Nearly every European power has a history of persecuting Jews. Throughout the Middle Ages, European monarchs confiscated their property, forced them to convert to Catholicism, expelled them and occasionally slaughtered them individually and en masse. In modern times, Hitler annihilated two-thirds of European Jewry.
Only a few countries have granted "God's Chosen" the full panoply of civil rights. Among them is the Emerald Isle.
It is generally agreed that Jews began to trickle into Ireland in about 1232, when England established a land grant in Ireland specifically for them. In the 15th century, a small group of Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition established a permanent settlement on Ireland's southern coast. Ashkenazi Jews from Western Europe arrived in the following centuries, fleeing unrest in other parts of Europe. In the late 19th century came thousands of refugees escaping the pogroms of Lithuania. This group settled primarily in Dublin, creating "Little Jerusalem" in the Portobello District, although a minority were scattered throughout the country.
England, Ireland's sometimes ruler -- Ireland finally gained partial independence in 1919 -- periodically mistreated the Jews, expelling them in 1290 and later, having re-admitted them, imposing special dress codes. It was not until the 19th century that the empire granted Jews full emancipation. But even under British rule, Ireland imposed no such restrictions on the Jews.
Nor did Ireland forbid the open worship of Judaism. In 1660, even as Spain and Portugal continued their expulsion of so-called "secret Jews," Ireland's rulers allowed Jews to establish their own prayer room opposite Dublin Castle.
Also in contrast to other countries, early America included, Jews were always permitted to hold public office in Ireland. As early as 1555, William Annyas, a Jew, served as mayor of Youghai in County Cork. Sir Otto Yafee, also Jewish, was elected mayor of Belfast in 1889. And in 1937, as Hitler forced Jews to sell their businesses, the Irish Republic amended its constitution to protect Jews as a religious minority.
Perhaps no local Irish election was as remarkable as that of Robert Briscoe, a Jew who in 1956 and again in 1961 served as lord mayor of Dublin, where Jews made up less than one-half of 1 percent of the city's population. Contrast this to New York City, which, although 25 percent Jewish, did not elect its first Jewish mayor, Abe Beame, until 1974. Mr. Briscoe's son Ben followed in his father's footsteps, serving as Dublin's lord mayor in 1988 and 1989.
Robert Briscoe's 1958 autobiography, "For the Life of Me," provides a window on Irish-Jewish life. He reports no personal encounters with anti-Semitism and considered himself equal parts Irish and Jewish. Like many Irish Jews, his father Abraham, a refugee from Lithuania, started out as a peddler, selling trinkets door to door and, eventually, through a number of business ventures, achieved considerable prosperity. Educated primarily in secular schools, Robert Briscoe himself rose to prominence at an early age, advising rebel leader Michael Collins during the Irish Revolution, later siding with Eamon de Valera during the Irish Civil War and going on to serve for more than three decades in the Irish parliament.
Not all was a bed of shamrocks for Irish Jews. In 1904, after the arrival in Limerick of a large group of impoverished Lithuanian Jews, a notorious priest named Father John Creagh condemned them from his pulpit. He preached that Jews "go about as peddlers from door to door, pretending to offer articles at very cheap prices but in reality charging several times more than in the shops ... [forcing] ... themselves and their goods upon the people, and the people are blind to their tricks."
The fire and brimstone proved contagious. Father Creagh's followers boycotted Jewish businesses and destroyed Jewish homes. Along with several prominent members of church and state, the All Ireland Review condemned the conduct, noting that the Jews and the Irish were "brothers in a common struggle." The Limerick Jews eventually found solace in Cork, where, in 1977, one of their own, Gerald Goldberg, became lord mayor.
Critics of Irish policies toward Jews point not only to the events in Limerick, but also to Ireland's neutral stance toward Hitler during World War II, a position that Robert Briscoe, who opposed the policy, attributed to Ireland's troubled relationship with Britain. Ireland also opposed the creation of a Jewish state, withholding diplomatic relations with Israel until 1975, an action explained by the Irish community's identification with the Palestinian struggle.
Still, viewed in the context of European history, these arguable transgressions are relatively minor. No Jew was ever subject to a dress code, barred from public office, forced to convert to Catholicism, forcibly expelled or murdered. To the contrary, Jews have thrived in Ireland throughout the nation's history.
The Jewish population in Ireland has never been large. At its zenith in the mid-19th century, Jews numbered only 5,700 out of a population at the time of 3 million. Nonetheless, despite their paltry presence, Irish Jews have disproportionately distinguished themselves, contributing generously to Ireland and the Jewish religion -- and to the world.
During the great potato famine of the mid-19th century, Jews contributed funds to relieve hunger. Included in a long list of Irish Jewish luminaries are Academy Award-winner Daniel-Day Lewis; Chaim Herzog, Israel's sixth president (1983-1993); Michael Noyk, financial adviser to Michael Collins during Ireland's war of independence; and Justice Henry Barron, an Irish Supreme Court judge from 1997 to 2003.
Perhaps the best-known of this impressive group was invented by the pen of Ireland's most famous scribe, James Joyce, who made Leonard Bloom, a Jew, his protagonist in "Ulysses."
Today, the Jewish population in Ireland has dwindled to about 3,000. Many Jews have moved to Israel and the United States or were lost to intermarriage and assimilation. Those who remain in Ireland tend to be elderly, suggesting that the Jewish community may soon disappear, a loss to Ireland and the Jews alike.
Still, as those of Irish descent celebrate their patron saint today, in their tolerance and acceptance of others they have much to be proud of.
Pamela R. Winnick, a former reporter for the Post-Gazette, recently completed a novel about Jews during the American Revolution. She is a frequent lecturer on Jewish history and an adult-education instructor at the University of Pittsburgh's Osher School. She blogs at pamelarwinnick.blogspot.com.