The Jewish Traveler: Dublin
Jews both real and fictional have indelibly contributed to the warmth, beauty and charm that best describe Ireland and its capital city.
Few lands inspire as much affection among Jewish expatriates as Ireland. Descendants who find themselves today in England, Israel or America whose forebears spent 30 generations in Lithuania and one or two on the Emerald Isle refer to themselves proudly as Irish Jews.
Maybe it is the beauty of the place, or the welcoming nature of the Irish. Or maybe it is that the Irish notion of persecution seemed to consist mainly of name-calling, which must have seemed quaint to immigrants from the Czarist Empire.
The Jews of Ireland had a silver age, lasting roughly from 1880 to the end of the 1940s, when the community peaked at about 5,000. It has since fallen to about 1,700, but with Ireland’s tranformation from economic backwater to Celtic Tiger the Jewish population is growing—however slightly—for the first time in more than 50 years. The bigger story for visitors is that few communities so small in number have made such a visible impact on the landscape. A large part of the reason is the energy and drive of the people who built and continue to be a part of Irish Jewry.
But an unmistakable role also belongs to Leopold Bloom, the fictional hero created by James Joyce as the modern embodiment of Ulysses. Joyce’s protagonist resonates through the years and perhaps reflects modern Jews more closely today than on that day in June 1904 when he schlepped across Dublin.
Bloom’s wanderings were nothing compared to the first recorded Jewish journey to Ireland. As indicated in the Annals of Innisfallen, a chronicle of medieval Irish history, in 1079 “five Jews came from over the sea with gifts to Tairdelbach [king of Munster] and then were sent back again over the sea.” Small numbers of Jews, notably some refugees from Spain and Portugal, came and went between the 12th and 18th centuries, but by the dawn of the 19th century the Jewish community, if it could be called that, had dwindled to just three families.
Jewish immigration picked up in the 1820s, from England, Germany and Poland, but the biggest Jewish impact on Ireland in the mid-19th century came from a man who never lived there. During the great famine of the 1840s, which caused so much misery and emigration, support came from Baron Lionel de Rothschild, the first Jew elected to the British House of Commons. In the words of a Dublin newspaper at the time, Rothschild contributed “a sum far beyond the joint contributions of the Devonshires, and Herefords, Lansdownes, Fitzwilliams and Herberts, who annually drew so many times that amount from their Irish estates.”
By 1880, Dublin’s Jewish community of 450 was, by and large, prosperous as well as English speaking. There was a synagogue on Mary’s Abbey, just north of the River Liffey (like the synagogue, Dublin’s Abbey Theater, today a few blocks east, derived its name from the monastery).
Lithuanian Jews began arriving in 1881, and though it was but a wavelet compared to the masses that arrived in London and New York, it would subsume the existing community in Dublin and give Ireland its first real taste of an immigrant ethnic presence. By 1900, Dublin had more than 3,000 Jews. Smaller numbers lived in Cork, Belfast, Limerick, Waterford and Londonderry.
It was a tight-knit community, most hailing from a cluster of towns and villages in northern Lithuania. They settled south of central Dublin, in an area that was eventually dubbed Little Jerusalem. Many of the immigrants became peddlers, petty traders and moneylenders—“credit drapers” and “weekly men” in the local parlance—some of whom got their start with a five-pound stake from the Hebrew Philanthropic Loan Society. The second generation moved up the occupational ladder, as Jews became a major force in the manufacture of clothing and furniture.
Jews were sometimes the target of animosity, though it was mild compared to what they and their forebears had experienced on the continent. Some superficial histories refer to a “pogrom” that took place in Limerick in 1904, though it was more of an economic boycott, which caused little violence and no fatalities.
When the Easter Rebellion broke out in 1916, Jews tended to favor the status quo, but some distinguished themselves in the cause of Irish independence. Robert Briscoe smuggled arms for the Irish Republican Army and, in the 1950s and 1960s, served as Dublin’s mayor (succeeded a generation later by his son, Ben). Michael Noyk acted as a lawyer for IRA defendants. Estella Solomons was a Dublin artist whose studio became a Republican gathering point and sometime hideout.
Freed of British rule, Ireland remained neutral throughout World War II. During the war, Delia Murphy, a popular singer who was married to the Irish ambassador to the Vatican, spearheaded a campaign to shelter Roman Jews and escaped Allied prisoners in church buildings.
After the war, the slow pace of Irish economic growth, coupled with a tendency for young people to study abroad and then stay abroad, took a heavy toll on the Jewish community. Ninety percent of those who left settled in Britain, Israel and the United States. With Ireland’s economic boom over the past 15 years, small numbers of immigrants, mostly Israelis, Americans and South Africans, have given the community its first boost in two generations. There are now about 1,300 Jews in Dublin and another 400 scattered around the country.
