An Irishman's Diary

Sat, Feb 2, 2013, 00:00

I haven’t been in “outlying Kerry” – as the Jerusalem Post columnist called it – recently, so I can’t comment on whether it’s the hotbed of anti-Jewish feeling that her reported experience implies.

But while she was mentioning Daniel O’Connell, Cahirsiveen’s most famous son, Sarah Honig might at least have given the town some credit for his actively pro-Jewish stance during the early 1800s.

Not only did he campaign for Catholic emancipation in the UK, he campaigned for Jews to get the vote too. He was also instrumental in the formal repeal of an old British law, obsolete but still on the books, that prescribed the clothes they should wear in public.

Furthermore, he liked on occasion to boast of his native Ireland’s enlightenment on the Jewish question: writing once, with obvious pride, that it was “the only country I know of unsullied by any one act of persecution of the Jews”.

Yes, it’s true that this boast would in time be satirically subverted, not in a Gaelscoil in Cahersiveen, but in another, more famous educational establishment: the school Stephen Dedalus taught at in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

There, the headmaster Mr Deasy cites Ireland’s supposed record of never persecuting the Jews and asks Dedalus if he knows why. “Why, sir?” asks Stephen. “Because she never let them in,” replies Deasy, before collapsing into “a coughball of laughter . . . dragging after it a rattling chain of phlegm”.

But like the claim that provoked it, Mr Deasy’s riposte was probably an overstatement of Ireland’s relationship with the Jewish people. And the point stands that, through O’Connell at least, Cahersiveen is on the side of the angels.

Speaking of overstatements, I can’t let the Jerusalem Post away with describing Éamon De Valera’s notorious visit to the German embassy after Hitler’s death as a “pilgrimage”. Even allowing licence for sarcasm, that’s a bit over the top.

It was certainly a stupid thing for the then taoiseach to do. Observing the diplomatic niceties of a neutral country to the letter, which was his supposed intention, could have been better achieved by emulating the equally-neutral but shrewder Swiss and ignoring the Führer’s demise on the grounds that they hadn’t been formally notified of it.

But I note that the Jerusalem Post column – in the course of despairing at attitudes in Cahersiveen – complains that students there saw the Arab-Israeli conflict as “black and white, with no grays”. Which reminds me of a Gray I was writing about here only last month: David Gray, the war-time US ambassador to Ireland.

As his very belatedly published memoir of that period illustrates, Gray was no apologist for De Valera. Indeed, in the verdict of one critic – breezily quoted on the book’s cover – he was, in general, “an ineffably ill-informed Hibernophobe”.

Nevertheless, in a letter to the White House early in the war, he was moved to reassure President Roosevelt about where the taoiseach’s fundamental sympathies lay. As an example, he mentioned Dev’s concern for a newly-arrived emigré in Dublin: “a German (Jew) . . . Professor Schrödinger”. Speaking about whom, the taoiseach had left Gray in no doubt about his anti-Nazi credentials.

The ambassador’s account of the matter is undermined slightly, in retrospect, by the fact that Schrödinger was not Jewish. He was a Christian-born atheist, in fact: one of the many things about which Gray was uninformed.

But the example is still useful, both as an insight into De Valera’s mind and for the lesson it teaches us that, if even well-educated diplomats called Gray can sometimes oversimplify the facts of international conflict, we should maybe cut some slack to secondary school students in Cahirsiveen.

Finally, and getting back to Ulysses, today is of course James Joyce’s birthday. So it might be worth reminding people, especially any Jerusalem Post readers out there, that the hero of that book is an Irish Jew. And I know Leopold Bloom is only a fictional character. I know too that, among the things for which Ulysses is world-famous is that not many people actually read it. Even so, it remains the case that the hero of what many critics think is this country’s greatest literary masterpiece is Jewish. So with respect to the Jerusalem Post, I suggest that a generalisation about Ireland’s attitudes on this subject could be based at least as securely on James Joyce’s novel as on the slim shoulders of a bunch of Kerry teenagers.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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