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Comment: Anti-Semitism was rife when Ireland shut the door to Jews seeking refuge

Kevin Myers' column this week about highly-paid ­Jewish broadcasters sparked ­controversy and has stirred up memories of the ­shameful history of ­anti-Semitism in Ireland


German jews arriving in England before the start of WWII, yet estimates put the number of Jewish refugees allowed into Ireland at that time at less than 50

German jews arriving in England before the start of WWII, yet estimates put the number of Jewish refugees allowed into Ireland at that time at less than 50

Jewish politician Alan Shatter, who on being told to return where he came for by a radio caller, asked if they meant Rathfarnham or Rathgar

Jewish politician Alan Shatter, who on being told to return where he came for by a radio caller, asked if they meant Rathfarnham or Rathgar

Oliver J Flanagan, whose 1943 election pledge was to rid Ireland of the Jewish stranglehold

Oliver J Flanagan, whose 1943 election pledge was to rid Ireland of the Jewish stranglehold

Arthur Griffith, who wrote that the three evils of the 19th century were 'the Pirate, the Freemason and the Jew'

Arthur Griffith, who wrote that the three evils of the 19th century were 'the Pirate, the Freemason and the Jew'


German jews arriving in England before the start of WWII, yet estimates put the number of Jewish refugees allowed into Ireland at that time at less than 50

The columnist Kevin Myers sparked outrage this week with his offhand remark that Jews were "not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest possible price".

Myers was sacked for his reference to two highly-paid Jewish BBC broadcasters in The Sunday Times in an article about salaries at the British broadcaster.

After apologising profusely, he later claimed he was a "great admirer of Jews" and their culture of "exploring their talent and making the most of it".

The former columnist insisted that he was not anti-Semitic, but the suggestion that Jews were motivated by money would have been familiar to anyone who has followed the long and shameful history of anti-Semitism in Ireland.

Public figures have expressed much more virulent anti-Jewish sentiments in the past; unlike Myers, in most cases they got away with it, because at times in our history such sentiments were popular.

The hateful stereotype of the grasping Jew was a theme in political discourse, going right back to Arthur Griffith and the birth of Sinn Féin.

At its worst, the stirring of hatred against Jews by some politicians and churchmen helped to create a climate where Jewish refugees from Europe were unable to escape to Ireland from the Holocaust. It could be a life-and-death issue.

"Anti-Semitism was real in Ireland," says Professor Bryan Fanning, an authority on immigration at the School of Social Policy in UCD. "It meant that the Irish State did not allow Jewish people to survive the Holocaust by allowing them into the country."

He said earlier in the 20th century, anti-Semitism led to attacks and the boycott of Jews in Limerick.

At a more routine level, Jews could be the target of slurs, and refused entry to golf and tennis clubs because of their religion.

String of abusive emails

The Jewish politician Alan Shatter was a regular target of abuse as a minister and TD, even up to his period in the last government.

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When he made a speech in 2015 on how Ireland had shut its doors to German Jews trying to escape the death camps, he was showered with insults.

His speech prompted messages to radio shows that he "should go back to where he came from" - and by that, they meant Israel.

In response, Shatter laughed it off, asking: "Do they mean Rathgar or Rathfarnham, where I was born and raised? I don't know if they'd have me back."

Back in the 1980s, the TD was the target of similar abuse by a Fianna Fáil backbencher in the Dáil. During the time of the last government, a local authority worker was convicted after he sent Shatter a string of abusive anti-Jewish emails, calling him a "perfidious Jew" and "Yiddish whore".

One email said: "Resign you Jewish, Rathgar, circumcised prick."

It is hard to fathom that Shatter was at one time in the same party as Oliver J Flanagan, perpetrator of perhaps the most outrageous anti-Jewish outburst in the Dáil's history.

In May 1943, as war raged across Europe and Nazi atrocities were coming to public attention, he stood as a candidate in Laois-Offaly, promising to rid Ireland of the Jewish stranglehold.

After a resounding election victory, he called for emergency orders "against the Jews who crucified Our Saviour 1,900 years ago and who are crucifying us every day of this week".

Adding fuel to the fire, Flanagan said: "There is one thing that Germany did, and that was to rout the Jews out of their country. Until we rout the Jews out of this country, it does not matter a hair's breadth what orders you make.

"Where the bees are there is the honey, and where the Jews are there is money."

These inflammatory sentiments must have been reasonably popular in the Ireland of the time, as he doubled his vote in the election of the following year.

Flanagan, who later apologised for the anti-Jewish outburst, went on to have a long career in Fine Gael, and served as Minister for Defence. And his career was capped when he was conferred a Papal Knight.

In contrast to Oliver J, his son Minister Charlie Flanagan enjoys warm relations with the Jewish community in Ireland, and has spoken at Holocaust memorial events.

He has said the notorious speech from 1943 was of its time and his father, like many others, had not been aware of the horrors being perpetrated on Jews in World War II.