As they prospered, Jews moved beyond the Grand Canal, which is the southern boundary of Little Jerusalem, and today are concentrated in the south Dublin neighborhoods of Terenure, Rathmines and Rathgar. Though some still have retail businesses, more and more tend to be doctors, lawyers and university professors. At one point in the 1990s, the Dail, Ireland’s parliament, had one Jewish member from each of the three major parties. Today, the lone Jewish member is Alan Shatter, who represents south Dublin for the Fine Gael Party.
Dublin has three functioning synagogues. The largest is the Dublin Hebrew Congregation on Rathfarham Road in Terenure. A modern structure with a sloped roof and series of Stars of David on its façade, it is the seat of Ireland’s chief rabbi (currently Yaakov Pearlman) and follows Orthodox tradition, with a tendency toward modern Orthodox. The synagogue holds weekday as well as Shabbat services and houses Ireland’s only mikve.
Two other houses of worship are the more traditional Orthodox Machzikei Hadass, at the rear of 77 Terenure Road North, and the liberal Dublin Jewish Progressive Congregation, at 7 Leicester Avenue in Rathgar.
For information on religious services, kashrut, accommodation suggestions, community events and other inquiries, consult the Web site of the Irish Jewish community (www.jewishireland.org).
Dublin is a walker’s paradise of Georgian architectural charm and leafy parks. It has great theater and a lively music scene, inviting shops and history that seeps from every corner. In the case of James Joyce and the Jewish protagonist who is indelibly linked with the city, literature literally bubbles up from the ground in the form of dozens of plaques embedded in the sidewalks, identifying scenes from Ulysses.
For the better part of a century, critics have debated why Joyce chose a Jewish hero. Some Joyce scholars have become near experts in halakha as they parse Leopold Bloom’s heritage: Though Bloom had a strong Jewish identity and was seen as a Jew by all around him, his Jewishness came only from his father’s side.
The fictional Leopold and Molly Bloom lived at 7 Eccles Street, north of the River Liffey. For many years, a plaque on the actual Georgian row house at that address identified the spot. The house was torn down a few years ago to make room for a hospital annex. But across the street at No. 78, another Georgian similar to old No. 7, bears a sign reading “Bloom House.”
A few blocks away, the James Joyce Centre occupies another restored Georgian house. The center (35 North Great Georges Street; 011-353-1-878-8547; www.james joyce.ie) has an extensive library and archive as well as exhibition space, a bookstore and café. It also conducts Joyce tours around Dublin. One tour, devoted to Ulysses, takes visitors along many of the streets Bloom traversed, pointing out episodes from the novel and the sidewalk markers that provide snippets of narrative. Among the stops are the site of the Freeman’s Journal on Abbey Street (the Journal was the newspaper for which Bloom worked as an ad canvasser and where the sight of a typesetter composing lines of copy backward reminded him of his father reading the Haggada) and Davy Byrnes’ Pub, at 2 Duke Street, where Bloom lunched on a gorgonzola cheese sandwich— which is still on the menu.
The Joyce tours take visitors through the center of Dublin, past many of the city’s most important landmarks, from O’Connell Street, scene of heavy fighting during the Easter Rebellion, to Grafton Street, the pedestrian shopping area, and past Trinity College. The Trinity College library (353-1-896-1661; www.tcd.ie/library) is best known for the Book of Kells, a 9th-century illuminated manuscript of the Gospels, and the Long Room, a striking chamber of floor-to-ceiling shelves holding 200,000 leather-bound books. The library collection includes a Scroll of Esther and a copy of the first Hebrew translation of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. It was Trinity that first introduced Hebrew studies in Ireland in 1591.
Mansion house is where the Irish Declaration of Independence was signed in 1919 and, two years later, the declaration of cessation of hostilities with Britain. A taupe-and-white stone building with an ornate wrought iron entry, it also has a place in Dublin’s Jewish history. As the residence of the city’s lord mayor, it was home to Robert and Ben Briscoe, both of whose portraits hang inside. The building is on Dawson Street, just off St. Stephen’s Green.
The National Gallery of Ireland (Merrion Square West; 353-1-661-5133; www.nationalgallery.ie ) is brimming with works on Hebrew Bible themes, a disproportionate number of which feature women. Among those to look for are three studies of the Queen of Sheba arriving in Solomon’s court, by Lavinia Fontana, Giovanni di Ser Giovanni and Leandro da Ponte Bassano. Others include Andrea Mantegna’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes, William de Poorter’sThe Robing of Esther, Govaert Flinck’s Bathsheba’s Appeal to David, Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini’s Bathsheba and Pellegrini’sSusanna and the Elders.
Other biblical scenes on exhibit are Guercino’s Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, Pieter Lastman’s Joseph Selling Corn in Egypt, Ludovico Mazzolino’s Crossing of the Red Sea, Ferdinand Bol’sDavid’s Dying Charge to Solomon and Orazio Gentileschi’s David and Goliath.
Little Jerusalem is less than a mile south of central Dublin. Though few Jews live there today, it looks largely unchanged from a century ago. Jews lived and worked on the streets and lanes off the South Circular Road and Clanbrassil in buildings that are mostly neat rows of two-story, red brick Victorians and one-story laborers’ cottages.
