Sunday 18 November 2018

Horrid History: troubled past Irish-Jewish relations

With Molly Malone was dragged into the Gaza conflict this week, Damian Corless looks at the painful course of Irish-Jewish relations

Protest at Israeli Embassy in Dublin.
Protest at Israeli Embassy in Dublin.
The mock-up of iconic figures in burka, including Molly Malone.
Oliver J Flanagan

Ireland's iconic Molly Malone was dragged into the Gaza conflict this week when staff at the Israeli embassy in Ireland posted an image on Twitter depicting the fictitious fishmonger clad in a burka beside the slogan "Israel Now, Dublin Next". The doctored photo, one of several which raised the spectre of an Islamic takeover of Europe, was removed amid a storm of protest.

Israel's ambassador dismissed the stunt as a harmless piece of frivolity, stating "we are now in the middle of a war and I have other things to deal with". But it once again highlighted an unsettled relationship that can veer from civil to touchy to tetchy to worse.

Many here would take issue with a line issued from Israel's foreign ministry three years ago that Ireland was "the most hostile" country in Europe towards that State, but rampant anti-semitism has been a recurring feature of modern Irish history.

Grandpa Abe Simpson alluded to this sorry fact in an episode of the cartoon series entitled Homer The Vigilante in which he boasted that he helped run the Irish out of Springfield in 1904. It was a knowing reference to the shameful events that unfolded in Limerick exactly 110 years ago when the city's Jewish population fled a hostile Catholic majority stirred up by the firebrand Redemptorist priest Fr James Creagh.

Over the previous years Ireland's population of Jews had doubled to around 3,000 as fresh numbers sought sanctuary from Russian persecution. In one infamous sermon, Creagh lashed out at Limerick's working classes for lowering themselves "to become the slaves of Jew usurers". He berated the poor for entering into loan arrangements with "rapacious Jews" even though they knew that these were the same people who had crucified Christ. Inflamed by his hate-mongering, many of the congregation marched past the Jewish enclave on Colooney Street jeering their neighbours.

The next day the local rabbi wrote to the land reformer Michael Davitt informing him that Creagh had been put up to it by local shopkeepers who resented increased competition from Jewish peddlers. The next Sunday the priest renewed his attack, saying that while he wasn't advocating physical violence, good Catholics should "keep away from them and let them go to whatever country they came from". That night words were translated into action with some ugly incidents.

The priest pressed ahead with the boycott. By the close of 1904 he had opened a bank, a shop and the Workman's Industrial Association in an effort to force the Jews out. The boycott had the broad support of Limerick Corporation which convened a special meeting to seek the release of a stone-thrower jailed for injuring a Jew.

By chance, James Joyce set Ulysses in the summer of 1904, but this was because this was when he first walked out with the love of his life Nora Barnacle. But Joyce chose for his anti-hero Leopold Bloom, a decent bloke whose lot in life was to endure the casual anti-semitism of Irish life with as much cheer as he could muster.

The opening villain of Joyce's masterpiece was "stately plump Buck Mulligan" who was a thinly-disguised Oliver St John Gogarty, a vicious anti-semite despised by the author.

Ireland's record of accepting Jewish refugees from the Nazi terror before and during World War II was dismal. Official documents of the period show that the Irish authorities repeatedly trotted out two 'reasons' why Ireland couldn't provide more respite for a people suffering genocide. The first 'reason' was that Ireland was a poor country with scarce jobs to even support the people already living there.

While the jobs argument was flimsy in the face of a people being slaughtered, the second 'reason' had the ring of a sick joke. This 'reason' argued that while the Irish were by no stretch of the imagination anti-semitic in character, they would almost certainly become anti-semitic if any more Jews were allowed to settle amongst them.

The one-time Fine Gael Minister for Defence Oliver J Flanagan was first elected to the Dail in 1943 on a strong anti-semitic, pro-jobs ticket. Boasting later that he'd "put hundreds into jobs" he elaborated: "I have always believed in working for the people and helping a friend to secure a position in life."

His friendship did not extend to the Jewish people in his midst. One of his first speeches as a TD in 1943 was a call for stern emergency measures "directed against the Jews, who crucified Our Saviour nineteen thousand years ago and are crucifying us every day of the week".

Throwing his lot in with the Third Reich, he continued: "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 what orders you make. Where the bees are there is honey and where the Jews are there is money."

Three decades later, with Flanagan by now a shoo-in at Dail elections, Limerick's Lord Mayor Stephen Coughlan reopened the shameful chapter of 1904 with a jaw-dropping defence of Fr Creagh's 1904 hate-campaign. Credit unions offering competitive loans had begun to boom, and the Mayor shellshocked those attending the annual convention of the Credit Union League by branding Jewish people "extortioners" and "bloodsuckers".

He informed his gobsmacked audience: "I remember an unfortunate woman was having a baby and in they came getting their five shillings a week, ten shillings, seven-and-six, scourging her. They took the bed from under her. It is tragic for me to say this as Mayor of Limerick to say this but it is true."

And there was more. He raged on: "Fr Creagh, in his courageous way, declared war on the Jews. At the time Fr Creagh declared war on the extortionists he had the support of everybody in the city of Limerick."

As the Mayor's remarks exploded across the media a spokesman for the Redemptorists argued "there has been fault on both sides" and that Creagh "never intended that his words should be taken as encouraging personal attacks on the Jews".

Limerick's Catholic Bishop, Henry Murphy, found the whole affair regrettable for "the digging up of past skeletons". Faced with furious demands to apologise, Mayor Coughlan insisted he'd been taken up wrong and that he'd "only been drawing a parallel". In 1990 Limerick's officials sought to make amends for past shortcomings by restoring the city's Jewish cemetery.

But the streak of anti-semitism in Irish society runs deep. Two years ago then Justice Minister Alan Shatter took time out from grappling with Ireland's financial emergency to reflect on the 'Emergency' known to the rest of the world as WW2.

Opening a Holocaust exhibition, he called on the Irish nation to examine its conscience on this State's shameful treatment of Jews fleeing Nazi genocide. Ireland shut its doors to "German Jews trying to escape persecution and death" he said, citing Ireland's ambassador to Hitler's Berlin who said such refugees would be "a contamination".

His speech brought sadly predictable texts to radio shows that Shatter "should go back to where he came from", meaning Israel.

He'd heard it all before.

In one 1980s Dail debate, Dail correspondents recorded a Fianna Fail TD taunting: "Is it any wonder there is trouble in the country (meaning Israel) where Deputy Shatter originated from."

In the official Dail record, this became: "Is it any wonder there is trouble when Deputy Shatter originates that sort of thing."

"Sanitised," he chuckled when reminded of a little embarrassed fix that spoke volumes about a relationship that always been complicated, to put it mildly.

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