An Irishman’s Diary on anti-Semitic prejudice in Edwardian Ireland

 

Why did Jim Larkin, the workers’ champion, publish anti-Semitic verses in his Irish Worker paper? These told of a “Jewess” demanding back the price of her pushy son’s theatre ticket when, rushing to get the best seat in the house, he fell to his death from a balcony.

That Larkin published those verses in a small, special issue of his paper during a lockout of workers in 1911 is odd. That he soon republished the same clichéd caricature of the avaricious Jew is baffling.

Racial or religious contempt spans a spectrum. It ranges from vicious assault, such as that inflicted recently on three young Afghans beaten unconscious in Dublin, to pernicious prejudice dressed up as “jokes”.

Larkin also published a striking cartoon aimed at certain Jewish immigrants. Objecting to “foreigners masquerading under Irish names”, his cartoon used stereotypical physical characteristics, as well as mock-immigrant pronunciation and the derogatory nickname “ikey” for Jews.

The message of Larkin’s cartoon was similar to that of a passage in William Bulfin’s contemporary best-selling book Rambles in Eirinn. Bulfin (obnoxiously by present-day standards) described his encounter with a shifty Jewish pedlar in Longford.

Widespread

Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Féin, published a few raving articles about Jews in his United Irishman and Sinn Féin papers before 1907 – in the context of the notorious Dreyfus scandal in France, the Boer War in Africa and a boycott of Jews in Limerick in 1904.

In the Ireland of Larkin, Bulfin and Griffith dozens of Jewish tailors were the butt of hostility, some of them non-union immigrants. “Jew scabs” was what the socialist Harp, edited by James Connolly, called some.

The Irish Tweed House advertised in a Sinn Féin annual of 1908 that it employed no Jews. This was not, however, “a Sinn Féin call for a boycott of Jewish tailors from 1908”, as the Simon Wiesenthal Center was to claim in a letter to the taoiseach a century later, when it alleged that Sinn Féin has a “long history of anti-Semitism”.

Prejudice claims justification. Outsiders are taking “our” jobs. In 1909 McCudden’s Tailors also promised “no Jews employed”, asking readers of the Freeman’s Journal “why support foreigners?”

Mrs Barderier, a second-hand clothes dealer, advertised in The Irish Times that she employed “no Jew women”. A photographic service promised readers of the Kilkenny People “no Jew trash or rubbish”.

And The Irish Times sometimes printed “humorous” little fillers based on Jewish stereotypes, just as the BBC’s “Two Ronnies” more recently told jokes predicated on a caricature of Irish people as stupid.

Anti-Semitic prejudice in Edwardian Ireland was partly a reaction to increased Jewish immigration from eastern Europe. Some of these immigrants resorted to money-lending and other unpopular trades.

Indeed one Dublin Jew, Joe Edelstein, himself wrote a novel of 1908 attacking a type of Jewish moneylender. His little book bore a remarkable cover illustration that any anti-Semite might envy.

But prejudice in the Irish media was relatively uncommon. While The Irish Times published a few jokes and discriminatory advertisements it also, for example, held up Jewish immigrants to America as exemplary citizens.

And Arthur Griffith went on to forge personal and political friendships with Jews, abandoning earlier hostility and praising Jewish culture.

Griffith then published pieces supportive of Jews abroad, and in 1915 his paper Nationality notably declared that, “‘We do not know of one Nationalist Irishman ... who holds the creed that an Irish Jew should be ineligible for any office he was competent to fill in an Irish government.” He was, as I argue in the current issue of History Ireland, more Zionist than anti-Semite.

James Joyce welcomed Griffith’s appointment as head of the Irish Free State. Perhaps Joyce also hoped that his own Irish-Jewish creation Leopold Bloom would open people to seeing commonalities in the history of two persecuted peoples. However, official Irish policy after independence long resisted Jewish immigration, and some Irish politicians had a sneaking regard for facets of fascism.

Today just a couple of thousands Jews reside in the Republic of Ireland, but there are tens of thousands of Muslims living here (including many Irish-born).

Laws now protect us against the kind of hostile caricatures found in print at the beginning of the last century.

But while they render prejudice less visible they do not, as the attack in Marlay Park so vividly shows, render it less real.