Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce: A Socioeconomic History

Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce: A Socioeconomic History

by Cormac Ó Gráda


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James Joyce's Leopold Bloom--the atheistic Everyman of Ulysses, son of a Hungarian Jewish father and an Irish Protestant mother--may have turned the world's literary eyes on Dublin, but those who look to him for history should think again. He could hardly have been a product of the city's bona fide Jewish community, where intermarriage with outsiders was rare and piety was pronounced. In Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce, a leading economic historian tells the real story of how Jewish Ireland--and Dublin's Little Jerusalem in particular--made ends meet from the 1870s, when the first Lithuanian Jewish immigrants landed in Dublin, to the late 1940s, just before the community began its dramatic decline.

In 1866--the year Bloom was born--Dublin's Jewish population hardly existed, and on the eve of World War I it numbered barely three thousand. But this small group of people quickly found an economic niche in an era of depression, and developed a surprisingly vibrant web of institutions.

In a richly detailed, elegantly written blend of historical, economic, and demographic analysis, Cormac Ó Gráda examines the challenges this community faced. He asks how its patterns of child rearing, schooling, and cultural and religious behavior influenced its marital, fertility, and infant-mortality rates. He argues that the community's small size shaped its occupational profile and influenced its acculturation; it also compromised its viability in the long run.

Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce presents a fascinating portrait of a group of people in an unlikely location who, though small in number, comprised Ireland's most resilient immigrant community until the Celtic Tiger's immigration surge of the 1990s.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691171050
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 06/28/2016
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Cormac Ó Gráda is Professor of Economics at University College Dublin. His seven previous books include Black '47 and Beyond (Princeton), which won the 2000 James J. Donnelly, Sr., Prize for Best Book on Irish History or Social Studies and was one of Choice's Outstanding Academic Books of 1999.

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Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce

A Socioeconomic History

By Cormac Ó Gráda


Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8021-8



The circumstances in which my grandparents left Lithuania meant that the connection was totally severed in a dramatic and painful way. In my imagination, Lithuania is a place of shtetls and pogroms, in no sense a homeland.

Barbara Lantin, Irish-born Litvak

The most fundamental cause of emigration from eastern Europe was the failure of the Jewish economy to grow as rapidly as the Jewish population.

Todd Endelman, The Jews of Britain

In The Commonwealth of Oceana, a political pamphlet first published in 1656, James Harrington described "Panopea" (Ireland) as "the soft mother of a slothful and pusillanimous people." Neither conquest by arms nor replantation with "a new race" of British colonists had made Panopea viable. If Harrington had his way, it would have been planted "with Jews, allowing them their own rites and laws, for that would have brought them suddenly from all parts of the world, and in sufficient numbers." There the Jews could have combined both trade and agriculture, in which they had excelled in the Land of Canaan. Panopea, thus peopled and transformed, would be worth "a matter of four millions dry rents."

Harrington's fantasy was probably inspired by Oliver Cromwell's efforts in 1655 to allow a group of Marano Jewish merchants from hostile Spain to remain in England. His stance would make Cromwell, reviled in Irish nationalist memory for atrocities committed in Drogheda and Wexford in 1649, a champion for Jews everywhere. Harrington and Oceana were quickly forgotten, and in the following centuries Ireland would become a place of emigration, not immigration. During the century or so before World War I the Irish were the most emigration-prone people in Europe. Between the battle of Waterloo and the Great Famine of the 1840s, they made up about one-third of all permanent migrants from the Old World to the New. In the wake of the Great Famine, one million out of a population of 8.5 million left for Britain, North America, and further afield. Thereafter Irish emigration was great enough to make Ireland the only European country to lose population between the 1850s and the 1910s.

Irish emigration has marked the history of many lands and spawned a significant specialist literature. This literature debates its causes and effects, and highlights its exceptional features, such as the high share of women and unmarried young people in the post-famine outflow and (until very recently) the small proportion of returning emigrants. This last characteristic is a reminder of what Ireland was not in this period: a place of significant immigration.

The number of foreign-born (i.e., non–United Kingdom) residents living in Ireland at any one time grew during the nineteenth century but remained a miniscule fraction of the total population. They numbered only 4,471 (0.05 percent of the total) in 1841; 10,420 (0.18 percent) in 1861; 11,210 (0.22 percent) in 1881; and 18,905 (0.43 percent) in 1911. In post-famine Ireland, moreover, two-thirds or more of the foreign-born had been born in "America" or in the United States, and their age distribution implies that most of them were the children of returning emigrants. In 1881 70 percent of the American born living in Ireland were aged less than twenty years, and in 1911 the proportion was still over 60 percent. By contrast, in 1881 only 15 percent of Ireland's European-born residents were aged less than twenty, and in 1911 only 14 percent of the French, 10 percent of the Russian, and 7 percent of the Germans were under twenty years. In assessing the reactions of Irish people to "strangers" a century ago, the tiny number of foreigners resident in the country at any one time should not be overlooked.

