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Seeking a Safe Haven

The Jewish population of Ireland was quite small before the later nineteenth century. That was to change, however, as a result of persecution in eastern Europe and Russia, which resulted in large numbers of Jews moving west. By 1900 the Jewish population of Ireland had risen from a few hundred to over 3,000, with most settling in Dublin. By 1916 the community in Ireland was well-established. Unlike earlier waves of immigration into Ireland, such as those of the twelfth and seventeenth centuries, Jewish immigration was not focused on the island’s agricultural resources. It was urban rather than rural in orientation, the first such phenomenon since the Viking era a millennium earlier.

Late Victorian and Edwardian Dublin was a tale of two cities. There was the part which lived in relative comfort and there was the unemployed, impoverished and unskilled part. The poverty of the Dublin poor and the particular squalor of their living conditions was widely acknowledged across Europe.

There was disquiet in the city at the condition of the poor and piecemeal charitable efforts at amelioration were frequent. In 1919 for example, the Evening Herald was running one of its campaigns to raise funds for the purchase of boots for poor children, “the unfortunate little ones of our capital city”. Contributions were made by private individuals, businesses and workers in the city. On January 11th the paper acknowledged the week’s contributors, including one from “the women workers of the Shell factory”. It also acknowledged Jewish contributions: “Once again we acknowledge the goodness of our Jewish citizens, whose Board of Guardians handed us this week a gift of £12 for the fund to be administered without distinction. This makes the second subscription ‑ the first was one of £25 ‑ from the Jewish community in Dublin.”

The expression “the goodness of our Jewish citizens” is typical of a widespread and frequently expressed positive attitude towards the city’s Jewish population. The term “without distinction” employed by the Jewish Board of Guardians is also interesting. It suggests that Jewish Dublin was well aware of the confessional differences which characterised Irish society, differences which affected charitable activities, and that it wished to situate itself publicly as non-sectarian. It might also have in part been included lest any reader should have thought that the gift was to be applied solely to the Jewish poor. Dublin Jews wished to be seen as an integral part of Irish society, not as a group that was alien and inward-looking. The community wished to have a “normal” role in society, something which was denied to Jewish communities in many parts of Europe. Readers of newspapers in Ireland would have been well aware of this from regular press coverage of Jewish persecution.

For example, on August 5th, 1919, under the heading “Terrible Stories”, The Cork Examiner reported massacres of Jews in Ukraine:

Unexampled massacres of the Jews have been taking place. I give the following figures with reserve ‑ they are, no doubt, exaggerated ‑ but I believe that to say that thousands of Jews have been killed is to put the matter mildly.  ‑ 1,200 Jews are stated to have been murdered at Shitomir [more usually Zhitomir] … 600 at Kozoatyn [Kozyatyn] … 900 at Feleztyn, 2,000 at Fastaff … These are merely instances out of a long list which could be compiled of places where wholesale massacres of Jews have taken place. Sometimes they have been rounded up in the main street of the town and fired [upon] with machine guns from one end. Sometimes they have been burnt alive. A favourite game appears to have been to place a number of Jews in a line and see how many could be killed with one bullet. Six or Seven is stated to be the “record.”

21/1/2019