’s Emigrants and Exiles.)

So the Jews like the Irish emigrated for primarily economic reasons, though Jews tended to be married on departure where the vast majority of the Irish were single.  In Lithuania (at the time part of Tsarist Russia), their traditional sources of income as artisans, middlemen, traders, creditors and so on were being squeezed by the coming of the trains with their cargos of cheaper manufactured goods and supplies; by urbanization and the development of retail; and by modern retail banking, facilitated by new communications like telexes which eroded the local Litvak role as creditors.  This combined with a rapidly growing population meant that local opportunities were shrinking just as industrialization and technology was spurring unprecedented prosperity in the West.  For those with some capital and some skills, the chance was not one to miss.

The Jews of Eastern Europe, along with their Irish counterparts, were part of the late 19th century European migration westward, one of the greatest mass movements of people in human history.  Many were drawn by the lure of America and its vast burgeoning markets, its opportunities and its freedom.

The Jews arriving in Western Europe would embrace modernity with gusto; urbanization, retail, mass communication and mass transport, commerce and banking.  This would create not only dynasties like the Rothschilds in France but a whole class of successful professional bourgeoisie throughout western Europe.  Michael Marks, a Polish Jew who arrived virtually penniless in England in the early 1880s, would found Marks and Spencers.  They would not only embrace European science and the arts but lead in the cascade of new thinking in literature, music, painting, physics and psychology.

Simon Schama’s sweeping yet deeply felt narrative of this ‘deal’ – integrate and become a citizen who happens to be Jewish as he summarises it – in episode three of his documentary The Story of the Jews is well worth seeking out.  As he eloquently and passionately describes it, the Jewish attempt at integration into European Society would end up rejected, symbolically in the Dreyfus affair in the 1890s and catastrophically in the Holocaust.  Prescient Jews like Theodore Herzl, in sensing the fell danger of this failed deal, would create Zionism as the last, the only option for the future security of the Jews.

The Litvaks who arrived in Dublin were far removed from the Rothschilds of course.  As Ó Gráda points out, the sheer poverty of urban Ireland at the turn of the century meant that the Litvaks found a ready if modest use for their skills as craftsmen, traders, lenders and middlemen.

Yet economic opportunities were only part of the attraction of Dublin for the new arrivals.  It was said of their like that they were particularly literate and erudite and found Dublin temperamentally appealing.  Many would only transit Dublin but those who stayed were according to one of them “the type that were not very ambitious to make a lot of money, but there was an atmosphere of learning in the place that the more temperate of the emigrants preferred, so though the opportunities for financial success [were] not very great, there was a feeling of ease” (quoted p. 29, Ó Gráda).  This tradition of learning of course meant that within a generation, the Litvaks began a progression to the professions and middle-class status.  In the 1880s 2% were middle-class; 5% by the 1920s 17% and by the 1980s over 70% (Ó Gráda, p. 84).

The Herzog family illustrated the point.  As Belfast-born and Dublin-raised Chaim Herzog recalls in his biography, the social life of the Jewish community in Dublin revolved around the synagogues: Adelaide Road for the Anglo-Jews and Greenville Hall for the Orthodox Eastern Europeans. His maternal side hailed from Kovno and his paternal from Poland; males on both sides were rabbis.  His father Isaac, a renowned scholar and Chief Rabbi of Ireland, would be elected Chief Rabbi of Palestine in 1936, a mere year after the family moved there.  Chaim Herzog himself, after a secondary education in Alexandra and Wesley, would go on to have an illustrious career in Israel, eventually becoming its President.

In Ó Gráda’s nice phrase, the Litvak emigration to Ireland was then a “tributary” of the great movement of Eastern European Jews westward, for some to what they called ‘England-Ireland’, for some to Palestine and for many more to Europe and America.  The Jews and the Irish would arrive and settle in the larger cities of the United States, forming dense urban communities.  Both the Irish and the Jews would form powerful political constituencies; the Irish would shape the Democratic Party through their ‘machine politics’ whose roots lay in the Irish slums of Boston, New York and Chicago where clientalism and collaboration were keys to survival and advance.  Jewish entrepreneurial skill and general erudition would see them rapidly advance economically, academically and socially, providing the means for political influence.

The highpoint for the Irish was John F. Kennedy’s election as President but thereafter as the Irish dispersed to the suburbs the famed Irish American political machine would disintegrate and with it direct political influence, though it would be re-animated among Irish American leaders for a time by the conflict in Northern Ireland.  The affinity for Ireland, if not the organization that once characterized it in the late 19th and early 20th century, however remains resilient and enduring in Irish America.  Organized Jewish political influence remains famously strong in the US, animated in great part by the deep desire to support Israel.

