Goldstone on Beatty and O'Brien, 'Irish Questions and Jewish Questions: Crossovers in Culture'

Aidan Beatty, Dan O'Brien, eds.
Katrina Goldstone

Aidan Beatty, Dan O'Brien, eds. Irish Questions and Jewish Questions: Crossovers in Culture. Irish Studies Series. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2018. 320 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8156-3579-6; $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8156-3561-1.

Reviewed by Katrina Goldstone (Independent Scholar) Published on H-Judaic (July, 2019) Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

Printable Version:

In the autumn of 1923, two Jewish men were murdered in Dublin in a seemingly random yet sectarian attack. The first victim, Bernard Goldberg, forty-two, was shot on October 31 on St. Stephen’s Green, in the very heart of the city. Twenty-four-year-old Emanuel, also known as Ernest, Kahn, a clerk in the Civil Service, was shot on November 14 on Lennox Street in the Jewish quarter, as he returned home from an evening’s socializing with his friend David Miller at a Jewish club on Harrington Street. The men had been asked if they were “Hebrews” before being fired on. The Irish newspapers reported waves of fear and panic among the Jewish community. The crimes were condemned by the political establishment but deemed an aberration by Kevin O’Higgins, the Minister for Home Affairs.[1] In 1904 in Limerick, a town in the midwest of Ireland, a venomous antisemitic sermon by Father Creagh, of the Redemptorist Order, sparked a two-year boycott of Jewish businesses in the town. The Jewish population of Limerick was consequently reduced by nearly half. The events became known in popular lore as the “Limerick Pogrom.” It has been written about many times in both academic and popular form, and many people over forty, who know nothing of the facts of Jewish migration and settlement to Ireland, can more than likely identify what “Limerick 1904” signifies. Some local history websites now mention the Kahn murder and a TV documentary on the murders was screened in 2007, but nonetheless those shocking events have never entered into popular lore and discourse in the way the “the Limerick Pogrom” has. In the history of antisemitism within Ireland, one incident that did involve loss of life is overshadowed by another, which, although, disastrous for the Jewish community in Limerick, involved no direct murderous intent.

The conundrum of memory and, pace historian Guy Beiner, “social forgetting,” in relation to the Kahn/Goldberg murders and Limerick 1904, murders that were almost forgotten and the pogrom that never was, signposts issues of primacy - which narratives are privileged? - and illustrates the complexities in analyzing and describing aspects of the Jewish past in Ireland. In relation to Ireland’s first ethnic population, the mystery of Limerick versus Kahn/Goldberg can offer a salutary warning to those who wish to analyze the realities of Jewish life in Ireland. The recent collection Irish Questions and Jewish Questions: Crossovers in Culture, edited by Aidan Beatty and Dan O’Brien, purports to champion a cross-disciplinary dexterity in order to elicit a bold revision of the Irish Jewish histories that have gone before. The introduction makes much of the volume’s interdisciplinarity and methodological innovation, with contributors drawn from a roster of senior academics and talented emerging scholars from across diverse disciplines. In the introduction, the editors maintain that the volume is “an attempt to bring two interdisciplinary scholarly fields—Irish studies and Jewish studies—into a productive conversation with one another” (p. 13). Another ambition of the volume, as articulated by the editors in their epilogue, is to break away from what they identify as an overly insular focus within Irish history.

