While Ireland is not an obvious destination for those interested in Jewish culture, the island does offer a few surprises. Ireland’s Jewish population has never been higher than 8000, and that was in the late 1940s. Today, it is down to under 2000, of which 1500 are in the Republic of Ireland. The last kosher butcher closed shop in May 2001.
The first trace of a Jewish presence is found in the Annals of Innisfallen, which relates the arrival of five Jews, probably from Rouen, in Limerick harbor. But it was not until 1290, and the expulsion of the Jews from England, that a real community took shape.
The expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth century sent a second wave of emigrants to Irish shores, mainly the southern coast.
A century later, in 1656 or 1660, depending on the source, a group of Marranos opened the first prayer hall, opposite Dublin Castle. The cemetery at Ballybough (County Dublin) has allowed Jewish burials since the beginning of the eighteenth century.
Between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the start of the twentieth century, pogrom drove Jews to Ireland from Central Europe, especially Lithuania.
Some of those who did not continue on to the Americas settled in Irish towns, built synagogues, opened kosher butcher shops, and created close-knit communities. The most important of them was located around Dublin’s South Circular Road.
Jews also became prominent in public life. Those from czarist Russia played a leading part in the establishment of the Tailors’ Union in 1909. Jews were involved in the independence movement, which triumphed in 1921.
Robert Briscoe is the best remembered of these: a colorful figure and, as he claimed, the only Jewish member of the IRA, he was twice mayor of Dublin, in 1956-57 and 1961-62. His son Benjamin occupied the same position in 1988-89.
Another memorable name is that of the Herzog family. After occupying the highest religious positions in Ireland, Rabbi Isaac Herzog became the first chief rabbi of the fledgling state of Israel. His son Chaim, who was born in Belfast and raised in Dublin, became the sixth president of the Jewish state. Today, the Dublin rabbinate’s offices are still at Herzog House, on Zion Road.