The existence of an organisation called the Loyal League of Yiddish Sons of Erin had somehow passed me by until this week. But as I now know, such a phenomenon did once, and for a time, add to the gaiety of Hiberno-Jewish relations.
It began, apparently, as a joke. The year was 1963, and a New York restaurant called Moskowitz and Lupowitz was trying to attract more business. As a promotional jape, rather than an appeal to a known demographic, it took out a newspaper ad for a meeting of Irish Jews.
This was a supposed contradiction of terms. But two of the greatest diasporas in America had between them managed to create a viable sub-group – the offspring, mainly, of that wave of Lithuanian Jews who had first settled in Dublin about 1890 and later re-emigrated to the US.
So a crowd turned up for the Moskowitz and Lupowitz meeting, and one thing led to another. Soon, the Loyal League of YSE was hosting an annual banquet in joint celebration of St Patrick’s Day and the Jewish festival of Purim (they fall around the same time), with guests eating green matzo balls and kosher corned beef, and electing their “Colleen Queen” for the year – a sort-of Yiddish Rose of Tralee. The gala was a hot ticket during the 1960s and 1970s. Equally popular were the league’s summer picnics in the Catskill Mountains, from which the smell of “kippers and onions” is said to have radiated for miles. Such get-togethers were “a hoot”, according to one woman who attended. Interviewed on NPR Radio last year, she reminisced: “There’s nothing quite like listening to Yiddish spoken in a brogue.”
Sad to say, the glory that was the LLYSE petered out eventually, becoming extinct long before its 50th anniversary. I only found out about the group thanks to an email from Dublin-born but New York-resident student Olivia Barry, who has included it in a rather charming college project.
Olivia is working towards a Masters in Branding at the NY School of Visual Arts. As part of which, she was tasked with completing a project on any theme of her choice, except that it had to be spread over 100 days.
The result is "Céad Léiriú", which sounds very like the thing that happened in London's Royal Albert Hall back in April. But in this case, the reference is to the "100 Manifestations" of Irishness in New York that Olivia has committed herself to identify, photograph, and reflect upon, at a rate of one a day.
The Yiddish Sons made it in on Day 46, by a circuitous route. Eaten green matzo balls are soon forgotten, so the league had to be represented by the American Federation of Labour & Congress of Industrial Organisations headquarters, on Broadway, an organisation once headed by the Dublin-born and Jewish Michael Mann, who also chaired LLYSE meetings there.
Olivia’s project is currently at Day 59 and, needless to say, she’s in no danger of running out of material. But as well as New York’s many obvious Irish institutions, like the Famine monument and PJ Clarke’s bar, the project features some much less well-known, including a playground commemorating the Irish-American sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
Dublin-born (one of the Saint-Gaudens of Charlemont Street – you must remember them) of a French father and Irish mother, he became a New Yorker as a baby. Even so, his old city didn’t forget him, nor he it. His last publicly commissioned work, erected in 1911, was the statue of Parnell on O’Connell Street.
The Céad Léiriú project (ceadleiriu.tumblr.com) has a personal angle, as its creator explains, in that the 100 manifestations are also supposed to "build a story around my identity". Hence the inclusion (Day 53) of Dalkey-born Carmel Snow, who, as editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar, was a very influential figure in mid-20th century New York fashion circles. She was also, crucially, Olivia's "cousin-in-law's grandmother".
The talent of being related to everyone is itself, of course, a classic manifestation of Irishness. And there’s a more poignant example in another of the project’s exhibits, via a photo of what remains of New York’s Pier 54, from which many great liners sailed.
The memory of one famous ship that left there provokes another piece of Barry family lore, from 1915. Olivia notes that, one day in May of that year, a great-great-uncle of hers was working in fields near Kinsale, when he looked out to sea and saw an ocean liner. As she adds: "It was the Lusitania, and it was sinking".