The earliest reference to the Jews in Ireland was in the year 1079. The Annals of Inisfallen record “Five Jews came from over sea with gifts to Tairdelbach [king of Munster], and they were sent back again over sea.” They were probably merchants from Normandy – http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/G100004/.
No further reference is found until nearly a century later, in the reign of Henry II of England. That monarch, fearful lest an independent kingdom should be established in Ireland, prohibited a proposed expedition there. Strongbow, however, went in defiance of the king’s orders; and, as a result, his estates were confiscated. In his venture Strongbow seems to have been assisted financially by a Jew; for under the date of 1170 the following record occurs: “Josce Jew of Gloucester owes 100 shillings for an amerciament for the moneys which he lent to those who against the king’s prohibition went over to Ireland.” (Jacobs, “Jews of Angevin England,” p. 51).
Jewish names appear in the “Calendar of Documents Relating to Ireland,” between 1171, when Joseph the Doctor is referred to, down to 1179. It is unlikely, however, that Jews settled in the island in appreciable numbers at that period; for no further record is found concerning them until several years later. An entry dated 1225 shows that Roger Bacon had borrowed considerable sums from English Jews in connection with his mission on the king’s service in Ireland.
By 1232, however, there was probably a Jewish community in Ireland, as a grant of July 28, 1232 by King Henry III to Peter de Rivall, gives him the office of treasurer and chancellor of the Irish Exchequer, the king’s ports and coast, and also “the custody of the King’s Judaism in Ireland.” This grant contains the additional instruction that “all Jews in Ireland shall be intentive and respondent to Peter as their keeper in all things touching the King.”
The Jews of this period probably resided in or near Dublin. In the Dublin White Book of 1241 there is a grant of land containing various prohibitions against its sale or disposition by the grantee. Part of the prohibition reads “vel in Judaismo ponere”. The last mention of Jews in the “Calendar of Documents Relating to Ireland” appears about 1286. When the expulsion from England took place (1290), the Irish Jews had doubtless to go as well. A permanent settlement of Jews was established, however, in the late 15th century. Following their expulsion from Portugal in 1496, some Jews settled on Ireland’s south coast. One of them, William Annyas, was elected as Mayor of Youghal, County Cork, in 1555.
The Dublin congregation prospered, and seems to have been in existence in the reigns of King William III. and Queen Anne. In a work published in the latter’s reign mention is made of a visit to London by a Rabbi Aaron Sophair of Dublin. No record, however, is found of any Jewish settlement outside of Dublin. As late as 1737 Cork seems to have had no Jewish community, though toward the middle of the century mention is made of Jews residing there.
In 1728, or thereabout, Michael Phillips presented the Dublin Jews with a piece of freehold ground at Ballybough Bridge for a cemetery; and about the middle of the eighteenth century the Bevis Marks Congregation of London assisted them financially in erecting a wall round the burial-ground. It should be mentioned that the Dublin congregation at one time proposed to affiliate itself with the Spanish and Portuguese congregation of London. Dublin in 1745 contained about forty Jewish families, comprising about 200 persons. Their synagogue was at Marlborough Green, and their cemetery in the center of the village of Ballybough.
In 1746 a bill was introduced in the Irish House of Commons “for naturalizing persons professing the Jewish religion in Ireland.” Another was introduced in the following year, agreed to without amendment, and presented to the Lord Lieutenant to be transmitted to England; but it never received the royal assent. These Irish bills, however, had one very important result; namely, the formation of the Committee of Diligence, which was organized by British Jews at this time to watch the progress of the measure. This ultimately led to the organization of the Board of Deputies, an important body which has continued in existence to the present time. Jews were expressly excepted from the benefit of the Irish Naturalization Act of 1783. The exceptions in the Naturalization Act of 1783 were abolished in 1846. In the same year the obsolete statute “De Judaismo,” which prescribed a special dress for Jews, was also formally repealed. The Irish Marriage Act of 1844 expressly made provision for marriages according to Jewish rites.
Daniel O’Connell is best known for the campaign for Catholic Emancipation; he also supported similar efforts for Jews. At his insistence, in 1846, the British law “De Judaismo,” which prescribed a special dress for Jews, was repealed. O’Connell said: “Ireland has claims on your ancient race, it is the only country that I know of unsullied by any one act of persecution of the Jews”. Many Irish starved during the Great Hunger. Help came from unexpected sources, such as the Sultan of Turkey, the Choctaw Indian tribe and some Jewish philanthropists. A Dublin newspaper, commenting in 1850, pointed out that Baron Lionel de Rothschild and his family had “contributed during the Irish famine of 1847 … a sum far beyond the joint contributions of the Devonshires, and Herefords, Lansdownes, Fitzwilliams and Herberts, who annually drew so many times that amount from their Irish estates.”
