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In advance of St. Patrick’s Day, a look at Jewish history in Ireland

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The presence of Jewish people in Ireland can be traced back over 1000 years. (Image: Avi Kumar)

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(Special note: this article was originally to be 5 fun facts but after talking to the community, they had acquired the Irish ‘gift of the gab’ and were very chatty so there will be a Part 2; they kept volunteering information and pictures as well as connecting me to the different members who were all more than helpful!) 

1. There is a rumor among Donegal fishermen that Jesus visited Ireland. But, the earliest PROVEN reference to Jews here was in 1079, in the Annals of Innisfallen. Jews are later mentioned by the Normans who came afterwards in the 1200s. Some Sephardic Jews came from Spain in the 1400s.  

These older communities vanished due to intermarriage/ assimilation and/or emigration. We do not know if they had a dialect of Judeo-Gaelic or for how long Ladino lasted. Also, there are scant records of Jewish presence here and there, but there are no synagogues or structures as such. They probably prayed at the Rabbi’s house or wherever they could get a minyan. However, Sephardim left behind a Jewish cemetery that the modern community inherited. 

The largest recent migration was in the late 1800s from the Russian Empire fleeing pogroms – most Irish Jews today are the descendants of these Ashkenazis.  It was also a time when many Eastern European Jews and ethnic Irish were moving to New York, so one ponders why mainland European Jews would move to Ireland? Some say that corrupt ship captains told them that the port in England/Ireland was New York just to get rid of the Jews, and they got off, not knowing any English. By the time they figured out that it was Ireland, it was too late.

Ballybough cemetery in Dublin, founded in 1718 (Photos: Peter White)​

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2. Demographics:

There are around 2500 Jews today in the Republic of Ireland out of 4.9 million people and over half of them live in Dublin): in comparison, around 2000 people ticked ‘Jedi’ (probably as a joke). Northern Ireland has about 68 Jews out of 1.9 million. However, most of these are also Jews from other countries who recently moved to Ireland.  

There are 4 congregations on the island – two Orthodox and one Progressive in Dublin and one Orthodox in Belfast. Machzikei Hadass (Orthodox) is the oldest. Dublin Orthodox, headed by Rabbi Zalman Lent is the largest single congregation in the island in terms of numbers. The Progressive community in Dublin began in 1946. It has 100 members today. 

Three of Ireland’s seven Chief Rabbis went on to become Chief Rabbis elsewhere – Two in the UK, including current Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. Issac Herzog, Ireland’s first Chief Rabbi went on to become first Chief Rabbi of Israel. 

The Terenure Congregation and the Adelaide Road Congregation amalgamated in 2004 into the Dublin Hebrew Synagogue (Photo: Courtesy)

3. There are two Holocaust survivors in Ireland, Tomi Reichenthal and Suzi Diamond. Both were at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. According to Tomi, it is a coincidence that they both ended up in Ireland. 

For a long time, we believed that only two Irish Jews died in the Holocaust – The Nazis never got to Ireland, but Esther Steinberg was in Belgium in 1942 when the Germans rolled in and she and her sonwere killed. A memorial to her stands at Malahide Community School as well as at the Irish Jewish museum, both in Dublin. Recently, in 2019, Dr David Jackson’s research found that three more Irish Jewsare also known to have perished in the tragedy. He believes that as we do more research, more deaths will be uncovered. There is also a survivor of Farhud (an antisemitic pogrom in Iraq in 1941 fueled by Nazi propaganda) living in Cork. 

4. Israeli president Chaim Herzog had an Irish accent. He was the son of Rabbi Herzog. In Ireland there’s a park named for him. Israel has a forest named after Irish President Eamon DeValera.  Many Irish Jews took an active role in Israel’s early life, including the founder of Michlala College for Girls, Rabbi Yehuda Cooperman.  

​A Jewish IRA member was involved in the founding of Israel: Robert Briscoe, before he became mayor, was a senior member with the IRA during Ireland’s struggle for independence in the early 20th Century. He was chief agent in weapons smuggling for legendary IRA leader, Michael Collins and he later taught Jabotinsky the tricks he learned from the Irish struggle. Briscoe also urged Menachem Begin to disband Irgun, Stern Gang and other Jewish militias lest they turn on each other, reminiscent of British divide and rule. Ireland and Israel were both British colonies that got independence through armed insurgency against the same Empire – a fact that was not lost on the early revolutionaries of the Irish Republic.  

Robert Briscoe’s grave with Star of David on coat of arms (Photo: courtesy)

5. There is a famous story within the community – during the Troubles, a Russian shochet went from Dublin to perform a shechita (kosher slaughter).

He took his shechita kit across the border into Northern Ireland. Now, this was at a time when there was a very heavily guarded border, complete with barbed wire and sniffer dogs everywhere. The border guards found (a few) knives and asked him what he was planning to do in the North. 

He could not speak much English and replied “I come to kill” as he didn’t know how to say “I have come to perform a kosher slaughter.”  

The chief rabbi got a call at 3 am, waking him up and he had to sort out the unfortunate miscommunication! I personally heard this story from an Irish Jew at a pub, when I was in Belfast. He said that the late Ed Segal in Dublin loved reciting this to all visitors.  

Avi Kumar is a historian of Sri Lankan descent who lives in New York.

He has a unique spin on current affairs.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

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