Join the Armenians, see the world
An Irishman’s Diary about oppressed minorities
A 14th-century Armenian gospel with jewelled binding in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. “In the production and reproduction of holy books, the medieval monks of Armenia far outdid their vaunted Irish counterparts. And a byproduct of this is that, today, there may be as many Armenian books in Dublin as actual Armenians.” Photograph: Paddy Whelan
My mention of the Loyal League of Yiddish Sons of Erin last week (June 6th) provoked an email from, of all places, Hawaii. Patrick Fitzgerald Donovan was drawing attention to the existence of an even more select group of exiles. In poker terms, he was seeing my LLYSE and raising me IASZ – the Irish Armenian Sons of Zion.
The group was formed, Patrick says, back in the early 1970s, in Bennington, Vermont. He and the other founders, Eliot Cohen and Charles Bergamian, were relaxing “with a few beers”. Then, as often happens with beer, they decided to form a representative organisation to embrace their collective ethnicities.
They considered several names, including “Irish Jews in Search of Armenia”, before settling on the IASZ. And although the group remains a small one, it’s still going, unlike the LLYSE. “We have been in existence now for over 40 years”, writes Patrick, “and have a number of younger members ready to carry on into the next 40”.
It’s not clear (and it seemed indelicate to ask) whether any of the younger members are the result of interbreeding between two or more of the diasporas involved. By the law of averages, I suppose, there must be a few genetically Irish-Armenian Jews somewhere. And if there are, they must feel uniquely oppressed.
On top of their history of invasion and dispossession, the Armenians have the added affliction that the world has largely forgotten what happened to them, even though the worst of it is still less than a century old.
What is now known as the “Armenian Genocide” of 1915 was called something else then, because the word genocide was not coined until 1944. But that another genocide had happened by 1944 was in part a consequence of international indifference to the earlier one.
Here is Hitler briefing his generals in 1939 about the need to obliterate Poland, and explaining why they’ll get away with it: “Only in this way will we win the lebensraum that we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
The email from Hawaii reminded me that we live on a small planet. I read it while strolling through central Dublin in the footsteps (probably) of that celebrated Irish Jew, Leopold Bloom. And it persuaded me to make a short detour, via Dublin Castle, for an overdue visit to that wonderful museum, the Chester Beatty Library of Oriental Art.
Among the treasures there, I knew, were more than 100 Armenian books and manuscripts of varying antiquity, part of a tradition for which that country was long famous.
Indeed, in the production and reproduction of holy books, the medieval monks of Armenia far outdid their vaunted Irish counterparts. And a byproduct of this is that, today, there may be as many Armenian books in Dublin as actual Armenians.
Not that I saw the books this time, to be honest. They’re mostly in storage, and I was in a hurry. So I confined myself to the museum’s suitably exotic Silk Road cafe, where I toasted the IASZ with coffee and a date biscuit. I think that qualifies me for honorary membership.
Speaking of honorary membership, and closer to home, I’ve also been hearing from Mark Minihan in Co Wexford, whose late father Andy once enjoyed such status with the LLYSE. Andy Minihan is now perhaps best remembered as the council chairman – or “Mister Mayor” – who in 1963 welcomed JFK to New Ross, and whose irreverent wit caused much laughter from the visitor. In the years following, he was invited to lead St Patrick’s Day parades with the mayors of New York, Chicago, and Jersey City. And it was while in NY that he was elected an honorary member of the LLYSE. In typical fashion, he accepted on condition that they didn’t expect him to have the “operation”.
The Dublin-born league chairman Mike Mann, a New York union boss, subsequently raised money for the JFK Arboretum in New Ross and travelled over for the opening with fellow union leader Harry Van Arsdale, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
With such powerful allies, Mark Minihan and a friend of his were not stuck for jobs when they went to the US on J1 visas the following summer. Sure enough, Mark got work with an electrical contractor in the New York Times offices.
His friend’s fortunes, meanwhile, were even more dramatic. He rose rapidly in the Big Apple. Then he went down, just as fast. Then up again. And so on all summer. You guessed it. He was a lift operator in the Empire State Building.