The first ever mention of Jews in the Irish historical record was in the medieval Annals of Innisfallen. In an entry for 1079 (but probably written down much later), it is recorded that “Five Jews came from over sea with gifts” for the medieval King Tairdelbach “and they were sent back again over sea”.
In this one short sentence, there seems to be an ominous prediction of the intolerance Jews would face in later Irish history. Yet there is also a subtle paradox at work; if we are to believe the Annals, no one in Ireland had ever seen a Jewish person before, and yet the Irish annalists clearly had some knowledge of Jews. The medieval Irish who gave such short shrift to these Jewish guests “knew” some things about Jews, or more accurately they think they knew some things about Jews: they “know” that Jews are not trustworthy, that Jews bearing gifts are not to be taken into one’s care. And Jews are not suitable for residence in Ireland – they should be expelled from the country.
It is quite telling that the medieval chroniclers of the Annals of Inisfallen did not feel the need to explain any of this: a contemporary reader would presumably have readily agreed with the implicit assumptions here about Jewish perfidy and untrustworthiness.
In this one short sentence, there are two quite different histories at work. First, there is a conventional social history: five Jews, presumably seeking a better life, arrived in Ireland hoping to find refuge there. This was refused to them and they were promptly expelled from the country. And second, there is a kind of cultural history, or what is sometimes called The History of Ideas. In this case, ideas about Jews and Jewishness. Irish Questions and Jewish Questions is a collection of essays that explores both of these divergent strands of Irish Jewish history.
At its demographic height, at the very end of the Emergency, the Irish Jewish community numbered about 4,000 in total; one tenth of 1 per cent of the total population of Ireland (north and south). Hardly a major aggregate. And yet, at that time, Jews were the only sector of the populace whose origins lay outside of Britain and Ireland and the community had long been a noticeable presence in Dublin. In 1908, for instance, the charter meeting of a Judæo-Irish Home Rule Association at the Mansion was the cause of noticeable controversy in Ireland and within the British Jewish community; should Irish Jews remain a loyal subset of their co-religionists on the other side of the Irish Sea or should they throw their lot in with nationalists on this side?
A desire to prove their nationalist bona fides and thus to prove that they are “real” Irish would endure within the Irish Jewish community. And the community’s official narratives have often downplayed the existence of anti-Semitism among Irish gentiles.
Likewise, the prevalence of anti-Judaism in 20th-century Ireland has been somewhat de-emphasised in written histories of the Jews of Ireland. None of which is really in line with the historic record.
Some of the most central figures of 20th-century Irish life have been overt anti-Semites; DP Moran, John Charles McQuaid, Arthur Griffith, Oliver St John Gogarty, Oliver Flanagan, the prominent Jesuit priest Richard Devane, his clerical colleague Denis Fahey of the Holy Ghost Fathers. Anti-Semitic rhetoric and imagery regularly surfaced in the nationalist press before and after 1922. The IRA-backed campaign against usury in the late 1920s targeted Jewish moneylenders far more than their gentile counterparts. Jewish industrialists who fled the Nazis and established factories in the west of Ireland in the 1930s and ’40s often had to negotiate a matrix of stereotypes and negative perceptions. The sizeable numbers of Irish men who served in the Palestine Police in the same period regularly interpreted what they saw in Jaffa, Jerusalem or Bethlehem in terms of the anti-Jewish animosities traditional to Catholicism.
“Irish-Jewish History” is the history of the actual social lives of actual flesh-and-blood Jews in Ireland. But it also names another history: ideas of Jewishness in Ireland. This is partly a history of this kind of anti-Semitism, but something else also; the history of the idea that the Jews and the Irish share something in common. Some of the weirder race-obsessed fringes of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, for example, convinced themselves that the Irish were a lost tribe of Israel and attempted to excavate at Royal Tara in 1902, with hopes of finding the Ark of the Covenant there. This caused well-publicised and well-attended protests; WB Yeats, Douglas Hyde, George Moore and Arthur Griffith were all present. They were all aghast at this attempted desecration of a site of nationalist memory. Griffith was probably also aghast at the suggested comparison.
Around the same time as this insensitive archaeological dig, George Bernard Shaw threw himself into the published works of Max Nordau, a Zionist ideologue and best-selling (if highly pessimistic) writer of popular philosophy. Bernard Shaw used his reading of Nordau to imagine strong parallels between the Irish and Jewish experiences. And in more maudlin terms, Francis Sheehy Skeffington, describing the 1906 funeral of Michael Davitt, noticed the Jewish attendees – they were grateful for Davitt’s several interventions into Jewish causes and were, apparently, “the one race which has suffered more than the Irish”. The comparable patterns of Irish and Jewish assimilation in America and the similar motivations behind the revivals of Hebrew and Irish suggest that – his mawkish language aside – Sheehy Skeffington was right to identify such parallels.
Irish Questions and Jewish Questions is a study of the Jews of Ireland, of their social history in Ireland. The book also unpacks the idea of an Irish-Jewish parallel and the motivations of those who wanted to collapse together Irish identity and Jewish identity, as well as those other people who recoiled in horror from any suggestion that the Jews and the Irish might share anything in common.
Aidan Beatty works at the Honors College of the University of Pittsburgh. Dan O'Brien is an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at University College Dublin. Irish Questions and Jewish Questions: Crossovers in Culture is out now with Syracuse University Press. It will be formally launched by Prof Mary McAuliffe at the Irish Jewish Museum, Portobello, Dublin, at 7pm, on Thursday, October 25th