Lapsed Irish Catholics ‘most sympathetic’ to Jews, says author

Joyce, Binchy and O’Brien show ‘a link between lapsed Catholics and philo-semitism’

Lapsed Catholics among Irish writers seemed to have been more favourably disposed towards Jews, according to a British author and academic.

"I think there is a link between lapsed Catholics and philo-semitism. As well as Joyce, as an example, you can think of a writers like Maeve Binchy or Enda O'Brien. The two seem to go together," said Prof Bryan Cheyette.

Chair in Modern Literature and Culture at the University of Reading in the UK, he was speaking to The Irish Times in advance of an address on Lost Tribes: Jews and Irish in Modern and Contemporary Literature at a conference in Trinity College Dublin on Tuesday.

“In the context of representation of Jews in literature in the 19th and 20th century, Joyce is my hero. He understood the nature of anti-semitism, how dangerous it was. He embraced the complexity of diaspora Jews as a way of criticising religious fundamentalism and Irish nationalism.”


In her 1976 memoir Mother Ireland, Edna O'Brien "goes back to an early myth that an aunt of Noah, before the Flood, came to this island because it was pure, it was free of sin and with two other women and 50 men populated the island. So, she actually thinks of this island in relation to its Hebrew origins; in relation to the Hebrew Bible."

Besides which Ms O'Brien is "a long-standing friend of (American Jewish writer) Philip Roth and was one of the main speakers at the celebrations of his 80th birthday. Roth has written introductions to her stories."


Then there was Maeve Binchy. She “taught in the Zion schools in Dublin, spent some time in a kibbutz, fell in love with an Israeli man and came home and told her parents she wanted to convert to Judaism, which shocked them. She didn’t convert but she remained a life long philo-semite.”

But "if Joyce was the hero of my first book, Beckett would be the hero of my lecture this evening," Prof Cheyette said. One of the two main characters in Beckett's play Waiting for Godot was originally called Levi. It was later changed to Estragon, he said.

"Levi was the most common Jewish name in France. Ninety seven per cent of all Levis died during the war. So when he first of all called Estragon, Levi, he knew what he was doing," Prof Cheyette said, adding that "the name Estragon comes from the Bible. It's a bitter herb and then it relates to the Bible story of the Jews and the Exodus story.

"From his early schooling on the Adelaide Road to his first hand experience of Nazi Germany, to his work with the French Resistance", Beckett "was deeply rooted by Jewish history and Jewish individuals. "He witnessed close friends of his and Joyce's being arrested. After that he joined the Resistance."

He also believed Beckett was heroic “because he took an ethical stance on the neutrality of Ireland. He decided to take part in the War and criticised Ireland for living well while others, he said, were living on sawdust.”

The conference on Reimagining the Jews of Ireland: Historiography, identity, and representation continues until lunchtime on Wednesday.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times