As observed by Beiner in 2014, “in contrast to the diminishing numbers [in the Jewish population] over the past decade and a half, ‘Jewish Ireland’ has emerged as a flourishing academic topic.”[2] In 2018, Natalie Wynn threw some cold water on that “flourishing” epithet and took issue with many of the existing scholarly texts about “Jewish Ireland.”[3] Wynn sounded a rare note of contestation in the nascent field of Irish Jewish studies. In 1972, Louis Hyman, literary scholar and Joycean expert, first attempted a definitive history of Jewish presence in Ireland with The Jews of Ireland from Earliest Times to the Year 1910. In 1998, Dermot Keogh’s Jews in Twentieth-Century Ireland: Refugees, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust was deemed ground-breaking, even though with its overarching focus on the Irish government’s restrictive policy toward Jewish refugees the book did not really constitute a Jewish-focused historical account. Before considering this latest addition to Irish Jewish studies, it is wise to pose the awkward question whether the preeminent texts of Irish Jewish historiography relay the multifaceted story of the Jewish experience in Ireland or merely use the history of “Jewish Ireland” as a refracting mirror to peer at aspects of Irish history or Irish migration from another angle. And might Irish Questions and Jewish Questions redress an imbalance in Irish Jewish historiography? The introduction to Irish Questions and Jewish Questions does not engage substantively with current debates in Jewish historiography. One would expect to see enumerated within the footnotes a lengthy list of current or seminal texts framing debate within Jewish, Irish, and international contexts or perhaps, for the comparative element, some reference to the ongoing and lively debates that have taken place within British Jewish history circles, as exemplified more recently, for instance, by exchanges between Tony Kushner and William Rubenstein, established historians of Anglo-Jewry. The very first line of the introduction states: “This is a book about Irish Jewish history,” or rather as stated at the close of the introduction, the chapters represent “a major revision of Irish Jewish history” (p. 13). Yet by not including a full and comprehensive survey of the key texts of Irish Jewish history and proposing where and how the collection differs in content and approach, the opening salvo poses more questions than it answers.

In the context of Jewish mass migration to other countries in the 1880s, what is noteworthy and unusual, in the Irish case, is the sheer speed of the increase of the Jewish population in Ireland. As noted by Cormac Ó Gráda: “The big rise in the number of Russian-born [Jewish] residents in the 1880s (from 198 in 1881 to 1,111 in 1891) was almost matched by the rise of 855 in the 1890s.”[4] In common with the communities of their neighbors in Britain, Irish Jewish citizens, the majority based in Dublin, the Irish capital, are often portrayed as a model minority and their settlement in Ireland proposed as a positive early example of integration in the host society. Irish Jews suffered no regular physical attacks against them in the twentieth century, no overt civic or legal disabilities in the twentieth century, and no official ban on entering the professions. There is, however, undoubtedly potential for further research on how informal restrictions may have operated in a small country like Ireland or how random economic boycotts and glass-ceiling type prohibitions might have been deployed against the Jewish minority.[5]

The book is divided into four sections, “Representations,” “Realities,” “Migrations,” and “Promised Lands,” with twelve essays across a range of disciplines, including history, politics, literary studies, linguistics, and urban geography. In terms of an organizing principle, these key headings are somewhat misleading. Some essays appear shoehorned to fit the heading or seem out of kilter with the category they are placed in. The “Representations” section is the most successful in its range of subject matter and contains some of the volume’s strongest offerings.

R. M. Douglas deploys a comparative approach in an analysis of Irish and Continental antisemitism. He tracks the similarities in strands of European antisemitic discourse and its Irish variants in the rhetoric of mainstream political parties as well as fringe groups. Douglas also questions the assumptions made by some Irish historians that “religious antisemitism in Ireland was confined to a few rogue priests” (p. 35). He analyzes modern-day manifestations of antisemitism, racking up both attacks on Jewish sacred sites, from the mid-1990s on, and the volume of death threats to Jewish politicians like Gerald Goldberg and Alan Shatter, which predate the internet normalization of death threats to public figures. Douglas offers a bracing rebuttal to the Irish tolerance trope, challenging the oft-repeated phrase that “Ireland never persecuted the Jews,” to bring a more nuanced ambiguity and ambivalence to the presentation of the Irish Jewish encounter.

Wynn also offers a challenge to tired tropes. She, like Douglas, uses the comparative approach to judicious effect, paying special attention to the phenomenon of the negative economic stereotype in her thoughtful essay, “Irish Representations of Jews and Jewish Responses/Jewish Representations of Jews and Irish Responses.” Wynn is somewhat dismayed by the overall lack of sophisticated analysis of antisemitism in the Irish context. She makes a plea for complexity and urges scholars of Irish Jewish history to revisit the many definitions of anti-Jewish prejudice, citing how within Jewish studies nuance of definition can be intrinsic to nuance of analysis. Using Jewish archival sources, little used by Irish or American scholars, Wynn skillfully demonstrates how close and nuanced readings of the early immigrant memoir texts, such as Myer Joel Wigoder’s My Life (1935), can shed fresh light on old controversies. By examining the Irish Jewish and Anglo Jewish elite’s attitudes to money lending, she outlines the complexities of communal responses to money lending, delineating the influence of negative economic stereotypes from the Jewish elite viewpoint.

