On James Joyce, Ulysses, and the Irish Jewish Community
Jo Glanville Chronicles Her Family's Story in Ireland
More than twenty years ago, the writer Colm Tóibín called the shrinking Irish-Jewish population “one of the great failures of independent Ireland.” The 2016 Irish census, however, reported a dramatic increase in the number of Jews, rising by 30 per cent to 2557, more than half of whom were in Dublin. At the time, Maurice Cohen, chair of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland, attributed the rise to the Israelis working in Ireland.
The country’s new status as the European Silicon Valley was turning out to be an unexpected fulfilment of Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock, returning the Jews to Europe on contracts with tech companies. “What was really amazing was there were Jews in all bar one of the twenty-six counties,” says Cohen. “There were even six people declaring themselves as Jewish up in Donegal. What Jews are doing in Donegal, I don’t know.” For Cohen, the challenge is how to attract the Israelis into the Irish-Jewish fold: the numbers have been declining since the war. There is no guarantee that the Israelis will stay and permanently reverse the trend.
Ireland’s Jewish population has always been small. Even at its height, during the 1940s, it never reached much more than 5000. Why would anyone want to immigrate to Ireland? It was the country people left. The joke among Jews is that they ended up there by mistake, on their way to America. My grandfather, Joseph Goldberg, was born in Dublin in 1897. His father, Marcus, (a dentist) and mother, Leah, were part of the wave of migration from Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century.
When James Joyce was asked why he chose a Jew as his central character in Ulysses (which marks its centenary this year), he said: “because only a foreigner would do.” The arrival of Jews in Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century was the largest migration to Ireland from outside Britain since the Huguenots; they were the most visible foreigners in Dublin. Joyce believed that there was no hostility towards the Jews, “but contempt, yes the contempt people always show for the unknown.” His character Leopold Bloom is not, however, your typical Irish Jew. He is a Hungarian Jew, on his father’s side, and Irish Protestant on his mother’s, and is thinking about eating a pork kidney when he makes his entrance in the novel.
Most of the Jews in Ireland at that time came from Lithuania and were observant. When Joyce wrote Ulysses he was in exile himself, and it’s more likely, as the historian Cormac Ó Gráda has observed, that Bloom’s origins were inspired by the secular community in Trieste than by any Jew he met in Dublin (Italo Svevo was among his friends). Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellman noted that Joyce did not write Ulysses with an agenda to improve the lot of minorities: he was attracted by the isolation and domesticity of Jews, qualities with which he identified. He also thought the Jews and the Irish had much in common: “in being impulsive, given to fantasy, addicted to associative thinking, [and] wanting in rational discipline.” As a non-Jewish Jew, an outsider who also belongs, Bloom is a mirror, as Neil R. Davison has commented, of Joyce’s “anti-Catholic Irishness.”
In a less arduous replay of my great-grandfather Marcus’s journey, I am hoping to become Irish myself, in a bid to remain part of the EU after Brexit and still have the chance to live and work elsewhere in Europe. When I sent off for a copy of my grandfather’s birth certificate (required by the Department of Foreign Affairs, among other documents, to prove my connection with Ireland), I was surprised to see my great-grandfather’s profession listed as draper rather than dentist. Drapers, I discovered, were peddlers, door-to-door salesmen selling clothing and dry goods. Known as “shilling-a-week men”, they were the first to offer credit repaid in instalments to the Irish population. Many of Ireland’s Jewish immigrants started out as peddlers.
In 1904, the year Ulysses is set, a Limerick priest condemned the weekly payments as “robbery” and called on the local community to boycott the Jews. The incident is known as the Limerick pogrom, which is overstating the facts, but it was the most significant outbreak of antisemitism in Ireland. The Jewish Chronicle’s reporter saw people being attacked in the street: “I myself witnessed one scene where a Jew was actually running for his life.” As Joyce scholars have pointed out, Ulysses reflects some of the contemporary discussion about Jews at the time—both negative and positive. “Mark my words, Mr Dedalus … England is in the hands of the jews,” Mr. Deasy tells Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s novel. “And they are the signs of a nation’s decay … the jew merchants are already at their work of destruction.” Deasy’s racism echoes the words of the writer and politician Oliver St. John Gogarty, who wrote a couple of years after the boycott: “I can smell a Jew, though, and in Ireland there’s something rotten.”
Dedalus’s response (“A merchant is one who buys cheap and sells dear … jew or gentile, is he not?”) similarly echoes one of the Jews’ greatest defenders at the time, politician and nationalist Michael Davitt: “And are the Gentiles of the lofty moral school of critics so much above the doctrine and practice of the commercial greed of buying in the cheapest, and selling in the dearest, market?” Gogarty was a friend of Joyce—they briefly lived together in the Martello tower that features in the opening scene of Ulysses—and is better known as the inspiration for the character Buck Mulligan rather than the antisemitic Deasy.
By the time my grandfather was growing up, his father, Marcus, was doing well as a quack dentist. They lived in Harcourt Street in a large house on the edge of the Jewish neighborhood in Portobello, known as Little Jerusalem, between the Grand Canal and Pleasants Street. It was the heart of Dublin Jewish life. The kosher shops have vanished now, along with the many synagogues, though one became the home of the Irish Jewish Museum in Walworth Road.
In a recent essay about Ulysses, the Irish novelist Anne Enright criticized Ireland’s “homogeneous, nationalist history-making” for neglecting the area’s history. Stuart Rosenblatt, a Jewish Dubliner who was born in Belfast, has dedicated the past thirty years to rescuing that history, and the history of all Ireland’s Jews, gathering and collating the records of the community, unearthing boxes of archives, seeking out information on births, deaths, engagements, marriages, schools and naturalization. He left school at fifteen and later took a night class in genealogy. He is now president of the Genealogical Society of Ireland.
