The death of Gerald Goldberg on December 31st, 2003, has deprived the small Jewish community in Ireland of one of its most illustrious members.
Over a long lifetime of 91 years he was vigilant for the rights of his co-religionists, built up a successful legal practice, promoted the arts in his native Cork and became the city's first Jewish lord mayor.
While priding himself on his Irishness and how he had fully integrated into the life of Cork, he was never afraid to speak out to defend Jewish interests or oppose prejudice. He believed that the government of the day and the administration had shamefully refused to help Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. As an ardent Zionist, he was attracted at various times to the idea of settling in Israel but believed that he also "owed a debt" to Ireland and stayed on.
Gerald Yael Goldberg was born in Cork on April 12th, 1912. His father, Louis, was a Lithuanian Jew who escaped from a pogrom in Russia in 1882 and landed in Ireland. He was at first sheltered by relatives who had settled in Limerick. He married Rachel Sandlers who belonged to a Jewish family from Cork, settled there since 1875. Louis earned his living as a peddler as did many of the Jews in Ireland at that time. He was forced out of Limerick following the anti-Semitic rioting there in 1904 during which he was assaulted.
Gerald Goldberg was one of a large family of whom eight children survived. At the time of his birth, there was a growing Jewish community in Cork of about 400 members which had split into two synagogues following a dispute.
He was educated in Christ Church Protestant national school and then in the Central District Model Catholic national school. He was sent for a time to a Jewish boarding school in Sussex in England before returning to Cork where he attended the Presentation Brothers College.
As a boy he saw the burning of Cork by Black and Tans when his family had to be evacuated from their home. He witnessed the lying in state of two lord mayors who died during the War of Independence, Thomas McCurtain and Terence MacSwiney. He heard speeches in Cork by Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera, Kevin O'Higgins and other leading figures of that period.
It was thanks to the principal of the Presentation Brothers, Brother Edward Connolly, that Gerald Goldberg got a start in the legal firm of Barry Galvin who told the brother frankly that without his intervention he would have found it difficult to accept a Jewish apprentice. He qualified as a solicitor in 1934 after studying in University College Cork.
He was offered a legal post in its Jerusalem headquarters by the Jewish Agency but he turned it down because "I was an Irishman and believed I owed a debt to Ireland which I had to repay". In the 1960s he was approached to become mayor of a new Israeli township and again refused for the same reason.
In 1937, he married Sheila Smith, who was a member of a well-known Jewish family in Belfast. It was to be a long and loving partnership marked by their love of music and literature.
The Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany in the 1930s prompted Goldberg as a young solicitor to set up a committee in Cork to help Jewish refugees. But opposition from official circles in Dublin, mainly in the Department of Justice, thwarted his efforts. This was in spite of initial encouragement from the then Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, who had been approached by his Jewish friend, Bob Briscoe, when he was trying to organise a similar campaign in Dublin.
In 1967, Goldberg, who had built up a successful legal practice as a criminal lawyer, entered local politics as an independent councillor on Cork Corporation. In 1974, he joined the Fianna Fáil group and this led to his election as the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Cork in 1977. As he told an interviewer: "Without political support, it was either join a party or leave the corporation. Fianna Fáil is the only honest party in the country, the only progressive one, the only one capable of government. It's not comprised of conflicts and diverse elements."
He was to change his view of Fianna Fáil nine years later in 1986 when he announced that he was joining the recently-founded Progressive Democrats to whom he promised a substantial contribution. He said, however, that he would not be active in politics. He said he could not stay in Fianna Fáil as long as it was controlled by Charles Haughey who had "betrayed" the principles of Eamon de Valera, Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch. Mr Haughey's treatment of Des O'Malley and Mary Harney had been "outrageous," he said.
But before this, Gerald Goldberg had suffered a personal crisis over his loyalty to Ireland. This was in 1982 when he agonised publicly over whether he should leave Ireland following death threats. The crisis had been sparked off by events in Lebanon where the actions of Israeli troops had been strongly criticised and following the deaths of two Irish soldiers in southern Lebanon. There had also been an attempted firebombing of the Cork synagogue.
He accused the Irish media of some responsibility for the anti-Jewish campaign by what he claimed was its unbalanced coverage of events in Lebanon. Looking back on his lifetime of devotion to Ireland, he said he had to ask himself "Did I betray my Jewish heritage for a belief which, today, is shattered." It was not the first time his life had been threatened, he wrote, but "It is the first time, however, that I have been ordered to get out from Ireland and that hurts." He was also saddened at the shrinking of the once numerous Jewish community in Cork to barely a dozen.
He decided not to leave Ireland. "Gerald couldn't leave Cork, let alone Ireland," a relative joked. Five years later, he was honoured with a life membership of the Royal Dublin Society and in 1993 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws by UCC. He had also long made his peace with Limerick which had treated his father so harshly and had tea with the Redemptorists whose Father Creagh had incited the campaign against the local Jews back in 1904.
His wife, Sheila, died in 1996. They had enriched the cultural life of Cork by organising lunchtime concerts at the Crawford Gallery. Their home, "Ben Truda", welcomed artists, musicians and students. Gerald Goldberg's nephew, David Marcus, recalled that it was through his uncle's library that he was introduced to the works of the leading contemporary English poets.
He is survived by his three sons, John, Theo and David.
Gerald Goldberg. Born April 12th, 1912; died December 31st, 2003.