Though many from the neighborhood climbed the ladder of success, no one went further than the son of Isaac Herzog, who lived at 33 Bloomfield Avenue. Ireland’s first chief rabbi (and later chief rabbi of Israel), Herzog might have become the country’s best-known Jewish figure. But in 1985, as president of Israel, his son, Chaim Herzog, unveiled a memorial plaque on the façade of the red brick house in which he was raised.
Creativity collides with reality at 52 Upper Clanbrassil Street, a Victorian house with a gravel driveway and an iron fence. A plaque on the house reads, “Here, in Joyce’s imagination, was born in May 1866 Leopold Bloom, citizen, husband, father, wanderer….”
Two former synagogue buildings remain neighborhood landmarks. The Adelaide Road Synagogue (37 Adelaide Road) is a Moorish-Victorian structure with high arched windows and doorways. It functioned until 1999, when its remaining congregants moved to the Dublin Hebrew Congregation, and today the building is a business center. The former Greenville Hall shul at 228 South Circular Road is still regal with its Greekstyle columns and arched windows. It, too, is now an office building.
One culinary landmark that continues to operate in the neighborhood is the Bretzel Bakery (1A Lennox Street), which opened in 1870. Though no longer Jewish owned, it still sells many kosher products (the community Web site has details). It’s also worth entering just for the aroma.
The nerve center of the old neighborhood today is at 3 Walworth Road, where the Irish Jewish Museum is housed in a former synagogue (353-1-490-1857; www.jewishireland.org/museum.html). On the ground floor, a series of display cabinets tells the religious, social and cultural story of Irish Jewry using photos, documents and artifacts. The second floor is the virtually unchanged sanctuary of the former Great Synagogue, so called because it seated as many as 100. In the back of the sanctuary are displays of Torahs and Torah covers, mezuzot and holiday items, including a mahzordecorated with a shamrock. Still used for simhas, the sanctuary has a low ceiling with hanging brass lamps, wooden pews and an old wooden organ for weddings.
The mythical Brigadoon-a village that reappears for one day every 100 years—is in Scotland, but Cork is something of an Irish-Jewish version of the same legend. Once home to a community of 400, Cork’s Jewish population has dwindled to five. But at least three times a year, for Passover, the High Holidays and Hanukka, Jews seem to appear from the mist. The synagogue fills with as many as 100 people speaking English and singing Hebrew melodies in a dozen accents.
Freddie Rosehill, an energetic man in his eighties who has led the community for decades, says that in the counties surrounding Cork there may be as many as 100 Jews, mostly expatriates; add to those the casual travelers and he says he gets a fairly constant stream of calls from people needing a Jewish connection. “There was a man from Wisconsin who called me from Shannon some years ago,” Rosehill recalls. “He needed a place to say Kaddish. He died shortly after his visit and every year his widow sends us a check; she said he never forgot the hospitality he received in Cork.”
Cork’s synagogue, located at 10 South Terrace, was built in 1896. It is a lavender stone structure with three arched doorways. The sanctuary has a central wooden bima, wraparound women’s gallery and a skylight. There is one scheduled Shabbat service per month. To arrange a visit, call Rosehill at 353-87-234-1274.
Cork’s Jewish immigrant families clustered in the Hibernian Buildings, a squat row of brick dwellings with sloped roofs and fat chimneys along Albert Road, south of the town center. Though the last Jewish family moved out over 30 years ago, the city honored the street’s Jewish history when it dedicated Shalom Park, directly in front of the Hibernian Buildings, in 1989.
Cork’s favorite Jewish son was Gerald Goldberg, who served as mayor in the 1980’s. In a linguistic honor, residents dubbed a footbridge over the River Lee, completed during his term, the Passover Bridge.
Cork is an excellent base for touring Ireland’s ruggedly beautiful south and west coasts. Don’t miss the pretty fishing town of Kinsale or Clonakwilty, Irish patriot Michael Collins’s hometown. For a good Irish pub experience on the edge of Cork (and five minutes from the Blarney Stone), stop at Blair’s Inn on R579 (www.blairsinn.ie). The smoked salmon is out of this world.
In addition to the Jewish mayors of Dublin, Ireland also had a president of Jewish descent, Erskine Childers, one of whose ancestors was a 16th-century Sefardic refugee. Actor Daniel Day-Lewis is the son of an Irish-poet father and an English Jewish mother; though born and raised in London, he became an Irish citizen in 1993. American actor Ben Stiller is the son of comedians Anne Meara, an Irish-American convert, and Jerry Stiller.
A good book to pack is Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce(Princeton University Press), a socioeconomic history of the community during its peak years, by Cormac Ó Gráda.
Don’t leave Dublin without exploring its theater and music scene. One very lively place to hear Irish music in Dublin’s trendy Temple Bar section is Oliver St. John Gogerty’s.
For more information on travel to Ireland, contact the national tourist authority (www.discoverireland.ie).
Even short-term visitors typically rave about Ireland. And those who stay longer? Stick around for more than a week and you may come home referring to yourself as an Irish Jew.