Irish History: Volume XV
Judaism in Ireland
Happy first night of Hanukkah, one and all!
Ireland is a country known for its religious turmoil, but specifically between Protestant and Catholic factions. These headlines are so overwhelming that it’s easy to forget that Ireland has residents who don’t proscribe to either of these religions, but the fact remains that Judaism has been practiced in Ireland for centuries. While the Jewish population of Ireland current day is definitely a small one (estimated at about 2,500 people present day,) they still exist and have their own rich (and equally tumultuous) history on the Emerald Isle. In honor of Hanukkah, we’re here tonight to tell it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The story of the Jewish people in Ireland is the story of the Jewish people everywhere: a difficult one. The first known Jewish relations with Ireland began in 1079 when five merchants attempted to immigrate and were denied entry into the country because of their religious affiliations. By the 12th and 13th centuries, a few practicing Jews had made it in, but when the English expelled all Jewish citizens in 1290, British rule extended to Ireland and the same fate befell the Irish Jews. But, in the 15th century a new Jewish community was established, largely refugees from the Spanish Inquisition, and for the next 300 years Jews seeking a safe haven were able to find one in Ireland. Most Jewish people in Ireland lived around the Dublin area (largely still true today,) leading to the establishment of congregations there and in Cork in the 18th century. However, with a rise in conversion due to denial of citizenship to Jewish people, numbers began to dwindle.
1822 saw a new rise in the Jewish population as more immigrants arrived from Germany, England, and Poland. This eventually led to an estimated 4,000 Jewish people residing in Ireland in 1901. Jewish communities were established in Londonderry, Waterford, Belfast, and Limerick, though Father John Creagh of Limerick took umbrage to this. This one man’s sermons were so incendiary against the “threat” of the Jewish people that most Jewish people in Limerick were forced to flee the country.
Despite being relegated to second class citizens by Irish law and regard, Jewish communities in Ireland were generally supportive of Irish nationalist cause in the early 20th century. Many housed rebels during the 1916 Easter Rising, with several prominent Jewish citizens joining the Irish Republican Army. This led to the 1937 constitution of Ireland recognizing Judaism as a minority faith, assuring the Jewish people in Ireland freedom from discrimination hereafter.
While the ravages of WWI lead to Ireland denying all refugees during WWII, including Jewish ones, the Jewish population in Ireland remained safe during WWII—one of the only European countries to hold this honor. And, of course, some brave citizens skirted the rules…including the Jewish community in Northern Ireland saving hundreds of Jewish children from Vienna and the Taoiseach of Ireland allowing over 100 Czech orphans to relocate to Ireland. As a result of this bending of the rules, the Jewish population of Ireland hit an all-time high in the 1940s at approximately 5,500-8,000.
Modern day Ireland, perhaps because of their history of oppression and rebellion, has become a relatively progressive country—a far cry from their past. Irish papers love to cover Hanukkah and educate the Irish populace about Jewish traditions. Interestingly, despite the small numbers of the Irish-Jewish community, menorahs are immensely popular in Ireland (a trend that began in the 1990s) as Yuletide decorations, with this article claiming you can see them by the hundreds in windows come December. Waterford Crystal, a famed glass making company out of—you guessed it—Waterford, even makes an exorbitantly priced glass menorah. There are events all over Ireland, concentrated mostly in Cork and Dublin, that invite people of all faiths to experience the magic of Hanukkah. While many of these experiences--like Cork’s public celebration of the last day of the 8-day festival—have moved online in recent times, they’ve just allowed more people to participate.
Because isn’t that what Hanukkah is all about? Togetherness, hope, freedom of religion, freedom from oppression—something the Irish, after their centuries of foreign and religious oppression, know all too well about. So, happy first day of Hanukkah to all—and remember, as children’s book author Norma Simon said: “The spirit of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is shared by all people who love freedom.”
Want to know a little more about Hanukkah in Ireland? Check out this great article!
This post is part of a series. Read our last Irish History post, all about the Irish connection to American Thanksgiving, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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