Rosenblatt had to go to fourteen different sources to gather information on deaths in the community. He also combed through school records to find Jewish pupils. The records of the Jewish community date back to the eighteenth century (although some go as far back as the sixteenth century), when there was a Sephardi as well as an Ashkenazi population. One of Charles I’s courtiers even suggested turning Ireland into a national home for the Jews.
Rosenblatt’s research has filled twenty-three volumes, which now sit on the shelves of the National Archives in Dublin, as well as in the Irish Jewish Museum and the National Library. Volume twenty-four is a work in progress. “I realized this stuff would disappear and did disappear,” he says. “I just felt that nobody had done this before.” He wants anyone tracking down their Irish Jewish history to contact him and has helped my own family find out more about our roots. It’s an exceptional act of public service and historical sleuthing, for Ireland as well as the Jewish community, but Rosenblatt has never received any funding. “I suffer from progonoplexia,” he says—an obsession with ancestry. “There’s no known cure; the only cure I can think of is another death record.”
In the 1911 census, there are eight people listed at my grandfather’s address in Harcourt Street, including four children (Joseph was one of ten children) and two Roman Catholic servants. The house doubled as a dental surgery, and my great-grandfather Marcus employed dentists who worked in the countryside as well as in Dublin. He also owned a property in Mary Street, with a “bazaar” on the ground floor selling wool, hairpins and buttons, and a cellar where the first “living pictures” in Ireland were shown. (James Joyce opened the first cinema in Dublin, the Volta, in 1909, in the same street; I have not been able to verify if it was in fact the same address.) It’s a remarkable success story for Marcus, going from being a peddler at the time of my grandfather’s birth to owning a large house with servants fourteen years later.
In a short, unpublished memoir, my grandfather describes a home furnished with Chinese vases, chandeliers and “priceless” Dresden china. His father was a violent man, who treated his children like “vassals” and took most of their earnings. On one occasion, he smacked one of his daughters in the face when he saw her out at a seaside resort; on another, he attempted to punch one of his sons, Jack, who was on a date with an actress. Jack finally left home when his father struck him on the head with a wine bottle. After my grandfather qualified as a dentist, his father vandalized the dental chair one day so he could not treat any patients.
There are dramatic eyewitness accounts in the memoir of the Easter Rising in 1916, when my grandfather was eighteen. He describes seeing a British soldier shot dead at the top of Harcourt Street near his home, then running for his life through a gunfire battle in Camden Street. He remembers walking past the post office on O’Connell Street, headquarters of the uprising’s leaders and one of Dublin’s most famous landmarks: “Men in all sorts of dress with guns in their hands looked out of the windows … and people were walking about the streets furtively looking at the men in the post office as they went by. There was an unnatural calm all over the city.” There is also a daring mission across the rooftops to get to the bakery when they were running out of food.
The memoir is full of picaresque stories about his brothers: Louis, who ran off to fight in the Boer War and lost land in a poker game, and handsome Jack, who owned racehorses. Four of the brothers became dentists (my grandfather’s patients at his West End surgery in London included some of the most famous comedians of the day, such as Stan Laurel) and almost all changed their names from Goldberg to Glanville or some variation of it. My grandfather only abandoned his original surname when he was living in London, in 1929—an indictment of the antisemitism in England at the time. But there are some searing incidents of antisemitism during his youth in Dublin, which he curiously underplays in his account.
On one occasion, he was called up in front of the class and told to list the Jewish holidays, after he had asked for time off for Purim. On another, he was tied to a post by some of the boys at the Christian Brothers school in Westland Row (which still exists) and baptized—“all of course in harmless fun.” As he was dying, he told my father that he had been forcibly baptized. He was extremely bitter about the racism he endured, particularly in England.
Novelist Lana Citron (a surname that appears in Ulysses) grew up in Dublin in the 1970s and ’80s. She wrote a short film, Hannah Cohen’s Holy Communion, about a Jewish girl who wants to be like all the little Christian girls and attempts to make communion. Her latest novel, The Return of Annie K, is set in Ireland’s Jewish community. “I was aware very much that I was different,” she told me. “I was living in a society where there were very few ‘others’; there were Catholics and Protestants.” She was never the victim of overt antisemitism, but she does remember how the Jewish schoolchildren would sit out Christian prayers in another room every morning and then join the assembly, walking in front of the entire school. “We were very identifiable.”
There are two synagogues left in Dublin. Maurice Cohen is forming a cultural subcommittee to document the historic center of Irish-Jewish life in Dublin. Landmarks include the former home of the community’s most famous family—Isaac Herzog (also a surname that appears in Ulysses), former chief rabbi of Ireland, and his son Chaim Herzog, former president of Israel, in Bloomfield Avenue; the original site of the Zion National School in the same street; and a recently discovered cemetery outside the city. Chaim Herzog’s son, Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, was elected president of Israel last year and took part in one of the Zoom meetings Cohen organized for his community during lockdown to keep its spirits up.
Cohen believes that the community has to do a “180-degree turn” to attract the new Jewish arrivals in Dublin, including young families who are sending their children to the Jewish school. It’s possible that refugees from Brexit, like me and my family, will also add to the numbers.
“We are in a dreadful situation. If we were to describe the traditional community, progressive and Orthodox, we are an ageing community—the bulk is over seventy,” he says. “If we could bring in all the Jews that are in Dublin, we’d be a very young community.” The next census is taking place this spring, postponed from last year because of the pandemic. It will be interesting to see whether the Israeli boost continues to reinvigorate the figures or if the Diaspora has headed home.
Excerpted from Issue 248 of The Jewish Quarterly. Copyright (c) 2022 by Jo Glanville. Published with permission of The Jewish Quarterly Pty Ltd.