There was some Jewish immigration to Ireland during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1871 the Jewish population of Ireland was 258; by 1881 it had risen to 453; most of the immigration at this time came from England or Germany. In the wake of the Russian pogroms there was increased immigration, mostly from Eastern Europe (in particular Lithuania). By the year 1901 there were an estimated 3,771 Jews in Ireland, over half of them (2,200) residing in Dublin, and by 1904 the total Jewish population had reached an estimated 4,800. As Ireland was part of the United Kingdom at this time, the Jewish community benefited from the British government’s emancipation laws.
The anti-Semitic boycott in Limerick in the first decade of the 20th century is known as the Limerick Pogrom, and caused many Jews to leave the city. It was instigated by an influential fundamentalist Catholic priest, Fr. John Creagh of the Redemptorist Order. He was moved by his superiors to an island in the Pacific Ocean soon after, and he died in Wellington, New Zealand in 1947. Joe Briscoe, son of the late Robert Briscoe, Irish Jewish politician, describes the Limerick episode as “an aberration in an otherwise almost perfect history of Ireland and its treatment of the Jews”. Robert Briscoe, twice Lord Mayor of Dublin (1956 – 1957 & 1961 – 1962) was a prominent member of the IRA during the Irish War of Independence. The Blueshirts of the 1930s were, at least partially, anti-semitic. Gerald Goldberg (1912-2003), who was born in Cork, related an incident on the RTÉ documentary “A Corkman, an Irishman and a Jew”. When he was a student at UCC he rose to speak at a debate, the auditor silenced him, as he was a “foreigner” and only “Irishmen” were permitted to speak. He left, and although he wished to forget the incident, other students led by the son of the martyred Sinn Féin Lord Mayor, Thomas Mac Curtain, insisted that he return. The hall was filled with Mac Curtain supporters from the student membership of the IRA. The auditor was silenced and Gerald Goldberg made his speech. He suffered no further anti-semitic incidents. The Fianna Fáil government later banned the Blueshirts. In 1977 Goldberg became Lord Mayor of Cork. During his term of office he opened the Trinity Presbyterian Bridge, which in typically Cork fashion was nicknamed “The Passover.”
Ireland’s behaviour towards Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust was, in the later words of Justice Minister Michael McDowell “antipathetic, hostile and unfeeling”. Dr Mervyn O’Driscoll of University College Cork reported on the unofficial and official barriers that prevented Jews from finding refuge in Ireland: “Although overt anti-Semitism was untypical, the Irish were indifferent to the Nazi persecution of the Jews and those fleeing the third Reich. A successful applicant in 1938 was typically wealthy, middle-aged or elderly, single from Austria, Roman Catholic and desiring to retire in peace to Ireland and not engage in employment. Only a few Viennese bankers and industrialists met the strict criterion of being Catholic, although possibly of Jewish descent, capable of supporting themselves comfortably without involvement in the economic life of the country.” It is estimated that Ireland accepted as few as 30 Jewish refugees before and during World War II.
There was some domestic anti-Jewish sentiment during World War II as well, most notably expressed in a notorious speech to the Dáil in 1943, when independent T.D. Oliver J. Flanagan advocated “routing the Jews out of the country”. Two Irish Jews, Esther Steinberg and her infant son, are known to have been killed during the Holocaust, which otherwise did not substantially directly affect the Jews actually living in Ireland. Many of Ireland’s Jews joined the part-time army reserve during the war. A newspaper report in the Evening Mail said of a visit to a police station that “I thought that I was in a synagogue!”. The Jewish population of Ireland reached around 5,500 in the late 1940s, but has since declined to around 1,800, mainly through emigration to larger Jewish communities such as those in England and Israel. During the years of economic growth new employment oportunities were created with the associated inward immigration that this has brought, the Jewish Communities have also benefited, with new families arriving and settling down. The Jewish School has welcomed the new youngsters, and the newly arrived families find a warm welcome. As the inward immigration continues to rise rapidly, there is a chance once again of Dublin becoming a thriving Jewish city.