September 5, 2003


Seminar: Irish Studies, 535


Meeting Date: September 5, 2003


Chair: Mary McGlynn


Speaker: Prof. Hasia Diner

Paul and Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American History at New York University.


Title of Talk: "The Accidental Irish"


Rapporteur: Cóilín Parsons


Attendees: Deirdre O'Leary (CUNY Graduate Center); Jessica Scarlata (NYU Cinema Studies); Susanne Forman (Pearson Publishing Co.); Clare Juddson Kagel (Columbia U.); Stephen Burke (American Irish Teachers Assoc.); Barbara Young (Molloy College); Terry Byrne (College of New Jersey); Maria McGarrity (Long Island University); Dermot Ryan (Columbia U.); Bob St-Cyr (Blackwater Valley Mus.); Martin J. Burke (CUNY Graduate Center); Peter M. Leahy (CUNY Graduate Center); Rita Loughlin (American Irish TeachersÕ Assoc.); Michael O. Shannon (Lehman College, CUNY); Gertrude Hamilton (Marymount College of Fordham University).


"The Accidental Irish"

A copy of the paper that Prof. Diner gave has been deposited with University Seminars.  The following is a synopsis.


Prof. Diner's paper investigates the origins and early years of the Jewish Community of Dublin and the smaller communities in Cork, Limerick, Galway, Belfast and Derry.  The Irish Jewish community can trace its origins to an almost insignificant tributary of the great flood of central and eastern European Jews who fled the continent between 1820 and 1920.  Most of the Jews in Ireland arrived from the 1880s on, though there was already a small group of about 600 in the country, who were mostly the children of an earlier immigration in the 1820s and 1830s.  Both of these immigrations consisted of Jews who arrived relatively poor, found a niche for themselves in commerce, lived in cities, and were religiously traditional.  Both groups experienced relatively rapid economic and educational development.  There has been a common myth in Irish Jewry that the immigrants after 1880 were fleeing persecution in eastern Europe, that they arrived in Ireland--as a first port of call--by trickery, by forced migration or simply by accident.  Prof. Diner refutes this thesis, observing that Lithuania, the point of origin of the vast majority of Irish Jews, never experienced pogroms.  In addition, many of those who arrived in Ireland had lived in a number of places outside of Lithuania--mostly Britain--before settling in Ireland, suggesting that the migration was far from accidental or desperate, rather deliberate.  Those who arrived in Ireland did so because they saw in the country prospects for economic success--they sought to go into small business, facilitated by itinerant peddling, an occupation that predominated among new arrivals.  The formative role of peddling in the establishment of the community actually places the Irish migration--often thought anomalous--squarely into the central paradigm of modern Jewish migrations.

            If this migration was not anomalous in terms of Jewish history, it was certainly unique and noteworthy in terms of Irish history--no other migrants arrived in Ireland in the nineteenth century, a century that was marked by mass emigration to Britain, the United States and beyond.  This emigration raised the living standard for those who stayed behind, improving the standard of housing in particular.  Vast sums of money were remitted to Ireland by emigrants, and had a transformative effect on rural life.  At this point, the experience of Irish emigration intersected with that of Jewish immigrationÑthe Jews chose Ireland because they saw in the country a demand for consumer goods, which itinerant peddlers could satisfy.

            This should have led to a perfect and convenient fit between the Irish, eager to buy, and the Jews, eager to sell.  However, as with most Jewish/non-Jewish relations at this time, it was not just a matter of convenience and trade:  In Ireland land mattered, and the Jewish association with cities alienated them from this most fundamental marker of Irishness;  in addition, nationalist rhetoric in Ireland associated Jews with the idea of England and British imperialism;  the cultural nationalist movement excluded Jews from the nation, as they could not be associated with a pure, "Celtic" past; and Catholic domination in Irish religious, political and social circles following the Devotional Revolution led to the exclusion of Jews.  On the other hand, a small group of Irish intellectuals, politicians and professionals, among them Michael Davitt, welcomed Jewish participation in Irish life.


Q. You mentioned that Jewish children in the Model School in Cork described their parents as "travellers".  Is there any connection between the Jewish community and the travelling community?

A. Not really--they are very different communities.  Jews, however, were often portrayed as avaricious.  I would have to think more about this relationship.

Q. Did Sephardic Jews arrive in the seventeenth century?

A. Yes.  Many migrated from Spain and Portugal to the Netherlands and on to Ireland.

Q. A girl I know whose family, now in Toronto and New York, escaped Nazi persecution by fleeing to Ireland, is very proud of and grateful for her Irish hosts and stays in contact with the Irish community.

A. Many of Jews who left Ireland in search of better careers stay in close touch, maintaining a world-wide Irish Jewish network.  As the Irish carried the British Aliens Act of 1906 into their own laws, it was very difficult for anyone to enter in the 1930s--only a few European Jewish families were allowed in.  The Minister for Justice said that the government could not change the character of the state by letting in too many non-nationals.

Q. What is the present size of the Jewish community in Ireland?

A. 2 years ago it was under 1,000, from a height of 6,000 in the 1940s, but there is great excitement in the last two years, as it seems that 200 more Jews have "appeared".

Q. Were the Jews peddlers in Britain?

A. There were lots in the 1860s to the 1880s, and there were still many in Wales at the same time as in Ireland.  Many Jews in Ireland had worked in factories in England and wanted to go into business for themselves.

Q. Where did the peddlers stay?

A. They often stayed with families, where they were welcomed and often quizzed about their religion.  Many cooked for themselves.  Some stayed in barns or out in the openÑit was a difficult life.

Q. What was the rate of intermarriage with non-Jews?

A. It was relatively limited.  Some who were well integrated into the upper classes intermarried--for example, the painter Estella Solomons.

Q. What is the rate of intermarriage today?

A. I am not an expert on the contemporary community, but that is an interesting question.

Q. Was Irish Catholic anti-Semitism largely verbal or also physical?

A. It was mostly non-physical.  The Limerick pogrom was physical to an extent, the Blueshirts threatened physical action, and there were a few incidents before Limerick.  There was very little physical violence in Limerick: one person was beaten up; a brick was thrown at the Rabbi's window.  It pales in comparison to what was happening in other countries.

Q. Was that the result of the small size of the community or Catholic beneficence?

A. Jews played no negative role in the national imagination about the past, so there was no anti-Semitic tradition to tap into.  In addition, the behaviour and writings of Michael Davitt were given great weight--he did have the effect of tempering the animosity.

Q. I had a student whose surname was Goldberg, but her family was Catholic for as far back as they could remember.

A. There was a Goldberg family in Cork--one of them was the Lord Mayor--but they were Jewish.  Certain members could have intermarried or converted and that might have been airbrushed out.

Q. When was Goldberg the Lord Mayor?

A. In the last couple of decades.

Q. Was the Briscoe family heritage different?

A. There were many important Jews like the Briscoes and the Solomons active in the nationalist community.

Q. It seems that in the Republic the Jews were nationalist, but in the North they were considered honorary Protestants.

A. It is not unusual for Jews to be caught between cultures, as happened in the Czech Republic.  Some writers say that the Jews had positive views of EnglandÑtheir rights came from England, they were governed by the Chief Rabbi of London, and had cultural ties with London.  In the Cork Model School, as Protestants pulled out the number of Jewish children declined.  Did Jews position themselves as part of the English/Protestant section of society?