Irish have often been compared to the Jews, in their propensity to
wander, their global spread and their ability to assimilate into most
societies and rise to the top. Indeed, there is a fanciful notion that the
Irish are one of the lost tribes of Israel; that Jeremiah deposited the Ark
of the Covenant on a great mound in County Meath and that a cor-ruption of
the Jewish word for law, torah, gave this area its name: Tara. In recent
years the term Diaspora has been borrowed from the Jews to become a popular
piece of short-hand to describe the world-wide Irish population.
The earliest record of Jews coming to Ireland is to be found in the
'Annals of Inn-isfallen': Year 1079 -
'Five Jews came over the sea with gifts to Tairdelbach [grandson of Brian
Boru and they were sent back again over the sea.'
It wasn't until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that Jews
started to come to Ireland in significant numbers. Up to that time, a
trickle of Jews settled in Ireland, but failed to establish sustainable
communities. The same pattern was repeated several times: a small group
arrived, stayed for about two generations and then declined due to
emigration or conversion and assimilation.
earliest record of a synagogue in Ireland dates from 1660 with the
establishment of a prayer room in Crane Lane, opposite Dublin Castle. In
1745 there were about 200 Jews living in Dublin.
Forty-five years later the synagogue, which by then had been moved to
Marlborough Green, had to close its doors due to lack of worshippers. By
1818 there were only two Jewish families left in Dublin. The decline has
been attributed to several factors including the political unrest of the
period, trade depression, intermarriage and conversion and the departure of
many of the community.
had recovered somewhat by 1836, when there were 18 Jewish families
in Dublin. A meeting house which belonged to a Seceders group - a sect of
the Church of Scotland - was purchased by the community . With the opening
of this new synagogue, which was situated at 12 Mary's Abbey, off Capel
Street, some more Jewish families and individuals came to settle in Dublin.
As had been the previous pattern, they came from Germany and England.
from some efforts to convert the Jews to Christianity, their small
community was left in peace. Daniel O'Connell, the great Irish political
leader of the first half of the nineteenth century, was able to say of the
Jews: 'Ireland has claims on your ancient race, it is the only country that
I know of unsullied by any one act of persecution of the Jews'. He supported
with enthusiasm the efforts of the Jews to attain full civil rights within
the United Kingdom. In 1846 an obsolete statute which prescribed a special
dress for Jews was formally repealed by the British Parliament on the
insistence of O'Connell.
For their part, the Jews in Ireland and internationally played a part out
of proportion to their numbers in helping to relieve the general distress
during the Great Famine. In the original subscription list of the British
Association for the Relief of Famine, preserved in the National Library in
Dublin, Queen Victoria heads the list with a gift of £2,000 followed by the
Jewish financier Baron Lionel de Rothschild's £1,000. A Dublin newspaper,
commenting in 1850 on the Baron's generosity, made the point that he and his
family had contributed during the Irish famine of 1847 ... a sum far beyond
the joint contributions of the Devonshires, and Herefords, Lansdownes,
Fitzwilliams and Herberts, who annually drew so many times that amount from
their Irish estates.' In 1880 when a new appeal for help for Ireland was
directed at America, the Irish Relief Fund and the Irish Famine Fund was
liberally supported by American Jews.
The 1861 census indicates that there were 393 Jews in Ireland. Ten years
later, the Jewish population had declined to a neligible 285. Though it had
recovered somewhat by 1881, it stood at a mere 472.
events taking place far away in the Russian Empire caused the
Jewish population in Ireland to increase tenfold in the course of a few
decades. In 1882 severe legal restrictions were imposed on the five million
Jews living under the rule of the Tsar. The Russian ruler wished to 'Russify'
his empire. The Jew proved particularly resistant as far as abandoning their
culture was concerned and were marked down for special attention. 'One third
must assimilate, one third must emigrate and one third must die', was the
solution proposed by the Tsar's adviser Pobedonestsev. Between 1880 and 1910
approximately 2,000 Jews came to Ireland from Eastern Europe. Dublin,
Belfast and Cork were the main destinations. Others settled in Limerick,
Derry, Drogheda, Lurgan and Waterford.
The sudden arrival of large numbers of Jews caused a certain amount of
friction and a degree of antipathy towards the immigrants developed in some
of those centres. These were isolated incidents, however, and were
anti-foreigner rather than anti-Jewish in nature. Newspaper and local
politicians were quick to condemn any maltreatment of the new arrivals and
there were no major or prolonged incidents - with the single exception of
the well-known boycott in Limerick.
On 12 January 1902, Fr John Creagh of the Redemptorist Order preached a
sermon in Limerick indicting the business methods of the Jews of the city
and accusing them of shedding Christian blood. He went so far as to suggest
that they would 'kidnap and slay Christian children'. In a follow up sermon,
Fr Creagh instructed his congregation ' not to deal with the Jews', which
was interpreted as meaning not only to give up trading with them, but also
to repudiate their debts. The Jewish community was pauperised. The boycott
and the anti-Semitic views were generally condemned, though Arthur Griffith,
founder of Sinn Féin, supported Fr Creagh in his newspaper the United
Irishman.. Michael Davitt, founder of the Irish Land League strongly
supported the Jews, as did John Redmond leader of the Home Rule Party.