This brings us to a surprising feature of Ireland's Jewish immigration. If we set aside the inflow from America, which was made up mainly of people of Irish stock, then in their day the "blow-ins" from eastern Europe formed Ireland's biggest group of non–UK immigrants since the French Huguenots two centuries earlier. In 1911 Jews would have accounted for nearly all of the 1,985 Russian-born residents, who easily outnumbered natives of France (1,104), of whom over one-third were either fishermen or seamen who happened to be in the country on census night, and natives of the German Empire (963). Natives of Italy (417), the Low Countries (283), and Scandinavia (312) were few by comparison.

The immigrants from eastern Europe, mainly Lithuanians, who began arriving in the early 1870s dwarfed any previous Jewish settlement in Ireland. There had been a Sephardic presence in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but few Sephardim settled permanently. They supported a synagogue on Crane Lane (linking Essex and Dame Streets), but theirs was an offshoot of London's Sephardic Bevis Marks community, and they preferred to be buried in London with their kin. After about 1730 Ireland's Jewish community, such as it was, was mainly Ashkenazi. Its marginality is reflected in its difficulties in paying the rent on a newly acquired graveyard at Ballybough outside Dublin and keeping it in repair. Neither the date of foundation nor the exact location of its synagogue in Marlborough Green is known for certain, and in the late eighteenth century "attendance was meagre and the services irregular." In the wake of legislation in 1816 allowing for the naturalization of Jews resident in Ireland, the number of immigrants rose, but the small size of the community before the influx from eastern Europe may be inferred from the number of burials in Ballybough: twenty-two in 1842–49, an annual average of three in the 1850s, five in the 1860s, and four in the 1870s.

According to the decennial census of population, the Jewish population of Ireland (North and South) rose from 285 in 1871 to 5,148 in 1911, and to 5,221 in 1936/37. A peak was probably reached on the eve of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1947; the number of Jews on the island of Ireland fell to 3,592 in 1971 and there are about two thousand today. Dublin always accounted for the lion's share of the immigrants. The number living in Dublin city and county rose from 189 in 1871 to 352 in 1881, 1,057 in 1891, 2,169 in 1901, and 2,965 in 1911. The rate of growth slowed thereafter: Dublin had 3,150 Jews in 1926, and 3,372 in 1936. Belfast and Cork, the only other Irish cities with significant Jewish communities, contained 1,139 and 340, respectively, in 1911. By comparison, on the eve of the World War I London contained 180,000 Jews, Manchester 30,000, and Liverpool 11,000. Further afield, New York at this time contained about 1.1 million Jewish inhabitants, Chicago 200,000, and Boston 80,000, while Montreal had 35,000 and Sydney 6,000. The small size of the Jewish communities of Dublin, Belfast, and Cork relative to these other cities was almost certainly a reflection of Ireland's peripheral location and the more limited economic prospects facing both immigrants and natives there at the time. A century earlier, an English visitor reckoned that the small number of Jews in Dublin reflected the city's lowly economic status, since the presence or absence of Jews was "a barometer of poverty."

The timing of Ireland's post-1870 Jewish immigration cannot be known with any certainty. Decennial census data suggest that it was mostly concentrated in the 1880s and 1890s. Data on the numbers passing through or remaining only for a short time are unavailable, and civil unrest resulted in the absence of a census between 1911 and 1926. The lopsided age distributions of Russian-born residents in 1926 and 1936 also suggest that most had arrived before 1914. Thus, in 1926 82.5 percent of Russian-born Jewish males and 78 percent of Russian-born females in urban Leinster (mainly Dublin) were aged thirty-five years or over. A decade later, the percentages had risen to 93.3 and 85.2, respectively.

Most of the newcomers were Litvaks. In other words, they had been born in Lithuania, then part of the tsarist empire. The first arrived, probably via London, in the early 1870s. It is possible that the London Jewish Board of Guardians rerouted a few of them to Dublin, since many in the long-settled Anglo-Jewish community were eager to be rid of the new arrivals from the east. Thereafter the migration to Dublin had all the characteristics of a classic chain migration. Many of the immigrants were related "by ties of blood and marriage."

The immigrants had strong links with their coreligionists in English cities such as Manchester and Leeds. Several of the men enumerated in the Irish census of 1911 were married to English-born wives, and a smaller number of the women to English-born husbands. The community also had links with South Africa, which like Ireland was a destination favored by Lithuanian emigrants. The outbreak of the Boer War produced a temporary influx of Litvaks from South Africa into Ireland in 1899–1900. About three hundred returned there at the end of the war, and others left for South Africa later.