Perhaps some of the Jews who left Lithuania sensed the darkening mood as anti-Semitism began to get a foothold in European thought at the end of the 19th century, gathering a fateful pace in the opening decades of the 20th.  For most, the decision to leave was simply a search for a better life.  They could not have known how fortuitous the decision to emigrate would prove to be. Nor could those who stayed behind imagine that extinction awaited them.  Of some 210,000 Lithuanian Jews alive there in 1939, 93% or up to 196,000 would be murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, most of them in a concentrated period of butchery during the second half of 1941.

Thanks to Irish neutrality, the Litvaks in Ireland escaped World War II, though some German bombs fell in their neighbourhood (thanks to the heavy clay of South Dublin, the bombs did little damage).  Had the Nazis made good on their plans to invade Ireland their fate would have been sealed.  In fact, the only Irish born Jew to die in the Shoah was Ettie Steinberg whose mistake was to marry and move to Belgium where she and her family, including her young son, were rounded up and transported to Auschwitz, one day before visas from her family in Dublin for safe passage to Ireland were delivered.



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Irish Dimension to the Korean War

2013 marks a number of anniversaries; 80 years since the Columban Order arrived in Korea, 60 years since the Armistice that brought the Korean War to an end and 30 years of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Korea.  We marked this with a Photo Exhibition at the Korea Foundation called History and Vitality, Stories of Ireland and Korea which tried to capture visually past and present relations.  The history of our relations is primarily that of people, whether in the service of Empire, faith, nation, business or war.  One project that became immensely rewarding and one of the highlights of my posting to Korea was the recovery and commemoration of the Irish contribution to the Korean War. The following short account sets out the role, largely unknown, played centrally by the Royal Ulster Rifles, a key unit of UN Command, with special thanks to writer and historian Andrew Salmon for his major contribution to this project.

Ambassador’s Message – The Fighting Irish of the Korean War

22 March 2013

Yesterday evening I attended Andrew Salmon’s lecture on the “The Fighting Irish of the Korean War” at the Korea Foundation.  The term “lecture” does not do it justice.  His delivery, engagement with the audience, his knowledge of the people and engagements, his use of audio-visual materials and personal engagement with the characters involved made it an immersive and compelling experience.  The scheduled hour turned into two as Q and A turned into a collective discussion.  It was really history as theatre and I, like the rest of the audience, left with a vivid account of experience of the 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles (RUR) and 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars in the Korean War. 

The RUR were the spearhead battalion of the British 29th Brigade, Britain’s strategic reserve which was committed to the Korean campaign.  Composed 50/50 of Catholics and Protestant, its soldiers were tough and experienced fighters, proud and quick with their fists.  Many, both enlisted and officers, were veterans of WWII.  The RUR lost most men in the ironically named Battle of Happy Valley in January 1951 when they were pulling back along a frozen river after resisting a Chinese “human wave” attack on their position north of Seoul.  Inadvertently illuminated by flares from a passing UN aircraft, they were raked with gun fire from the hills and charged by the bayonet wielding Chinese.  Hand-to-hand fighting ensued, extremely rare in modern battle as Andrew noted.  The ten tanks of the Irish Hussars were immobilised by stick bombs, their engines petering out as the morning broke when their fuel ran out.   Seoul would fall for a second time.

The following April, the RUR found themselves in a central salient along the UN line which was dug in at the Imjin River, again just north of Seoul, with the main body of US forces to their right.  The Chinese Army seemed to have melted away and routine patrols could not find them.  In fact, Chinese genius with camouflage concealed the fact that some 300,000 troops were massed for an assault.  The attack, launched on 22nd April, was designed to overwhelm the UN forces, surround and destroy the main US force, and take Seoul for a third and final time.  Stretched supply lines and limited motorised transport meant the Chinese 63rd and 64th Armies had about six days to do this. 

The Chinese attack when it came was a complete surprise to UN forces and the RUR found themselves in a vicious fight, along with the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers, the Gloucestershire Regiment (the Glosters) and a Belgium battalion, all bearing the weight of the main Chinese thrust South.  As the 29th pulled back in a fighting retreat on 25th April to a blocking position which they then held, the Glosters were isolated on a hill top and annihilated by wave after wave of Chinese troops (some 622 of 650 were lost, either dead, wounded or missing; 34 would die in captivity). 

The stout resistance of the 29th Brigade, along with the Belgium troops, allowed the main US force to extricate itself and move south, avoiding the pincher movement that would have sealed victory for the Chinese and disaster for the UN forces.  US General Ridgeway, as UN Commander, responded with all the enormous firepower at this disposal, including naval artillery, inflicting serious losses on the 63rd Chinese Army (perhaps 10,000 or one third of its fighting force) which, its supplies exhausted, was stopped five miles short of Seoul. 

