President was past resident

Thu, Aug 19, 2010, 01:00

A former president of Israel grew up in Paul Gillespieand Deirdre McQuillan’s home on Bloomfield Avenue in Dublin and the house has had no shortage of other important visitors

‘I CONGRATULATE you on your new acquisition,” wrote a former occupant of our house in Bloomfield Avenue, shortly after we moved here in December 1995. The writer was Chaim Herzog, former president of Israel, who grew up here when it was the residence of his father, the first Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Dr Isaac Herzog, a fluent Irish speaker and lifelong friend of Eamon de Valera.

In the early years of the last century, this area around Dublin’s South Circular Road was popularly known as “Little Jerusalem” because of its small but thriving Jewish population. Chaim Herzog felt that his mother and father were like parents to this close-knit community, “when a Jew whatever their faith took the problem to 33 Bloomfield Avenue”. On one occasion a man brought along a hen for inspection in a dispute. Herzog’s successor was another eminent Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits, who later became Chief Rabbi in the UK and was knighted by Margaret Thatcher. Both are commemorated by plaques on the front of the building.

Its Jewish connections, however, are only part of the chequered history of this Victorian house and the area around it. Maps from 1837, 1847 and 1864 dramatically illustrate the extensive development that took place during this time. In 1846-7 the first deeds of the house record the sale of St Sepulchre’s farm lands between Clanbrassil Street and Bloomfield Avenue by Edward Lewis and others to John Ross, a merchant of Richmond Street.

In 1847, Bloomfield House and avenue were part of lands that extended to Portobello Harbour. The Royal Portobello Gardens, “Ireland’s first zoological garden”, opened there in 1839 with ponds and fountains and featuring bands, acrobats, fireworks and all kinds of entertainments including, apparently, a troupe of performing dogs. The famous tightrope walker Charles Blondin made a celebrated appearance a year after he crossed Niagara Falls.

By 1864 all changed after Richard Hill Ross, John’s son, sold the lands for development to William Sheppy Lunn of Bloomfield Avenue, who had been farming them, on condition that he build two houses “in good substantial and workmanlike manner, of the best materials” with the outlay of at least £1,000 between Lunn in 33 and Arthur Parnell in 32, in keeping with a few already constructed on the avenue by Thomas Pearson, a local landowner.

BUILT IN 1862-3 ALONG with its mirror image at 32, its generous proportions, ornate period features and sweeping wrought iron staircase lend it an air of a much bigger house. The 1864 map shows Bloomfield and Longwood avenues lined with new houses and the pleasure gardens gone. Houses in this area of Dublin were usually built in groups of two, the style often influenced by Georgian buildings, in an architectural tradition that lasted longer in Dublin than elsewhere.

In 1880 four houses in Bloomfield Avenue could be bought for £375 each; an Irish Times advertisement from 1886 stated that they are “let to respectable tenants and produce £74 a year for two”. In Victorian times ownership and occupation did not coincide as now, and renting was normal.

Thom’s Directory and the census tell us who resided in the house. Richard Stone Haughton lived here in the 1860s, succeeded in the 1870s and 1880s by William Lunn, and in the 1890s by Richard Kingston, who bought it from Lunn in 1883 for £600. According to the 1901 census, William Lang, a clerk, and his wife Anne, both members of the Church of Ireland, lived there with their son and daughter and a servant, having bought it from Kingston that year. Five years later the house was sold to a bookkeeper called Swaine and his family, who were Roman Catholics.

In 1918 Mary Swaine sold it to Isaac Taylor, a Jewish marine merchant who let and later sold it to the Jewish Rabbinate Committee as the residence of the Chief Rabbi of Ireland. By the late 1920s, a number of Jewish families lived on the avenue and a Jewish school was built there in 1932-34.

IN EARLIER DECADES Bloomfield Avenue had been too expensive for the recently arrived immigrants, mainly from northwest Lithuania, who clustered in the smaller houses in surrounding streets. Their history is told most attractively by the Jewish museum in Walworth Road near us, in several evocative memoirs and recounted in analytical detail by Cormac Ó Gráda in his book on Jewish Ireland.

When Rabbi Isaac Herzog, his wife Sarah and two young sons Chaim and Jacob moved into the house in 1922, the Jewish community in Dublin, numbering around 2,500, was a full generation into its new life in Ireland. Their dynamism, social mobility and ability to participate in Irish society brought an unusual multiculturalism to the new State.

This was reflected in Herzog’s community leadership and contribution to Irish life. A renowned Talmudic and legal scholar, he was good friends with Cardinal Joseph MacRory, who chided him at a State banquet for eating only fruit and not the excellent ham on offer. “Let us discuss this at your wedding,” Herzog replied.

His passionate Zionism fully sympathised with Irish nationalism as seen in his close friendship with Eamon de Valera, who was a regular visitor to the house and is rumoured to have hidden in the rabbi’s previous home on the South Circular Road during the War of Independence. They shared an interest in mathematics and languages and their close friendship continued after Herzog moved to Palestine to become chief rabbi in 1937. During the 1940s the house was occupied by Rabbi David Freilich before it became the residence of Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits and his French wife Amelie whose children were born here. Amelie later recalled that “our beloved 33” was a lively sociable household.

FROM 1959 ON ITS fortunes changed. The house was sold to buy a new chief rabbi’s residence in Dartry, coinciding with the dwindling of the Jewish community in the area as they moved south or emigrated. No 33 became an investment property divided up into many units, a situation which was to last for nearly 25 years. From 1976, 45 “single ladies and single gentlemen” occupied the building. A local remembers one breeding cocker spaniels in the back garden.

We bought the house from the photographer Tony Higgins who had purchased it in 1984 in a dilapidated condition divided in rudimentary fashion into bedsits. Higgins carried out a major restoration of the house and gardens in time for the historic visit of then president Herzog to Ireland a year later. He remembers Israeli security men with Uzi sub machine guns on the landing of the house all night before the day of the visit and the delight of the president on seeing his old home again. In his letter to us years later, Herzog said he was planning “to bring some of the children . . . to show them the house”. Sadly, he never made it and died a year later aged 78.

As the present occupants, we’re used to curious Jewish tourists from all over the world knocking on the door, in search of the Jewish museum or reconnecting with their Dublin ancestry – including a surprise visit from Rabbi Jakobovits’s brother Solomon and his wife Wilma from Toronto. Isaac Herzog, Chaim’s son, now welfare minister in the Israeli government, has been here too.

Today the hornbeam-lined avenue bounded at one end by a converted 19th century Church of Ireland church and on the other by Locks Restaurant (due to reopen in October) retains a mix of owner-occupied houses and those in bedsits, echoing the whole area’s class and cultural mix. New immigrants from the Middle East and north Africa echo their Jewish predecessors.

A few years ago, the house and other Jewish sites in Dublin were daubed with swastikas, a shocking incident that turned out to be the work of a disturbed individual rather than an organised campaign.

Not so long ago the whole street was blocked off by police and Special Branch to await the Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit of the army when a hand grenade was found in the back garden during renovations. It turned out to be an empty shell. But that’s another story.

Series concluded