But it is hard to believe that a public figure like Flanagan was unaware of the extermination of Jews, which was already well under way.

Anti-Jewish sentiments were also expressed by political figures many decades before that, and one notable politician who was branded an anti-Semite became a founder of the State.

According to the historian Professor Dermot Keogh, Arthur Griffith wrote in The United Irishman of 1899 that the three evils of the century were "the Pirate, the Freemason and the Jew".

Griffith's paper talked about Jews in hateful terms. The United Irishman described thousands of Jews in London "mostly of phenomenal ugliness and dirt, (who) had come out of their East End dens at the summons of their rabbis". He said it was "evident that they detested soap and water".

The low point for the community in Ireland came in 1904 with the Limerick Pogrom against Jews, encouraged by the Redemptorist Catholic Priest Fr John Creagh.

He told his congregation: "The Jews were once chosen by God…. But they rejected Christ, they crucified him. They called down the curse of his precious blood on their heads."

Fr Creagh warned that people in the city were becoming the "slaves of Jew usurers".

Limerick attacks on Jews

"Nowadays, they dare not kidnap and slay Christian children, but they will not hesitate to expose them to a longer and even more cruel martyrdom by taking the clothes off their back…"

This prompted attacks on Jews in the city, with stones and mud thrown at them, and windows broken. Up to 200 took part in the violence early in January 1904 - and there were 40 further attacks in April before the trouble died down.

While Arthur Griffith supported the boycott, the Land League campaigner Michael Davitt condemned the "barbarous malignancy of anti-Semitism".

Some of the accusations levelled at Jews were absurdly far-fetched. They were accused, without any evidence, of trying to grab Irish farms.

They were even falsely accused by an official at Dublin Castle of "collecting from hotels... used tea leaves, drying them, mixing with them with deleterious drugs, and selling the compound to the poorer classes".

This product was said to be "injurious to health, even producing nervous disease and insanity".

Jews were blamed for corrupting society, including women's fashion. At one stage, the Bishop of Limerick Denis Hallinan blamed Jews for introducing into Christian society "dangerous and indecent dresses".

While the Limerick boycott was thankfully an isolated event and was not repeated on anything like the same scale, Jews in Ireland could still face discrimination.

The obstetrician Bethel Solomons, who played rugby for Ireland, did not come across anti-Semitism in his youth, according to Dermot Keogh's history, Jews in Twentieth-Century Ireland.

But later on, he noticed an "unpleasant and insidious movement".

"Social and sporting clubs are contaminated and in many there is an unwritten law that Jews will not be admitted… If a Jew is seeking a position in a business or a hospital, he may not get it, because he is a Jew."

Lynn Jackson, director of Holocaust Education Trust, said Jews were denied entry to many sports clubs in Dublin, including golf and tennis clubs.

"A number of clubs had a 'No Jews Allowed' policy. It was common in the 1930s and 1940s.

"Edmondstown Golf Club was set up on the Southside of Dublin because Jews were not allowed into other clubs."

The failure of the government to respond to the annihilation of Jews across Europe is one of the most disgraceful episodes in the State's history.

Taoiseach Éamon De Valera was well aware of the Holocaust. In December, he received an urgent telegram from the former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Dr Isaac Herzog:


According to Professor Fanning, various Department of Justice memoranda from before, during and after the Holocaust made it clear that the door was to be shut to Jewish victims.

By September 1945, pictures of the concentration camps had been shown all around world, but the response of the Department of Justice was obdurate: "It is the policy of the Department of Justice to restrict the immigration of Jews. The wealth and influence of the Jewish community in this country, and the murmurs against Jewish wealth and influence are frequently heard. As Jews do not become assimilated with the native population like other immigrants, there is a danger that any big increase in their numbers might create a social problem."

De Valera made some attempts to help Jews, and was friendly with the community, but he was mostly ineffective.

Some estimates put the number of Jewish refugees from Europe officially admitted to Ireland as low as nine, and the figure is unlikely to exceed 50.

According to Professor Fanning, De Valera may have wanted to help Jews, but he was reluctant to take a stand because he knew it would be unpopular.

Efforts to bring 100 Jewish orphan children from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp soon after the end of the war were initially blocked. But De Valera was persuaded to allow them in on a temporary basis, and they stayed at Clonyn Castle in Westmeath.

Hungarian Holocaust survivor Alfred Leicht, whose family were all murdered, was almost 18 when he came to Ireland as part of this group.

He was damning about Ireland's approach to the refugees crisis in his memoir: "It is one of history's mocking ironies that inward-looking Ireland offered us, 100 dispersed and displaced orphans from war-torn Europe, only conditional and temporary status in their land. Yet masses of their own poverty-stricken citizens had emigrated to America during the 19th and the 20th centuries to seek a better life.

"Some of us might have opted to remain there had we been allowed to do so. But their restrictions were sadly emblematic of the antipathy and apathy that have so often spawned ugly misconceptions and inciting myths about Jews."


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