Today I visited the Irish Jewish Museum on Walworth Road, South Circular Road, Dublin. It is in some houses built by the Dublin Artisans’ Dwellings Company in Portobello in the late 1800s, many of which came to be occupied by Jewish families and the area became known as ‘Little Jerusalem’.
The museum itself was opened in 1985 by President of Israel Chaim Herzog, who was born in Ireland and grew up in the area. The ground floor of two houses forms the main exhibition area while the original synagogue for the community remains upstairs. The museum owns adjoining houses but these are not currently in use and are derelict.
It’s not like Libeskind’s Berlin Jewish Museum which is unique, harrowing, immersive and experiential. It’s not like New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage which is vast and poignant. It is however a different take on Ireland, Irishness and our tolerence or otherwise and for that it must be visited.
The number of Jews in Ireland probably peaked in the mid 1900s at around 5,000 but has declined to the hundreds. Many left for the new state of Israel or went to the UK, US or further afield for economic advancement or for cultural or personal reasons as the Irish pool shrunk. Intermarriage also reduced the numbers. One of the reasons a substantial population never developed here in the first place seems to be English influence and their expulsion from there in 1290 until the middle of the 17th century. However, the Jewish expulsion from Spain and Portugal did lead to some immigration here.
While the museum shows that Ireland seems to have been a tolerant safe haven relative to many other places it didn’t always cover oursleves in glory. It’s sadly inevitable that there is a display case in the museum covering antisemitism. There was the Redemptorist fueled Limerick Pogrom. It saw the city’s Jewish population fall from 171 in 1901 to 122 in 1911 to just 30 by 1926. During World War II Oliver J. Flanagan TD advocated
‘routing the Jews out of the country’
and there was an official indifference to the plight of Jews in Europe during and immediately after the war. The museum displays 1938 correspondence between the Dail’s only Jewish TD Bob Briscoe and then Minister for Justice Ruttledge who took a hard line regarding two young Jewish refugees. Briscoe points out that the head of music in the Army was German and had not sought Irish citizenship and the Director of the National Museum was Austrian and had recently been honored by Hitler, contrasting this with the negative treatment given to the two refugees.
In 1948 the Department of Justice explained that:
‘It has always been the policy of the Minister for Justice to restrict the admission of Jewish aliens, for the reason that any substantial increase in our Jewish population might give rise to an anti-Semitic problem’
That seems like a classic Irish solution to an Irish problem – rather than doing the right thing or looking deeper and wondering why people might be racist (and maybe sweeping statements like that do Irish people an injustice) we just keep them out and keep us ‘pure’.
I’m not normally a de Valera fan but he overruled the Department of Justice in 1948 and 150 refugee Jewish children were brought to Ireland. Earlier, in 1946, 100 Jewish children from Poland were brought to Clonyn Castle in Westmeath before rejoining their families or starting new lives in England, America or Israel. In 1952 Dev again had to overrule the Department of Justice to admit five Orthodox families who were fleeing the Communists. In 1966, the Dublin Jewish community arranged the planting and dedication of the Éamon de Valera Forest in Israel in recognition of his support for Ireland’s Jews.
Access to the Irish Jewish Museum is controlled, you are let in through a closed reinforced door and they check you out before they let you in and there is of course CCTV. It’s more low key than the airport style security at Jewish museums I’ve visited in New York and Berlin but the recent Jewish Museum of Belgium shooting shows these precautions are necessary. Imagine if you worked in a dusty museum but you had to consider your own personal safety when you went to work just because of religion?
Alan Shatter experienced antisemitism, there are still incidents of antisemitic graffiti around Ireland and at the last local elections there was an antisemitic canvasser using words like ‘jewess’ and condemning Shatter for his religion. That’s why a place like the Irish Jewish Museum is vital and why some of the comments against its proposed expansion stick in my craw.
Residents have some legitimate concerns about design, scale, traffic etc. but after the decision by An Bord Pleanala signs are still up around the area, something I found quite aggressive. The Board’s Inspector’s report documents some local objections that make me uncomfortable such as
‘The existing facility is of an historic nature associated with a community that no longer exists and its expansion to a museum of international standards is not warranted’
I think there is a story worth marking, otherwise what’s the point of museums? Are they just to tell the stories of the winners and the big guys?
The proposed museum will utilise the adjoining houses it owns and will demolish them, retaining the street facade with a modern, fit for purpose, museum behind.
Visit the museum as it is for the content and make up your own mind on the appropriateness of an expanded museum in an area which houses cafes and offices in addition to residential uses and is well served by public transport.
For me, I left convinced that keeping the museum at the heart of its historic community contributes to the understanding of how Dublin’s Jewish community lived and how it has contributed to the wider city’s and country’s culture and economy as well as celebrating heterogeneity while also carrying warnings from the past.