However, the boycott lasted two years and drove out 80 members of the
community from Limerick, leaving fewer than 40 behind. The superiors of Fr
Creagh soon came to realise that religious persecution has no place in
Ireland. They disowned him and he was withdrawn from Limerick. He died in
Wellington, New Zealand in 1947.
In December 1892, the first place in Ireland to be built for the express
purpose of Jewish worship was opened in Adelaide Road with seating for 300
in the body and half that again in the galleries. An annex with schoolrooms
formed part of the new complex. School attendance rose from about 90 when it
first opened to 200 in 1899.
The Jewish element of the Irish population reached its peak in the 1940s
when it numbered about 5,500. At that time Dublin had its 'Little Jerusalem'
in the Portobello district of the South Circular Road, and Cork had its 'Jewtown'
on the southern fringe of the city.
there are about 1,800 Jews in Ireland. In the 1981 general
election to the Dáil (Irish Parliament), three members of the Jewish
community were elected. All three have retained their seats to the present
day. Each of the three belongs to a different one of the mainstream
political parties: Mervyn Taylor, currently Minister for Equality and Law
Reform, is a member of the Labour Party, Alan Shatter is in Fine Gael and
Ben Briscoe is a member of Fianna Fáil. The three largest Irish cities,
Dublin, Belfast and Cork have had Jewish Lord Mayors in this century.
Irish Jewish Museum is located in Portobello near the South Circular
Road, Dublin 8, an area which once had a large Jewish population. It is
housed in the former Walworth Road Synagogue, which consisted of two
adjoining terraced houses. Due to the movement of the Jewish people from the
area to the suburbs of Dublin and with the overall decline in their numbers,
the synagogue fell into disuse and ceased to function in the mid-1970s. The
premises remained locked for almost ten years and was brought back to life
again with the establishment of the Irish Jewish Museum Committee in late
The museum was opened by the Irish-born former President of Israel Dr
Chaim Herzog on 20 June 1985 during his State visit to Ireland. It contains
a substantial collection of memorabilia relating to the Irish Jewish
communities and their various associations and contributions to present day
The material relates to the last 150 years and is associated with the
communities of Belfast, Cork, Derry, Dublin, Limerick and Waterford. The
museum is divided into several distinct areas. In the entrance area and
corridors there is a display of photographs, paintings, certificates and
testimonials. The ground floor contains a general display relating to the
commercial and social life of the Jewish community. A special feature
adjoining this area is the kitchen depicting a typical Sabbath /Festival
meal setting in a Jewish home in the late nineteenth /early twentieth
century in the neighborhood. Upstairs, the original synagogue, with all its
ritual fittings, is on view.
Since significant numbers of Jews did not start to arrive in Ireland
until well after the beginning of civil registration, it might be expected
that all vital information about them was recorded in the civil birth, death
and marriage registers. However, the first generation to arrive were not
aware of the registration requirements. Indeed, most did not speak English.
Therefore, more importance than would otherwise be the case attaches to the
records kept by the Jewish community itself.
The Irish Jewish Museum holds a number of important records of
The Registry Book of the Hebrew Congregation in Dublin (Mary's Abbey
This record book was kept for over 40 years by Rev. Julius
Sandheim. It is
almost complete from 25 November 1838 to 7 May 1879. It records 308 births;
31 others which took place before his arrival from 20 February 1820 to 11
July 11838 were also traced and duly entered, and births in Belfast during
the years 1849-78 likewise. Deaths are also included, beginning on 5 January
1842 and ending on 8 February 1879. Some 140 deaths are recorded.
The Membership Register of the Dublin Hebrew Congregation
This begins on 16 September 1841 and has entries down to 7 April 1883. In
the margin of this book, notes of births and deaths are also recorded, not
just from Dublin but also from other places in Ireland.
A third source book is the maternity attendance book of Mrs Ada
Shillman, the midwife of the Dublin Jewish community. It is a 64 page
record of all the deliveries she attended from 9 April 1896 up to 29 April
1908. Approximately 900 births are recorded. The remainder of her note book
contains details concerning each family: address, father's name, mother's
maiden name, the name of the child and occasionally the occupation of the
father. Mrs Shillman's work did not extend beyond the few streets around the
Portobello district of the South Circular Road, but the largest
concentration of Jewish settlement in Ireland was located in that district.
The museum also possesses a record book of deaths occurring in the
mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, which sets out in considerable detail
information about the deceased.
IRISH JEWISH MUSEUM
3-4 Walworth Road (off Victoria Street),
South Circular Road,
Telephone: 01 4531797
1 May - 30 September:
11.00 am to 3.30 pm
(Sunday, Tuesday & Thursday)
1 October - 30 April
10.30 am - 2.30 pm
Adult and school groups can be catered for by telephoning: 01 6760737 or
Admission is free but donations gratefully accepted.
This article is reproduced with the kind permission of Irish
Roots Magazine in which it was first published in Issue 4,