Irish-Jewish community has evolved to be part of the social fabric
Opinion: First Jewish settlers arrived during the reign of William the Conqueror
Adelaide Road synagogue in Dublin. Photograph: Paddy Whelan
Jews arrived in Ireland during the reign of William the Conqueror. Henry III made his viceroy the custodian of Jews in Ireland; his successor, Edward I, rescinded this protection, banishing the Jews from his kingdom in 1290.
Two centuries later, the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition. Some sought shelter in Britain and Ireland, embracing Christianity while maintaining aspects of Sephardic Jewish culture.
Oliver Cromwell officially readmitted Jews into the Commonwealth. Sephardic Jews engaged in trade between London and Dublin founded the first documented synagogue in Dublin in 1663: a room in an undistinguished building on Crane Lane (near modern-day Temple Bar). This initiative was taken by two members of the extended Pereira merchant family.
During the Jacobite rebellion, the forces of William of Orange received their bread from Isaac Pereira, a contractor to the military. A party of Dutch Jewish bakers was unwillingly domiciled in Meath, witnessing the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
By the mid-18th century, the Dublin Jewish community was immersed in the commercial life of the city, and had abandoned Crane Lane. It worshipped in temporary locations around the north inner city. However, the Irish Naturalisation Act of 1783 excluded Jews, and this Act was not repealed until 1816. Intermarriage, religious conversion and emigration undermined the community.
Eventually a small influx of Ashkenazi Jewish merchants came to Dublin from Russia and Germany. They quickly became integrated into middle-class society, and developed a communal infrastructure. A deconsecrated Presbyterian church at Mary’s Abbey was purchased in 1835, providing a permanent space for their synagogue. Dublin’s Jews now numbered approximately 300, and smaller communities thrived in Belfast, Cork, Limerick and other towns.
Elsewhere, Tsar Alexander III’s discriminatory May Laws of 1882 ensured that Jews became the outsiders in Russian society. Most left the shtetls where they had lived for generations. In 1890, the Irish-Jewish community was swollen by 700 Lithuanians.
The last Sabbath service was conducted at Mary’s Abbey on December 5th, 1892; the following Saturday, Jews and Christians attended the dedication of an ornate purpose-built synagogue at Adelaide Road (destined to remain open until 2000). Numbers rose: in 1901, there were 2,015 Jews in Dublin; 10 years later, it was 2,899.
The newcomers gravitated towards the South Circular Road. New synagogues proliferated and kosher shops serviced the community, especially on Clanbrassil Street. During the first World War, Jews were among those who served in the British army, while their wives and daughters fundraised for the troops.
Following the Easter Rising and the Civil War, during which members of the Jewish community fought on both sides, Jews acquired Irish citizenship when the Free State was proclaimed in 1922.
Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog consolidated the Irish identity of his community by severing formal links with umbrella religious institutions in the UK. However, he and others failed to influence Dáil Éireann during the 1930s, when violence against Jews during the Third Reich created the need for refuge. Ireland was closed to Jewish immigrants from 1938 until after the end of the second World War. Throughout those years, Irish Jewish men and women joined the British armed forces.
Magnet of Israel
The postwar recession, coupled with anti-Semitism at government level, prompted Irish Jews to re-evaluate their position. Thus began a trend of Jewish emigration from Ireland, mainly to England and the USA. When Israel was declared an independent state in 1948, Irish Jews went there. By then, the Dublin community had deserted South Circular Road for the suburbs.
The Irish Jewish community reached its peak at just short of 5,000 in the mid-20th century; fewer than half remain. Recent demographic changes have seen Jews settling beyond the traditional environs of south Dublin, and the profile of the community has become more cosmopolitan. Jews have involved themselves across the social, artistic, professional and political spectrum.
With its discrete culture and complex identity, the Jewish community has traced a faint but colourful counterpoint within mainstream Irish society for nearly 1,000 years.
Dr Melanie Brown is a local centre examiner at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and a member of the Dublin City Interfaith Forum