Leaving Home: History and Memory

Why did Ireland's Litvaks leave Lithuania? Presumably for much the same reasons as those bound elsewhere. An economist's answer would involve documenting a presumed widening gap between expected incomes in the home and host countries, and changes in the cost of moving from one to the other. The economist would also take account of the "friends and neighbors effect," whereby the stock of migrants in the host country at any point in time is an added influence on the flow at that time. While such an approach fails when the bulk of would-be migrants are either too poor to move or too rich to care about the financial gains, it explains much of the variation in the timing and size of nineteenth-century Irish and Italian migration to North America. However, most accounts of Jewish emigration from the tsarist empire reject an analysis along such lines. Instead, they highlight the part played by anti-Jewish discrimination, typified by the so-called May Laws of 1882, and by pogroms, or the threat of pogroms, in the wake of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.

The decades between the 1880s and 1914 were punctuated by outbreaks of persecution and discriminatory legislation, notably the expulsion of thousands of Jews from Moscow in the early 1890s and major pogroms in Kishinev (Chisinau) in Moldova (1903) and Bialystok in northeastern Poland (1906). Legislation banned Jews from living outside the shtetls (as their towns or urban neighborhoods were known) and from buying land, and placed quotas on their entry into the professions and third-level educational institutions. The virtual annihilation barely half a century later of Lithuania's Jewish community by the Nazis, aided and abetted by local murderers, adds point to such accounts.

The appeal of an interpretation stressing political factors is clear. One extreme version is given in a memoir of a successful Dublin Litvak clan, The Noyek Story:

Lithuania of the 1880's was subject to a tyranny more crushing that that which raged in Ireland. An entire people were being herded by the conquering Cossacks into slavery. Children were taken from parents for slave labour in the mines and to the labour camps of their Tsarist masters. Theirs was a life sentence and their parents preferred the ultimate risk of abandoning their children to the vagaries of an oceanic voyage in the hope that they would eventually arrive in the land of the free.

More moderate versions of this theme are found in memoirs such as Cork-born David Marcus's Oughtobiography, which refers to "Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms of their native Czarist-ruled Lithuania." Dubliner June Levine, whose grandfather "came from Riga in Lithuania [sic]," claimed that "[h]e was conscripted into the Russian Army at the age of twelve but he ran away to escape a pogrom." Like him, most of the Jewish community in Ireland "came from backgrounds of terrible trouble." Levine's ex-mother-in-law "was one of two survivors of a family of thirteen who had been killed and raped in Russia. Her two sisters had been raped to death by soldiers." Levine's husband's surname "was taken for the town from which the Russian army chased his parents." Long after the father of Israel Sieff, founder of the Marks & Spencer retailing dynasty, left Lithuania, "[e]ven in England, in Leeds, the pogroms were fresh in his mind." The reminiscences of Glasgow-born Jack Caplan, whose parents were emigrants from Lithuania, are in the same vein. Jack's parents, "like thousands of other victims of anti-semitism, were compelled to flee from the pogroms, the burnings, the killings, and the rapings permitted and encouraged by the corrupt Russians."

Such accounts both reflect and inform Jewish collective or folk memory of pre-1914 emigration from tsarist Russia. They also have colored many academic accounts of the outflow. Cases in point are Mark Wischnitzer's To Dwell in Safety: The Story of Jewish Migration since 1800 and Samuel Joseph's pioneering study of Jewish emigration to the United States. Joseph did not entirely dismiss what he dubbed "the forces of economic attraction exercised in the United States," but his main emphasis was on "the exceptional economic, social, and legal conditions in Eastern Europe," which were the product of "governmental persecution." More recently, the Jewish American historian Irving Howe has described the typical emigrant as having "[run] away from pogroms," and David Vital's account in A People Apart: The Jews in Europe, 1789–1939 argues likewise, although he also lists as a factor the "steadily deepening loss of regard for the old habits and norms of Jewish life as well as for those who continued to uphold and teach them." In its 2003 Christmas issue, The Economist referred to "new restrictions governing where they could live and work in the Russian empire, plus pogroms, war and revolution [driving] more than 2m Jews out of eastern Europe." Closer to home, the account of emigration in Dermot Keogh's acclaimed Jews in Twentieth-century Ireland is heavily dependent on stories of pogroms and persecution for its account of the Litvak migration to Ireland.

The May Laws and their aftermath undoubtedly affected the psyche of émigré Russian Jews and their descendants, most of whom remain convinced that those who left Lithuania were refugees or asylum seekers, rather than primarily economic migrants. The argument mirrors that of the nationalist historiography of nineteenth-century Irish emigration, which placed almost exclusive emphasis on "push" factors such as evictions by rapacious landlords and politico-religious persecution. In Ireland this line of argument no longer carries conviction. Whereas political factors undoubtedly left a minority no choice but to leave, most migrants were influenced by economic forces at home and in the host economies.

