The Irish Jewish Museum: Tracing the History of Ireland’s Jews
Story and Photos by Carol
You may be surprised, as I was, to find an Irish Jewish Museum in the heart of Dublin. Indeed, you may be surprised that there’s an Irish Jewish population at all. But Ireland’s Jewish community, while small, has a long history behind it, one that is showcased in this small gem of a museum in Dublin’s once highly Jewish populated area of Portobello.
museum was opened in June, 1985, by the Irish-born former president
of Israel, Chaim Herzog, during a state visit to Ireland. Now, almost
20 years later, close to 10,000 visitors a year—from Irish schoolchildren
to tourists from around the world—visit the museum, many of whom (myself
included) stumble across its mention in guidebooks.
The former Walworth Road Synagogue, where the museum is housed, was built in the early 20th century and consisted of two adjoining terraced houses. With the shared wall between the houses eliminated, the synagogue accommodated approximately 160 men and women until the congregation moved to the suburbs of Dublin in the mid-1970s. The building remained locked for almost 12 years until a group of volunteers decided to found the museum to house historic records and preserve the cultural heritage of Ireland’s Jews.
“So many documents relating to European Jews were destroyed through no fault of their own,” said Raphael Siev, the museum’s curator and one of its founders. “A group of us met in 1984 and said, ‘We shouldn’t allow the same thing to happen here through neglect.”
The museum preserves an important, albeit small, part of Ireland’s cultural and historic heritage, said Siev, 69, a former attorney, who, like many of Ireland’s Jews, is of Eastern European descent.
Although the majority of Irish are Roman Catholics, Jews have lived in the Emerald Isle for centuries. The earliest reference can be found in the Annals of Innisfallen which record the arrival in 1079 of five Jews from “over the sea,” very likely merchants arriving from Rouen, the capital of Normandy, in France. More Jews arrived following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1496. The first Jewish Mayor of Ireland was William Annyas, of Youghal in County Cork, elected in 1555. (Other notable Jews in Irish politics include Sir Otto Yaffe, Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1899; Robert Briscoe, Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1956 and 1961; Ben Briscoe, Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1988; and Gerald Goldberg, Lord Mayor of Cork in 1977.)
The earliest record of a synagogue in Ireland dates from 1660 when a prayer room was established in Crane Lane opposite Dublin Castle. The oldest Jewish cemetery dates from the early 1700s and is located near Ballybough Bridge in the Dublin section of Fairview.
Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, more Jewish immigrants came to Ireland from Central Europe, but as in the United States, the largest influx arrived between 1880 and 1910 when approximately 2,000 Jews from Eastern Europe made their way to Ireland, settling in Belfast, Carlow, Cork, Derry, Drogheda, Dublin, Leixlip, Limerick, Lurgan, and Waterford.
After the end of World War II, Ireland’s Jewish population grew to its highest level, about 5,400. But for many of the country’s Jews, Ireland was just a stop along the way to a new life in the United States or Canada. Today’s Irish Jewish population numbers approximately 2,000, with 1,000 individuals in Dublin, another 500-600 outside the capital city, and about 300 in Northern Ireland.
Despite the small numbers, however, Dublin is home to two synagogues—one Orthodox, the other Progressive, as well as a Jewish day school, with approximately 300 students between the ages of 4 and 18.
the small museum and you will find yourself in a narrow hallway, with
walls lined with photographs, portraits, and newspaper clippings. To
your right is the first floor exhibition space with well-lit showcases
covering such topics as Dublin synagogues, Irish chief rabbis, dietary
laws, Jews in the provinces, the Herzog family, and “Ulysses,” James
Joyce’s literary masterpiece that traces a day in the life of its Jewish
protagonist, Leopold Bloom.
Also in the main exhibition space is a replica of a typical Jewish kitchen circa 1900 with the table set for Shabbat dinner.
the narrow stairway to the second floor, the sanctuary of the former
synagogue which still retains the pews where congregants gathered. Though
the synagogue is no longer in use as a house of worship, it is possible
to arrange permission to use for weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc.
The former women’s section is now given over to displays of Judaica from around the world, reflecting the Jewish lifecycle of circumcision, bar mitzvah, marriage, and family, and the various holidays. Several beautiful ark covers, reflecting changes in the styles of Jewish art through the years, are also on display.
For those whose ancestors may have lived in Ireland, the museum also houses a number of records of genealogical interest, including the Registry Book of the Hebrew Congregation in Dublin from November 28, 1838 to May 7, 1879; the Membership Register of the Dublin Hebrew Congregation, from September 16, 1841, to April 7, 1883; and the maternity attendance book of Mrs. Ada Shillman, the midwife of the Dublin Jewish community, who recorded the deliveries she attended from April 9, 1895, to April 29, 1980. The museum also holds a record book of deaths which occurred from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, with considerable details about the deceased.
Among the most poignant items on display is a showcase dedicated to the memory of Esther Steinberg, Ireland’s only Holocaust victim, who, in 1937, married a man from Antwerp and moved with him there. Two years later they fled to Paris where Steinberg gave birth to a son. In 1942, the young family was transported to Auschwitz where they died. Among the items on display is a letter returned to Steinberg’s father in Ireland with the haunting words, “Gone away.”
In another showcase rests a yellow Star of David with the French word “Juif” embroidered on it. Look closely at the Star and you will see tiny stitch marks on the edges. Curator Siev recalled meeting the woman to whom the star had belonged. The woman, now elderly, told Siev she had lived through the war in Paris. When Siev asked how she had done so, she told him that she had decided to pretend she wasn’t Jewish, but also chose to wear the Star of David, sewn to her bra throughout the war. The Star remained in a dresser drawer following the war, until the woman sent it to Siev to display in the museum.
Though there have been isolated incidents of vandalism against Jewish sites (several, in fact, just a few weeks ago), for the most part Ireland’s Jews have enjoyed a relatively trouble-free existence and the museum reflects that. “Ireland is one of the few countries that hasn’t had a nature of pogroms, or a history of discrimination,” said Siev, proudly adding, “Where else would you see, not the Scales of Justice, but a statue of Moses holding the tablets containing the Ten Commandments standing over the main entrance to the four courts in Dublin?
“In the 10 to 12 years between the time the synagogue was closed and the museum opened,” Siev went on to say, “there were no break-ins, no vandalism, no graffiti…despite the fact that the building was clearly marked as a synagogue. We got the keys, turned the lock, and apart from the dust and the cobwebs, everything was as it was when the synagogue closed.
“There’s your test…that tells you what you should know about Jewish life in Ireland.”
The Irish Jewish Museum is located at 3-4 Walworth Road (off Victoria Street), South Circular Road, Dublin 8, telephone: 01 4531797. Opening hours: May 1-September 30, Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; October 1-April 30, Sunday only, 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Admission is free but donations are gratefully accepted. Financial donations and Jewish items of interest from around the world are also accepted.
Ireland’s active synagogues include:
32 Rathfarnham Road
Terenure, Dublin 6
Telephone: 01 4908037
Dublin Progressive Congregation
7 Leicester Avenue
Rathgar, Dublin 6
Telephone: 01 4907605
Kosher meat and food:
SuperValue, 13 Braemor Road, Churchtown, Dublin.
Kosher meals and restaurants:
Call Hinda at 086 2788326.
Kosher breads and cakes are available from Bretzel’s Bakery, 1a Lennox Street, Portobello, Dublin 8, and Connolly’s Bakery at SuperValue, Churchtown, Dublin 14.