Friday, May 17, 2013

The Jews of Ireland

A mini-seminar entitled "The Secret Jews of Ireland" was held at the Netanya Academic College on May 13, sponsored by Casa Shalom, the Institute for Marrano-Anusim Studies, and the Intl. Inst. for the Study of Secret Jews at NAC.  The guest of honor was the Irish Ambassador to Israel HE Breifne O'Reilly and the speakers were Gloria Mound, Exec. Dir. of Casa Shalom and Senior Advisor to the Intl. Inst., Malcolm Gafson, Chairman of the Israel-Ireland Friendship League, and Rabbi Eddie Jackson, who was born and grew up in Cork.
Neil Davis, VP of Casa Shalom, acted as the Moderator and introduced the speakers.  Ambassador O'Reilly made some introductory remarks, starting in Hebrew, which drew a round of applause from the large audience.  He emphasised how the Jews in Ireland had been welcomed and had lived there almost without disturbance for hundreds of years.  He mentioned that three of the leaders of Ireland, including the great Daniel O'Connell, had welcomed Jews as citizens in Ireland.  However, the Ambassador, like many others, confessed to not knowing the history of any Secret Jews in Ireland.
This is my summary of the presentations.  Gloria Mound addressed this subject, pointing out that there is evidence that Secret Jews, those who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism in Spain and Portugal starting in the 15th century, had moved to Ireland, as to elsewhere in Europe and the Americas, as a haven to escape persecution.  Even though there was no overt persecution in Ireland, they nevertheless retained their secret adherence to Judaism.  Some came to Ireland with other Spanish or Portuguese refugees and others came among Protestant Huguenots who settled in Ireland as early as the 1500s.  She quoted Jewish names that appear on gravestones in the Huguenot cemetery in Cork, and quoted verbatim evidence from three descendents of former Secret Jews (Bnei Anusim).  One of these, living in Colorado, USA, described a whole clan of hundreds of people living off the land and dealing in horses and livestock, while maintaining their Jewish identity and practices.  However, it was forbidden to speak of this to anyone, and a family member who researched this history was ostracized.  Many of these earlier Secret Jews inter-married and died out during the later influx of European Ashkenazi Jews mainly from Lithuania. 
Malcolm Gafson spoke extemporaneously and amusingly about the experiences of Jews in Ireland.  He pointed out that Sephardic Jews, with for example the name Pereira, were regarded as "foreign Protestants" by most of the Irish.  He attributed the so-called "Black Irish" to inter-marriages between these Jews and indigenous Irish. Also, he gave examples of individuals such as a man named Aaron De Hibernia, whose name was clearly adopted to indicate his false origin in Ireland, who was a goldsmith and diamond merchant who lived in Crane Lane, near the docks in Dublin.  Marriages between Ashkenazi and Sefardi Jews in Ireland led to the combined term "Ashkenfardi."  Malcolm also speculated that a Jewish jeweler who settled in Connaught was responsible for the so-called Claddagh Rings, that retain typical Jewish symbols, such as the hands with open fingers (the sign of the Cohanim), the crown (the sign of the Torah) and the heart (the sign of love).  He explained that these rings were first given only to Jewish girls who were betrothed to be married, but then spread to the general community and were a source of income.  The influence of the small mostly secret Jewish community in Ireland was far beyond their numbers.
Finally, Rabbi Jackson spoke affectionately of his home country, Ireland.  He reminded us that the Jews in Ireland were sympathetic supporters of Irish independence from England.  He also spoke about Cork and his growing up there and the small Jewish community.  He described how the Jewish community lived in the poorer section of Cork near the gasometers.  Most of the community has left now and since the gasometers had been dismantled, the municipality accepted a proposal to name the park that replaced them as "Shalom Park" in memory of the Jewish community that was.  They also have a series of streetlamps that turn on and off like a menorah as a perpetual reminder of the former Jewish presence.
Altogether a unique and fascinating insight into the history of the Jewish presence in Ireland.


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