Abby Bender in “British Israelites, Irish Israelites, and the Ends of an Analogy” explores how the narratives of the Hebrew Bible furnished vivid rhetorical and comparative tropes, which nurtured “protonational and nationalist narratives for the Irish” (p. 17). Bender shows that these chameleon-like tropes and metaphors could be adapted to support Irish revival nationalist rhetoric or to trumpet racial hierarchies that conceptualized the native Irish as “Canaanites.” She explores how the Exodus story, as metaphor, could be interpreted differently, to shapeshift, and how “Exodus would serve as shorthand for national aspirations and serve equally “Catholic and Protestant Ireland”.(p.24) Bender contends that the power of these biblical analogies, widespread in the nineteenth century, waned with the arrival in Ireland of real Jewish people in some numbers from the 1880s on. As she argues, “Israelites had been in Ireland’s imagination for centuries, but living Jews presented different challenges from ancient and metaphoric ones” (p. 26).

Peter Hession, in a fascinating essay, “‘New Jerusalem’: Constructing Jewish Space in Ireland,” demonstrates a deft, refreshing, and imaginative use of primary sources and an innovative methodological approach. Arguing persuasively for applying spatial analysis and “Jewish space time” concepts in the Irish Jewish context, he contributes a genuinely original offering. He also debunks one of the key myths in constructions of ideas about Jews in Ireland: the supposed origins of the condescending term “Little Jerusalem” in reference to the Dublin Jewish quarter. Hession ascertains that in the 1880s the area of the South Circular Road, where the Jewish immigrants clustered in the 1900s, was more commonly referred to as “New Jerusalem.” The use of “Little Jerusalem” gained traction later in the twentieth century, which, argues Hession, as a popular ethnic neighbor designation creates linguistic ties between the nomenclature of the Dublin Jewish quarter and ethnic enclaves in global multicultural cities. Hession’s deep research and considered approach give insights about the strains of fervent Zionism emerging within the ranks of the new migrants. In addition, Hession highlights the agency and the role of Jewish women, asserting that the Dublin Daughters of Zion were “perhaps the earliest women’s Zionist organization to be formed in the English-speaking world, predating similar groups in Britain and America” (p. 57).

The other sections are less clear-cut in their aims. The “Realities” section kicks off with Sander Gilman’s thought-provoking essay “From Richard Lalor Sheil to Leon Pinsker: The Jewish Question, the Irish Question, and a Genealogy of Hebrewphobia.” It takes as a starting point two debates that took place in the British parliament on February 7, 1848. A parliamentary debate on the continuing cataclysmic effects in Ireland of the Irish Famine of 1845 was followed by a discussion of the Jewish Disabilities Act and measures that might be taken in relation to solving the dilemmas of Jews seeking high office being faced with the demand to take the Christian oath. It was the refusal of Lionel de Rothschild to do so that prompted the Whig prime minister Lord John Russell to introduce the act. Gilman juxtaposes analyses of the language used to describe the debate on Irish famine relief with the way the debate about Jewish civic disabilities in British society was framed. Gilman broadens his scope, moving from the events of that night in February 1848 in the British parliament, with focus on the rhetoric deployed by Irish politician and writer Richard Lalor Sheil during the debate, to then reflect on the use of the term “phobia” within a consideration of the work of Leon Pinsker, author of Automancipation (1882). Pinsker, in the aftermath of pogroms in Odessa, made the case for the necessity of a Jewish state and argued that “Judeophobia is a psychic disorder.” As Gilman argues, “Pinsker’s views on race, difference, and disease became part of the ideology and the vocabulary of Zionism and indeed of the debates about the source and nature of prejudice in general” (p. 94).

Next, in “Rebellious Jews on the Edge of Empire,” Heather Miller Rubens studies the Judeo-Irish Home Rule Association through the lenses of news reports and letters to newspapers only. It is debatable how much the Judeo-Irish Home Rule Association, a tiny, short-lived, and atypical Jewish association, is representative of the “realities” of Jewish Irish life in 1908. More pertinently, where does a community curio such as this fit within the development of a burgeoning Jewish communal infrastructure in early twentieth-century Ireland? She would have benefited from referencing Hyman’s Jews of Ireland where less than two pages are dedicated to the Judeo-Irish Home Rule Association. Hyman maintained it was a very rare example of Irish Jews publicly taking an overt political stance but he did propose one possible motivation for recruiting Jewish and Protestant allies to the ranks of the broader Home Rule movement—it was a way of countering the accusations levelled at Home Rulers of “Home Rule as Rome Rule.”[6] 

