Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Embracing the multiculturalism of Manchester

‘Working in a Jewish area has highlighted how monocultural my hometown of Offaly is’

Photograph: Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Wed, Apr 9, 2014, 06:00


Declan McSweeney

For many Irish emigrants, moving abroad affords the opportunity to learn about other cultures in a way which would not happen in their native land, which, outside Dublin, remains extremely monocultural.

I work in a predominantly Jewish area of greater Manchester. Kosher food stores and Hebrew signs are accompanied by the distinctive clothing of the Charedim (followers of a very orthodox wing of Judaism) and the area is home to a yeshiva (training school for rabbis).

From an hour before sunset on Friday to an hour after sunset on Saturday, the area becomes extremely quiet for the Sabbath, with all Jewish-owned businesses closing. Jewish schools close early on Friday but open on Sunday instead. There is a wonderful sense of stillness about the area, with very few cars passing through. I have got used to the taste of kosher food in the local cafe, and to the sight of the mezuzahs (scroll containing verses from the Torah) on the doors of houses.

With about 30,000 Jews in greater Manchester, the community is the UK’s largest outside London. Its growth, like that of British Jewry as a whole, is mainly accounted for by the rising numbers of Charedim, though there are, of course, also many less Orthodox Jews. Despite the Charedim’s reputation for being close-knit, I can testify to a warm welcome from staff in the local shops and cafes.

Despite the concentration of Charedim in the neighbourhood, it is far from a ghetto. It is not uncommon to see Muslim women in hijabs passing through, and there are shops run by Africans (who also stock kosher food alongside yam and plantain) and Asians. Both Jewish and Muslim children play alongside one another in the local park.

Irish newspapers can be bought locally, and within a short walk, Catholic and Anglican churches can be found. The local Tesco has a large section for Irish food, along with its kosher, halal and east European sections. Next door to a local kosher supermarket is a house occupied by a group of Catholic priests from the Spiritan congregation, from Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania.

Of course, the community is not always harmonious. Security men are often on duty at the local synagogue, and Jews are at the receiving end of a disproportionately large number of hate crimes investigated by Greater Manchester Police. Violence tends to rise at times of tensions in the Middle East, with some failing to grasp that British Jews are not responsible for the actions of the Israeli authorities. Yet, important work is being done to build links between different faith groups, by organisations such as the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester and Muslims Against Anti-Semitism.

I have been surprised sometimes to discover the extent of knowledge of Ireland among the local community. Recently, an elderly Jewish man with whom I was eating lunch told me of prominent members of the local congregations who are originally from Dublin and Cork. He was also aware that Minister for Justice Alan Shatter is of the Jewish faith. Many members of the declining Jewish community of Belfast moved to greater Manchester, and the remaining Belfast Jews get their kosher food from there.

For someone like myself, coming from Offaly where Jews are largely unknown, working in a Jewish area has been an extremely positive and enriching experience.

This article forms part of a series on Irish emigrants in Britain on the Generation Emigration blog this week to coincide with the President’s historic State visit. For full coverage of the events, including live blogs by our correspondents in London, galleries, live videos and more, see The Irish Times State Visit subsite.