The UN had withstood the largest massed attacked by a communist army since the Soviet capture of Berlin in 1945.  It was the last decisive action of the Korean War.  Though the War would drag on in often heavy skirmishing along the 38th parallel until 1953, Seoul and the Republic of Korea were saved at the battle of Imjin River.  If the Chinese had failed in their objective of seizing Seoul and dealing a crippling blow to US prestige, Andrew noted, they had nonetheless taken the field against the US, driven the UN forces from North Korea, preserved the DPRK and announced their arrival as a major world power.

British military causalities in the Korean War exceeded those later suffered in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan combined.  That said, as Andrew pointed out, for every non-US soldier fallen, the US lost 30 soldiers in the Korean War (many Irish American, as the names in the UN Cemetery in Busan attest). 

Andrew is an expert on the British Army’s role in the Korean War about which he has written two books; To the Last Round, The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea 1951 and Scorched Earth, Black Snow, Britain and Australia in the Korean War, 1950.  Though he has interviewed many Irish veterans and clearly loves the men, ethos and memory of the RUR and Irish Hussars, he eschews the notion that he is an expert on Irish involvement.  Still, I am deeply grateful for all that he has done to shed some light on this little known dimension of Irish Korean relations.  You can check out his website here

Today, the RUR lives on as the Royal Irish Regiment.

(Please note that any inaccuracies in the above account are solely mine and not Andrew’s!)

Best wishes,



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Exploring Diaspora Strategies

Ambassador’s Message – Exploring Diaspora Strategies

 1 February 2010

You may be interested in a useful and stimulating report called Exploring Diaspora Strategies: Lessons for Ireland.  It emerged from the Exploring Diaspora Strategies workshop, held in NUI Maynooth on 26-28 January 2009. 

The workshop, which was part funded by the Emigrant Support Programme of the Department of Foreign Affairs, was coordinated by Professors Mark Boyle and Robert Kitchin, both of NUI Maynooth. It brought together policy makers from Australia, Chile, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Lithuania, New Zealand, Scotland, and the World Bank, to explore how different countries have approached the formulation and implementation of Diaspora Strategies. Irish officials involved with and knowledgeable about emigration issues were represented. 

As defined by Boyle and Kitchin, ‘a diaspora strategy is an explicit and systematic policy initiative or series of policy initiatives aimed at developing and managing relationships with a diaspora… [It] is perhaps best thought of… as an overarching framework for providing a level of coherence to the range of diaspora policies devised and implemented by a variety of agencies.’ 

 Many countries pursue a range of initiatives and policies designed to engage, support and ‘harness’ their Diaspora; however, very few can claim that these initiatives form a distinct and coherent Diaspora Strategy. That accepted, some common principles supporting strategy formation have begun to emerge, and the workshop aimed to establish what these were, and how these could be applied by policy makers.

Overall, the paper reflects positively on the ‘wide range of programmes and schemes through which [Ireland] engages its diaspora’, noting that ‘together these… provide a broad range of services to, and partnerships with, the Irish diaspora across the globe and constitute a constellation that few other countries can match in terms of scope and reach.’

The authors see a lack of cohesion amongst these programmes, which, they suggest, do not currently form a coherent, overarching diaspora strategy.  Amongst other recommendations, the paper suggests that while ‘[i]t does not make sense to force all existing programmes into a centralised single organisation responsible for overseeing and managing them’, the State should look to improve coordination of the ‘various strands of [Diaspora] strategy across departments and agencies to ensure a continuity of effort, avoid duplication, and undertake the effective monitoring of progress’. This, it suggests, could be achieved by officially appointing a single agency or unit – the authors suggest the Irish Abroad Unit at the Department of Foreign Affairs as a candidate – to coordinate (although not centrally manage) the Diaspora Strategy. 

 Other key recommendations in the paper include:

  • developing a state-sponsored website portal that provides links to all diaspora programmes, but not content
  • developing an awards scheme to acknowledge and reward the Irish abroad who have made a significant contribution to Ireland and the diaspora
  • devising a strategy to develop philanthropic relationships with members of the Irish diaspora
  • recognizing the value of an ‘affinity diaspora’

 The Global Irish Economic Forum held in Farmleigh last September was a significant contribution to the debate on the Irish Diaspora (the report is available on  One of the Forum’s key objectives is to establish how Ireland’s relationship with our overseas communities can be brought to a new, more dynamic level. It is envisaged that the Forum will identify a range of concrete Diaspora initiatives – potentially including some of those outlined in the attached paper – and will be a key step in the formation of a Diaspora Strategy. 

 At any rate, the report of the recent Maynooth workshop is a useful survey which you may find interesting.


Eamonn McKee


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