Trish Oakley Kessler bases her research and arguments on admirably solid foundations, consulting a wide range of primary sources, including regional newspapers and government department files. Her essay, “Rethinking Irish Protectionism,” deals with protectionist economic attitudes in the 1930s and the impact of government policies on the establishment of a few refugee-run industries in the Irish Free State. It adds a welcome strand to the scholarship on Irish government policy toward Jewish refugees. Oakley Kessler’s examination of internal departmental memos lays bare the tensions between those officials in the Department of Industry and Commerce who favored industrialization and saw opportunities for expanding an industrial infrastructure for independent Ireland and their colleagues in the Department of Justice who, influenced by both pragmatism and swayed by antisemitic stereotypes, sought to keep refugees, but especially Jewish refugees, out of Ireland.

The “Migrations’’ section is something of a mishmash, with essays on varied themes, some only tenuously relevant to the phenomenon of migration. George Bornstein, author of the Colors of Zion (2011), offers a reflection on the question of being “Irish, Jewish, or both” and shares how his own experience and field of study has predated this new search for Irish and Jewish connections. He asserts that “this book itself testifies to the growing trend and seeks to extend it” (p. 139). He interweaves his auto/biographical musings with a consideration of “hybrid identities” as represented in two Irish Jewish autobiographies, one by filmmaker Stanley Price and one by David Marcus, rightly acknowledged by Bornstein as “one of the most influential Irish editors of his time”. (p 130) He also reflects on his own perceptions of hyphenated identity, in particular how they intersect with aspects of Marcus’s and Price’s autobiographies. With sometimes bittersweet recollections of schooldays and early years of graduate school, he recalls an American academic landscape where few Jews were in tenured positions. He chose to study W. B. Yeats, not only because he admired the poetry but also because he perceived Yeats was “the closest thing to a fellow outsider available to me as a choice” (p. 136).

Dan Lainer-Vos explores nation-building projects by comparing the efforts of Irish Americans in the Irish Victory Fund in the 1910s with those of Jewish Americans through the United Jewish Appeal in the 1940s. Lainer-Vos questions making assumptions of affinity between Irish Americans and Jewish Americans and their home-based communities. He examines the how fund-raising “informed the kind of membership that diaspora subjects experience” (p. 141). He argues that the structures for gift giving created to connect Irish and Jewish Americans to “home-based” communities were also a means of forging “a sense of national belonging.”  With his essay he also compares the gift-giving responses of the Irish diaspora and Jewish diaspora to assess what they might tell us about broader diaspora and migrant histories. It would have been instructive to see a range of models of gift giving cited by Lainer-Vos and more recent sources on gift-giving used in tandem with Marcel Mauss, whose “Essai sur le Don” was first published in 1925. This essay is again an example of fixing on a micro study to elicit new perspectives.

Bookending this section is Stephen Watt’s “The Discourses of Irish Jewish Studies,” which seems somewhat out of place under the migrations rubric. Watt dissects George Bernard Shaw’s encounters and interpretations of Max Nordau’s text “Degeneration,” a “succes de scandale’’ in the 1890s. Shaw’s “letter-review,” appearing in the American magazine Liberty in July 1895, asserted that Nordau “would never be heard from again” (p. 161). Despite that forecast, Nordau did not disappear into the shadows but over a period of twenty years gave public lectures and wrote extensively, in particular on Zionism. Watt reaches beyond this textual encounter and uses the consideration of Shaw’s responses and critique of the Nordau text to reflect on how the use of theories of cosmopolitanism might be applied to an Irish Jewish studies context. Recognizing the contradictions of the approach, he avers, “Irish Jewish Studies might not only embrace the discourse of cosmopolitanism but also aspire to interrogate its inherent fallibilism” (p. 168).

The final section, “Promised Lands,’’ also bundles together very disparate subjects. Muiris Ó Laoire traces the emergence of Hebrew, from its ancient roots to the official language of Israel from 1948 on, and also tracks the trajectory of Irish-language revitalization, which achieved a status as an official state language without managing to attain a mass majority of Irish speakers in the general Irish population. Again the comparative approach is in play, but in this instance, Ó Laoire cautions against a reductive analysis or “any facile and oversimplified comparison” in the case of revitalization of the Irish language and the successful restoration of Hebrew (p. 191).

