When Myer Bookman was born in Hibernian Buildings on Albert Road in 1891, to a Jewish family from Russia, he could hardly have dreamt how his birth could still be having repercussions in European identity politics more than a century later.
Mendel and Ellen Bookman were among a diaspora of 2m Jews who fled pogroms and persecution in Tsar Alexander II’s Russia in the 1880s intending to make their way to the US. A small number of those disembarked at Cobh, apparently mistaking the destination cry of “Cork, Cork” for New York.
After several years in Cork, the Bookmans moved to Dublin, before part of the family migrated again to Scotland where Myer’s father opened a wholesale dairy.
Cork has seen its once thriving Jewish community — 400 to 500 at its height in 1939 — dwindle to a handful, culminating in the closure of the city’s synagogue last year.
Speaking recently at the launch of a permanent exhibition at Cork Public Museum chronicling the history of the Jewish community in the city, David Goldberg remarked:
“It really is sad — to put it in very blunt terms when you end up as an exhibit in a glass case in a museum, you’re not going to feel great about it but in another sense it’s terrific that it’s here because it’s so important that people know there was a vibrant community here once upon a time.” Roll on 120 years or so.
This week sees the second round of Brexit talks in Europe with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, promising that they would now be delving in to “the heart of the matter” of Britain’s withdrawal from the community.
That means tackling the thorny issue of citizens’ rights — both EU citizens’ rights in the UK and British ex-pats’ rights in Europe. Not to mention the position of the North (under the Good Friday Agreement, the 1.8m people resident in Northern Ireland are entitled to Irish and EU citizenship.)
While the British have been slow to roll their sleeves up in these negotiations, their citizens have been voting with their feet. Less than four days after the Brexit vote there was a surge of applications for Irish passports and in the three months after the 2016 referendum applications from the UK rose by 83%.
The trend has continued. In the first quarter of 2017, more than 50,000 Britons had applied for Irish passports, compared with 30,000 for the same period last year, according to Department of Foreign Affairs figures released in April.
Not all of these applications are due to Brexit anxieties (the department does not inquire as to the why of passport applications.) But, anecdotally, some at least can be linked to Brexit.
My friend, let’s call her Carmel, was born and raised in Dublin, and emigrated to London in the 1970s. Her 20-something daughter has just become a Brexit Paddy on the strength of her mother’s citizenship.
Carmel’s husband is a Londoner of Jewish parentage — both his parents were Viennese who migrated to England separately in the 1930s. He’s applying for Austrian citizenship through his father but he will have to prove that his father’s departure (in 1933) was due to the racial policy of the Third Reich.
I have another friend, David, Scottish this time, who’s also about to become a Brexit Paddy thanks to Irish citizenship rules, which are among the most accommodating in Europe. Anyone who has a parent who was an Irish citizen at the time of their birth is entitled to an Irish passport.
Citizenship can also be claimed if one grandparent is, or was, an Irish citizen born in Ireland even if the applicant has no parent born in the country (hence the grandfather rule, beloved of Irish national soccer team managers.)
The Scots have suffered a double whammy in the form of Brexit, which has robbed them of European membership and scuppered the chance of revisiting the independence cause any time soon. Luckily, David has his own exit strategy from Brexit, through his grandfather — Myer Bookman.
Many Britons are applying for EU passports for pragmatic reasons. Some British applicants told The Guardian last year that they were doing so to eliminate “employment hassles” and to ensure they could travel freely after Brexit.
The former British ambassador to Ireland, Sir Ivor Roberts, wanted to avoid waiting in line. “We have a house in Italy. I don’t want to find myself queueing to get through Rome airport every time I go there.” Mr Roberts’ grandfather married an Irishwoman who was originally from Waterford.
Others, like Carmel’s daughter and David are protest voters. They are Remainers, who want to be part of Europe even if their country doesn’t.
There are of course implications for the resident Irish in this swell of potential new citizens. If, for example, the proposal to allow the diaspora to vote in presidential elections were to be taken up, the number of people outside the State with a vote could be as high as 3.6m. And it could be argued that many of those would have scant interest in or knowledge of the business of the Irish state to whom they claim allegiance.
But voting rights aside, perhaps it’s time to stop seeing the diaspora as a potential burden, and treat them instead as political leverage.
Our new-style Brexit diaspora don’t want to come here, for the most part, but wish to assert their fidelity to the European ideal, using the Irish passport to do so.
Couldn’t we claim them as ours at the European negotiating table, a significant Irish population not resident but affiliated to the EU community through elective nationality, thus making the UK’s loss our gain?
Similarly with Cork’s Jewish community. It may have passed away into history — of the original 65 families, the Rosehills are one of the last.
Fred Rosehill who died late last year, kept the synagogue on South Terrace open against all the odds, opting to stay when many of his community emigrated in the 1950s in search of career opportunities and the chance to join larger Jewish communities elsewhere (he even flew in young Rabbinic students to raise the quorum for faith services when congregation numbers fell disastrously low.)
David is the living proof of that outward mobility. His claiming of his Irish heritage is part pragmatic, part cultural, and part acknowledgement to the country that once provided sanctuary to his forebears when they were in strife (even if they did get off at the wrong stop!)
So it’s a mistake to think of the Cork Jewish community as dead, or that it exists only behind a glass case in the museum. It exists virtually in the lives of those thousands of descendants of Irish-born Jewish refugees who came to Cork and chose not to stay. Maybe it’s time to invite them to become part of our new-look Irish diaspora?
Mary Morrissy is the associate director of creative writing at UCC. Her latest book is Prosperity Drive, a novel in stories.
Less than four days after the Brexit vote there was a surge of applications for Irish passports
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved