Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Limerick "pogrom"

Ireland has never had more than 5,000 Jews out of a total population of ca. 5 million.  And Jews generally have been well treated there and have flourished.  Yet, even in Ireland there has been Catholic-inspired anti-Semitism, and there was one incident of an actual outburst of violent anti-Semitism that has earned the title of The "Limerick pogrom" of 1904.

Jeremy Maissel of Israel Seminars told the story of his grandparents' wedding in Limerick that featured in this story.  A journalist for the Limerick newspaper was invited to be present to report on the then exotic event of Jews getting married.   At that time there were barely 35 families of Jews in Limerick, all bunched together in a poor part of town and all of them came from the same area of Lithuania.  Most of the Jews were peddlers or small shop owners.  The reporter duly wrote a very sympathetic article describing the marriage and the strange rituals involved as well as the Jewish community and their small synagogue.

Quite independently of this wedding, a few days later a Father John Creagh delivered a sermon to two gatherings of his parishioners, at the Redemptorist Church in Limerick, with a membership of about 6,000 people out of a total population of 40,000 in Limerick.  This sermon was virulently anti-Semitic, in which he blamed the Jews as blood-suckers taking the money from poor Christians, and he quoted selectively from the newspaper article to the effect that the Jews were rich and living very well while poor Christians were being exploited.  After the second sermon the crowd passed through the street where most of the Jews lived and attacked some of them, stones were thrown; the Jews were insulted and assaulted and they were hindered as they went around selling and collecting payments.  It was a "pogrom" although without the intense fury and killing familiar to the Jews from their European homeland, no Jew was killed.

What prompted Father Creagh to give such a sermon, that was relatively unusual in Ireland?  One theory is that the local storeowners were suffering from the competition of the Jews, who not only undercut their prices but also allowed the poor to pay off in installments, that was not practiced by the Irish store owners.  Whatever the reasons, Father Creagh's sermon was then duly printed in several local papers, without editorial comment, and in it he called for a boycott of the Jewish stores, but he also spoke out against violence.  A boycott of the Jews then resulted and lasted for over 2 years; it ruined some Jewish peddlers and store owners and caused about 80 Jews to leave Limerick.  Some moved to Cork, England, South Africa and even Australia.  Other Jews, particularly the peddlers who worked in the surrounding countryside stayed, because the poor outside the city were less affected by this boycott and remained loyal customers.  Some families stayed in Limerick for a very long time and their descendants only recently moved to Israel.  They report that apart from this one event there were never any other anti-Semitic incidents in Limerick.

There are several points to note in relation to this incident: 1. The sectarian violence between the Catholics and the Protestants in Ireland was far greater than what happened to the Jews in Limerick and it was in fact a relatively minor incident; 2. At that time Ireland was British and since most of the governing people, including the police, were Protestants, perhaps they tended to be more sympathetic to the Jews than to the Catholics;  3.  Being part of Britain, the events were described in The Times of London and other newspapers, leading to a wave of sympathy for the Jews of Limerick, that resulted in Government action (Winston Churchill happened to be Minister of the Home Office at that time);  4.  Father Creagh was not part of the official Irish Catholic Church, but from the Redemptorist Church, not under the jurisdiction of the mainstream Catholic Church, who had no responsibility for the incident and no other incidents occurred in their Churches throughout Ireland. 

So what was a minor incident in the history of the Jews of Ireland became a temporary stain on Irish-Jewish relations. A similar incident made its way into James Joyce's "Ulysses" in which Leopold Bloom (who was half-Jewish) is lambasted by an anti-Semitic drunk in similar terms to those used by Father Creagh.  Later Father Creagh moved to New Zealand and never returned to Ireland.


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