Sean William Gannon’s piece, “‘From the Isle of Saints to the Holy Land’: Irish Encounters with Zionism in the Palestine Mandate,” focuses specifically on the five hundred Irish policemen who joined the British section of the Palestine Police in the period of the last years of the Mandate. Using oral history and personal interviews, nineteen in all, sixteen of which he conducted himself, Gannon seeks to explore what the preexisting attitudes to Jews among the policemen were prior to their posting, how these perceptions were altered by encounters with the Jewish population in the Mandate, and how the experience of the Irish as enforcement personnel within British imperial rule shaped the opinions of those policing the Arab-Zionist conflict. He does not reference what the knowledge among these policemen was of the mass murder of Jewish populations in World War II. This renders some of the pronouncements from the interviewed shocking in their crudity. For instance, one interviewee, a Constable Bertie Braddick, in the aftermath of the April 1946 attack on the Sixth Airborne Division, which left seven army personnel dead, is on record stating, “I regret what the Jews did and I think they should pay for it. And frankly I would like to see the Arabs wipe them right off the face of the earth. Every single one of them, man, women and child, not only there but everywhere” (p. 197). The essay suffers from lack of reference to general texts on the history of antisemitism or theories of transmission of prejudice, which would have deepened and added complexity to the analysis of the interviews.

The title of the collection is Irish Questions and Jewish Questions: Crossovers in Culture, yet of the twelve essays only a minority are written with clear emphasis on a Jewish Irish perspective. Which raises the question: how productive is this juxtaposition for Jewish studies? In the editors’ epilogue—which does contain substantial footnotes—Beatty and O’Brien conclude that “Irish history writing has often suffered from an inward-looking perspective.” They also warn of the perils of “unadventurous methodology” (p. 211). Yes, to all of that. Yet the choice to showcase micro studies and to foreground atypical marginal episodes in Irish Jewish history, far from displaying a novel and “adventurous” approach, risks inflating the significance of nontypical episodes at the expense of broader truths and facts. There is very little about gender or the lived experience of Jewish women and precious little in the way of narratives about ordinary Jews or exploration of the reluctance of Irish Jews to become involved in radical leftist politics. In its best contributions, the volume showcases what new methodological approaches can do: Hession and Wynn clearly shine, while Oakley Kessler’s essay reiterates the virtues and rewards of deep historical detective work and also shines a light on a key era in Irish economic development, where it intersects with the politics of rescue, prior to the Second World War. Gilman and Watt offer potential new avenues of exploration. Yet, ultimately, there is a lingering sense of a missed trick within the editorial framework: a curious failure to foreground profound connections between the history of Jewish presence in Ireland and a global Jewish history or to connect meaningfully to other studies of how democratic societies treat minorities and how minorities themselves take agency, take charge of their own destiny, and steer their own course. The question as to whether, in this incarnation, Irish studies and Jewish studies richly complement each other—well, the jury is out on that one.


[1]. Katrina Goldstone, “Who Shot Emanuel Kahn?,” Irish Times, November 18, 2003,

[2]. Guy Beiner, “The Re-discovery of Jewish Ireland,” review of Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce, by Cormac Ó Gráda, Jewish Culture and History 15, no. 3 (2014): 259

[3]. Natalie Wynn, “The History and Internal Politics of Ireland’s Jewish Community in Their International Jewish Context (1881–1914)” (PhD diss., Trinity College Dublin, 2015), 87-187.

[4]. Cormac Ó Gráda, Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce: A Socioeconomic History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 95.

[5]. See Hilary A. White, “Story of a Golf Club That Broke the Mould,” Irish Independent, January 6, 2014,

[6]. Louis Hyman, The Jews of Ireland from Earliest Times to the Year 1910 (Shannon: Irish University Press 1972), 200-1.

Katrina Goldstone is a journalist and independent researcher based in Dublin, Ireland. Her book, Irish Writers and the Thirties: Art, Exile and War, with chapters on the Irish Jewish writers Leslie Daiken and Michael Sayers, will be published by Routledge in 2020.

Citation: Katrina Goldstone. Review of Beatty, Aidan; O'Brien, Dan, eds., Irish Questions and Jewish Questions: Crossovers in Culture. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. July, 2019. URL:

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