History of Jews in Irish literature goes beyond Leopold Bloom

A new exhibition traces the history of Jews in Irish literature all the way back to the Annals of Innisfallen, writes Marjorie Brennan.
History of Jews in Irish literature goes beyond Leopold Bloom

ULYSSES’ Leopold Bloom is one of the most memorable characters in Irish literature and he can also lay claim to being the most famous Irish Jew, in fact or fiction. However, as a new exhibition sets out to highlight, the Jew has been a figure in Irish literature going back a thousand years.

The Representation of Jews in Irish Literature exhibition, which opened at Waterford Institute of Technology on February 1, is the outcome of a research collaboration between NUI Galway and Ulster University. The project, which was initiated and overseen by Professor Pól Ó Dochartaigh, explores the relationship between Jews and Ireland through poetry, prose and drama.

“As someone who was a keen reader of Irish literature without being a scholar of it, I noticed Jewish references in writings by various people. There was David Marcus in Cork, but also work like ‘Shoa’, Máire Mac an tSaoi’s poem in Irish, and autobiographies by Robert Briscoe and Chaim Herzog.

“I was still in Ulster University at the time and wondered if there was anything more than a short article in this, so I got some money in the university, employed someone with a PhD in Irish literature to go digging, and he came back with enough material for this project.”

Ó Dochartaigh says while anti- Semitic portrayals are evident in Irish literature going back centuries, his team’s research focused more on what the representations say about Irish identity.

“You do find the usual stereotypes in Irish literature — the Jewish moneylender, the Jew as Christ-killer, the outsider, or occasionally the beautiful Jewess. But what was significant in our research is how the way we represent the Jew — the other or outsider — says a lot about how we define our own identity.”

The earliest reference to the existence of a Jewish community in Ireland is in the Annals of Innisfallen, which in the year 1079, states that “five Jews came over the sea with gifts to Tairdelbach [king of Munster] and then were sent back again over the sea”.

According to Ulster University academic Barry Montgomery, lead researcher on the project, the first Jew to be represented on Irish soil is most likely Lady Rackrent in Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, published in 1800.

“Edgeworth famously composed her later novel, Harrington (1817) as an apology for her negative representations of Jews in early novels and short stories, in which they are typically criminals. The Absentee (1812) features a reprehensible moneylender who seeks to ruin an Irish family for personal profit. But Edgeworth’s real target was Irish absenteeism,” says Montgomery.

The ‘wandering Jew’ is another figure that features prominently in Irish Gothic literature, and serves as a model for Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820).

“Melmoth is not specifically Jewish; but Maturin uses many of the traits and mythos of the wandering Jew in Melmoth’s portraiture, particularly his cursed immortality and piercing stare. This supernatural figure is also a precursor to later manifestations of the vampiric Jew in Irish literature, particularly Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and to a lesser extent, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray,” says Montgomery.

Dorian Gray
Dorian Gray

The number of Jews living in Ireland has always been relatively small, just over 5,000 at its peak, and this is perhaps reflected in their cultural impact.

“There’s always that thing for a minority community — to assimilate or create a critical mass. Many younger Jews emigrated in search of a husband or a wife, an environment that was more Jewish. Others married non-Jews and the children may not have been reared as Jews,” says Ó Dochartaigh.

However, many second- and third-generation Jews became prominent in Irish business, academic and political circles. For instance, Chaim Herzog, Israel’s sixth president, was born in Belfast and grew up in Dublin, where his father served as Ireland’s first chief rabbi.

He was apparently known as the ‘Sinn Féin’ Rabbi, owing to his support for that party during the War of Independence, and he was also a fluent Irish speaker. Herzog wrote many books, including a memoir called Living History.

Gerald Goldberg, who was Lord Mayor of Cork, had a strong interest in the local history of the city and published a number of books, including The Adventurers of Cork; A History of the Jews of Cork, and Jonathan Swift and Contemporary Cork.

In the course of the research for the exhibition, which will also be published in a book, a little-known story featuring a Jewish character by Cork writer Frank O’Connor surfaced.

“It is called ‘A Minority’ and appears in a collection edited in America,” says Ó Dochartaigh. “One of the central characters is a Jewish boy who is a refugee from Nazi Europe. As a lifelong fan of Frank O’Connor, it was a real treasure to find.”

David Marcus, the grandson of Lithuanian immigrants who found sanctuary in Cork at the turn of the century, was another Jew who became prominent in Irish literary circles. In 1954, he published his debut novel, To Next Year in Jerusalem, a partly autobiographical story about a young man from the Jewish area of Cork — locally known as Jewtown — who is torn between his love for a Catholic girl and an urge to go to Palestine to join the struggle to create the state of Israel.

Jewtown is also the title of a recent collection of poetry by Simon Lewis. Lewis’s roots also go back to Cork, where his great-grandmother lived after fleeing Lithuania. While the poems are inspired by the Jewish community in Ireland, Lewis says the parallels with today’s refugee crisis are obvious and intentional.

These themes also echo throughout the research for his project, says Ó Dochartaigh.

“It has real resonance in terms of migration and refugees, inclusive identity and the ‘new Irish’, as we call the new arrivals — are we prepared to accept their children despite their skin colour or surnames? Dealing with the Jewish element in Irish literature, going back a thousand years, really helps us with those questions in modern Ireland.”

Jewish figures in Irish literature

  • In Jennifer Johnston’s The Christmas Tree, the character Jacob Weinberg is described as having lost, not only his family, but also “a whole race, a whole culture, a tradition” to the Nazi concentration camps.
  • Marilyn Taylor’s Faraway Home (1999) is the story of child refugees from Vienna taken to a remote farm in Co Down, via the Kindertransport.
  • John Banville includes a number of Jewish figures in his fiction, although in the case of Axel Vander in Shroud (2002) identity is ambiguous. The same might be said of Gregor in Hugo Hamilton’s Disguise (2008). Holocaust imagery or analogies are invoked in contemporary Irish poetry, such as Paul Durcan’s ‘The Jewish Bride’ and ‘Death Camp’, Michael Longley’s ‘Ghetto’ sequence from Gorse Fires, and in Medbh McGuckian.
  • In terms of survivor testimonies, significant works are Helen Lewis, A Time to Speak (1992); Zoltan Zinn-Collis, Final Witness: My Journey from the Holocaust to Ireland (2006), and Tomi Reichental, I Was a Boy in Belsen (2011).
  • Nine Folds Makes a Paper Swan by Ruth Gilligan was published last year and tells the stories of Jewish immigrants in Ireland from the turn of the 20th century to the present day.

The Representation of Jews in Irish Literature exhibition continues at the Luke Wadding library at WIT, Waterford, until February 28.

More in this section

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day.

great irish summer

From walking and hiking, to day trips and camping, your guide to holidays at home in 2021


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up