An Irishman's Diary

 

ON A good night, Dublin City Council might expect a crowd of 60 or 70 on one of its historical walking tours. On a bad night, maybe 40. But when Pat Liddy led a walk through the city's old Jewish quarter on Tuesday evening, well over 200 people defied damp conditions to join in, almost overwhelming the organisers, writes Frank McNally.

Supplies of luminous yellow bibs ran out early. The accompanying Civil Defence volunteers were stretched. And the scheduled stop for a talk by the curator of the Jewish Museum in Portobello turned into two stops and two talks, with the old building unable to house the attendance in one go.

The former synagogue has not been used to overcrowding of late. During the second of Raphael Siev's briefings, a bucket on the seat beside me collected drips from the ceiling: evidence not only of the foul weather earlier in the day, but also of the Irish Jewish community's greatly reduced circumstances these days. The bucket seat apart, however, the prayer room was filled to capacity, as it had been for the earlier session.

There are fewer than 2,000 Jews in Ireland now, mostly indistinguishable from the general population. It used to be rather different. His yarmulke and ringlets distinguishing him - and seeming slightly at odds with a Dublin accent - Siev painted a vivid picture of the community at its height, barely a century ago, when the streets around the museum were densely populated with Jewish families, in some cases two to a house.

Even then, they numbered only 5,000. But they were heavily concentrated in and around Portobello; and the Star of David decorated so many businesses in nearby Clanbrassil Street that the area became known as "Little Jerusalem".

Most had fled persecution in Eastern Europe during the late 1800s and early 1900s, bound - as they believed - for the US and Canada. In fact, many thought they had reached America when their ships offloaded them in Britain and Ireland. By the time the truth dawned, it was too late.

The Dublin arrivals took another boat trip - up the canal by barge to Portobello - and a colourful chapter in the city's history began.

When they or their descendants emigrated again, from the 1950s onwards, the numbers went into a decline from which they have not recovered. Emigration was a general trend in Ireland then, of course. The difference is that the good times of recent decades have not brought the Irish Jews back.

In a twist of fate, their old neighbourhood is now next door to a new and burgeoning Islamic quarter, with halal food stores taking over where once there was kosher. But in its prime, the Jewish community made a mark on almost every area of Irish life.

Even at its lowest point, in the early 1990s, it could claim the distinction of having three TDs - Fianna Fáil's Ben Briscoe, Fine Gael's Alan Shatter, and Labour's Mervyn Taylor - an extraordinary level of representation from a community so tiny.

The secondary diaspora — Jewish families who passed through Ireland en route to somewhere else — has at least bequeathed some nice stories. Siev recalled a rare wedding held in the museum's prayer room last year, involving the American son of a man who fled the Nazis, via Dublin, just before the war. It was the family's way of saying thanks to the country that had saved it. And the feel-good theme continued in a short film shown in the council offices in Tailors Lane at the end of the tour.

Blind Eye, produced by Mary Rose Dooley and starring Ardal O'Hanlon, tells the true story of Sabina Wisniack, who faced deportation back to

Germany in 1939 until a government functionary wrestled with his conscience and won. But there were also ghosts at Tuesday night's feast (there was a real feast, by the way, with a kosher buffet laid on for walkers) and they featured in the panel discussion that followed the film.

The inconvenient truth is that Ireland refused numerous visa applications from European Jews in the 1930s, something

for which John Bruton, when Taoiseach, apologised. As Alan Shatter told the assembly in Tailors Lane, official Ireland's stance before the war was heavily influenced by De Valera's envoy in Berlin, Charles Bewley, a notorious anti-Semite who was eventually recalled in disgrace, but not until 1939.

Had attitudes been different, many more would have survived the death camps, and the Irish Jewish community might be much larger today. Applauding the film, another panellist - Katrina Goldstone - nevertheless noted that the "blind eye" of its title had worked in more ways than one.

The experience of those who did make it here was mostly positive. There was relatively little discrimination. As Joe Briscoe, brother of Ben and son of a former Dublin lord mayor, Robert, told the gathering, Ireland is "the only country in Europe where not one Jewish person has been killed because of his religion".

Unfortunately, this had echoes of the passage in Ulysses where the schoolmaster Mr Deasy asked Stephen Dedalus if he knew that Ireland is the only country never to persecute Jews: "And do you know why? - Because she never let them in."

Deasy's claim was not quite true when Joyce wrote it, nor even perhaps in the year Ulysses was set: 1904. But the comment was accidentally prescient, and it became true when it mattered most.