`We never let them in'

 

Jews in Twentieth-Century Ireland: Refugees, Anti-semitism, and the Holocaust by Dermot Keogh Cork University Press 320p, £45/£16.95

AT the Act of Union, a tiny number of Jews, largely Sephardic (in effect, of Spanish origin) lived in Ireland. Thereafter the Jews who came to Ireland were overwhelmingly Ashkenazi, from northern and eastern Europe. The major wave of Jewish immigration followed the rise of anti-semitism in Russia in the 1880s. Many came from Lithuania. The Jewish population remained extremely small. In the last decade of the 19th century it doubled to just over 3,000. At its peak in 1946, there were still fewer than 4,000 Jews in Ireland.

There were minor manifestations of anti-semitism up to the time of the Limerick pogrom of 1904. Michael Davitt found it necessary to defend the Jews of Ireland in 1893. The Dreyfus affair in France percolated through to Ireland, and nationalist sentiment was largely anti-Dreyfusard. Arthur Griffith at the turn of the century published in the United Irishman a number of anti-semitic comments, although his zeal on this subject abated in time. The preaching of the Redemptorist Father John Creagh provoked the Limerick pogrom. Although, if measured in terms of violence on the scale of European pogroms in the 20th century, the Limerick pogrom was at the lower end of the register (Professor Keogh goes so far as to refer to "the Limerick `pogrom' "), its episodic riots, intimidation, assaults and boycotting dispersed the Limerick Jewish community.

It is impossible to gauge accurately the extent of anti-semitism in nationalist Ireland, for the reason that anti-semitic views were not given frequent political expression. It is necessary at least to attempt to sketch a sociology of nationalist anti-semitism, not least to correct any misapprehension that anti-semitic manifestations were confined to marginal publicists, working people whipped into a frenzy by rabid clerics, or adherents of General O'Duffy's opera buffa version of fascism. In particular the extent of anti-semitism among the Catholic nationalist middle class needs closer consideration.

Oliver St John Gogarty was vilely and obdurately anti-semitic, both in the pieces he published in Griffith's United Irishman ("I can smell a Jew, though, and in Ireland there's something rotten"), and in his offensive references to a Jewish family in his As I Was Going Down Sackville Street, for which he was successfully sued in 1937. The genesis of Leopold Bloom owes much to Joyce's distaste for Gogarty's anti-semitism, and Ulysses as a whole is an essential historical source in relation to anti-semitism in modern Ireland.

Bethel Solomons, in his memoirs published in 1956, wrote that "now, while there is no suggestion of pogroms in Ireland, and I do not believe there ever will be, there is an unpleasant and insidious movement. Social and sporting clubs are contaminated and in many there is an unwritten law that Jews will not be admitted". Shamefully, forty years on, that continues to be so.

The central chapters of Professor Keogh's book chart the extremely restrictive refugee policy of the Irish state in the prelude to and during the second World War. That policy had two central tenets. The first was that Ireland had extremely limited economic resources, and could not provide employment for its own population, never mind immigrants. The second tenet is the more worrying, and generates the paradox at the heart of Irish policy towards Jewish refugees. While the Irish were officially not anti-semitic, it was repeatedly stated that many could become so if the number of Jews were permitted to rise above the very small number already resident in Ireland. While the first tenet was - at least ostensibly - applicable to all immigrants, the second tenet was discriminatory against Jews, and admitted to be such in the official memoranda copiously cited by Professor Keogh. This was the perverse principle of pre-empting antisemitism espoused by the Irish state. While not anti-semitic as such, it was premised on a belief in the potential for anti-semitism in nationalist Ireland.

In its historical context, this perhaps says less about attitudes towards Jews in Ireland than about the rigid bureaucraticism of the still-young Irish state and about the exaggerated fears professed by politicians, civil servants and the Catholic hierarchy of socio-political instability (which itself conveniently legitimated the adoption of a staunchly right-wing stance on the refugee issue).

The atrocious despatches from Berlin of the conceited, if not demented, Charles Bewley are certainly not representative, but the matter does not end there. In the first place Bewley, a notorious anti-semite, was the Irish envoy in Berlin from 1933 until he was effectively forced to relinquish the position in August 1939. As such, he had a degree of discretion in the processing of applications for leave to enter Ireland which he should on no account have been permitted to exercise. Secondly, his views horrifyingly complement the restrictive policy pursued by the Irish state.

While there was a softening of the rigours of the Irish policy in the latter stages of the war, it came too late. When de Valera wrote to a correspondent in June 1944 that "you may rest assured that we will take advantage of every possibility of useful intervention which is now open to us", the "now" sounded the knell of European Jewry, which the Nazi cataclysm had already overwhelmed.

An attempt to intervene on behalf of, and to bring to Ireland, two hundred Polish Jewish families held at Vittel in France had foundered earlier that year. The German authorities made plain to Con Cremin, the Irish envoy in Berlin, that exit visas would not be forthcoming. They told him that if it had been intended to grant citizenship to the families, they would "gladly save us the inconvenience of having so many Jews".

It is against this failure of political imagination and resolve on the part of the Irish state that the repeated tributes paid by Jewish leaders to the tolerance of the Irish nation and state have to be set. The scale and circumstances of the Irish Jewish community were such that its members could not themselves seek to mobilise public opinion. The responsibility rested with the political leadership of the Irish state. The result was the most inglorious chapter of policy in the state's history. There were limits on what might have been achieved, and the Irish state was certainly not alone in the deficiencies of its refugee policy. But the application of humane foresight was lacking, and the small individual accommodations that might have been made were for the most part precluded.

Professor Keogh's invaluable book is replete with information concerning the Jewish community in this century, the lives of Irish Jews, and their contribution to the society, politics and art of modern Ireland.

Frank Callanan is a biographer