Specialists in the history of Jewish emigration from tsarist Russia reject an interpretation that places primary emphasis on persecution and discrimination. And they would accept that, whatever the validity of such an interpretation for other parts of the tsarist lands, it cannot account for the bulk of the pre-1914 Jewish outflow from Lithuania. Lithuania, at the northern end of the Pale of Settlement, was not tsarist Russia. While there was no love lost between Jew and non-Jew in the Baltic provinces, over the centuries Jews had not been subject to the outrages perpetrated on their coreligionists elsewhere. Between 1881 and 1914, as for centuries before, Lithuania was virtually pogrom-free. One account lists as an exception "the sudden enforced baptism that began in 1495 and ended eight years later with the full rehabilitation of all the converts." As in the Irish case, a minority of engagé traditionalists are reluctant to accept new research findings that the emigrants' primary motivation was economic.

Pogroms elsewhere in the empire in the wake of the May Laws may well have unsettled those living in the Litvak shtetls, but the collective memory of the emigrants' descendants is of direct rather than vicarious experience of pogroms. Why do pogroms and persecution feature so much in accounts of the post-1880 emigration? Why are they recurring motifs in Irish Jewish collective or social memory? The contextualization and function of these myths is really beyond the scope of this study, but the extensive literature on collective and social memory offers some clues. It makes the point that such memory is prone to be partisan, simplistic, and subject to chronological confusion, making events in the distant past seem as though they happened yesterday. Collective memory, in this view, usually tells us more about the needs of the present than the past. David Cesarani's study of Jewish migration to England provides an apt example. Cesarani, a leading specialist in Jewish history, documents several myths concerning the migration — the prevalence of pogroms, fear of military conscription, being tricked into disembarking in Britain rather than in America — and deems them all to be alibis for what he dubs "opportunistic migration." In an era of increasing hostility toward immigration in both the United Kingdom and the United States it helped to be seen as a political refugee and asylum seeker. Irish American collective memory of the Great Famine and the landlord-tenant system yields some points of comparison. In the German American collective memory of migration, it is a similar story: the "1848-er" and the Great War draft dodger also play roles out of all proportion to their actual numbers. But there was a specifically Jewish aspect to this, too. It would be surprising if the subsequent catastrophic history of world Jewry did not also influence the collective memory of Jewish immigration to Ireland. But the meta-narrative of Jewish suffering goes back much further — consider the archetypal narratives of Exodus and the Passover Haggadah, with their themes of deliverance from destruction by hostile outsiders. Such narratives were endorsed by Zionism, which had a strong following in Ireland from the outset.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Tables ix

Acknowledgments xi


CHAPTER 1: Arrival and Context 9

Leaving Home: History and Memory 12

The Migration in Context 21

CHAPTER 2: "England-Ireland" and Dear Dirty Dublin 30

Mortality 33

Living Standards 40

Interwar Dublin 41

Water and Sanitation 42

The Jewish Community in Context 43

CHAPTER 3: "They Knew No Trade But Peddling" 45

The Weekly Men 47

The Old and the New Peddling 56

"The Jewman Moneylender" 61

CHAPTER 4: Self-Employment, Social Mobility 72

Artisans 72

Occupational Mobility 73

Immigrants as Entrepreneurs and Workers 84

Technical Appendix: More on Age and Occupational Choice in the United States 92

CHAPTER 5: Settling In 94

Housing and Settlement 94

Six Streets in Little Jerusalem 105

Within-Street Clustering 108

Cork and Belfast Jewries 115

CHAPTER 6: Schooling and Literacy 122

CHAPTER 7: The Demography of Irish Jewry 129

The 1911 Population Census 131

The Fertility Transition 134

Jewish and Gentile Fertility 136

Infant and Child Mortality 143

Mortality in Jewish Ireland 147

Culture Mattered 152

Technical Appendix: Accounting for the Variation in Fertility and Infant/Child Mortality 154

CHAPTER 8: Culture, Family, Health 160

Litvak Culture 164

Food, Drink, and Health 171

CHAPTER 9: Newcomer to Neighbor 178

In the Beginning 179

Remembering Limerick 191

Autobiographical Memory 194

Social Learning across Communities? 200

A Note on Litigation between Jews 202

CHAPTER 10: Ich Geh Fun "Ire"land 204

Religion 205

From Little Jerusalem to Rathgar and Beyond 206

Decline 209

APPENDIX 1: Letters to One of the Last "Weekly Men" 217

APPENDIX 2: Mr. Parnell Remembers 221

APPENDIX 3: Louis Hyman, Jessie Bloom, and The Jews of Ireland 224

Notes 229

Bibliography 271

Index 295

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