Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Dublin’s Jewish Museum: a window into an important community

The synagogue on Walworth Road opened in 1915 and remained in use until the 1970s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I was visiting the offices and the library of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland this afternoon. The society was founded in 1849 “to preserve, examine and illustrate all ancient monuments and memorials of the arts, manners and customs of the past, as connected with the antiquities, language, literature and history of Ireland.”

I have been a fellow of the society (FRSAI) for almost a quarter of a century – since 1987 – and the library, with its open-shelf access to books on Irish history, antiquities and archaeological and historical journals published in Ireland, Britain and on Continental Europe, is a pleasant and delightful oasis of peace and quiet in Merrion Square, making it a very congenial place for an historian to research and write.

In the bright summer sunshine, I decided to stroll back through Fitzwilliam Square, Adelaide Road and Portobello to catch a bus at Harold’s Cross Bridge, and to my surprise and delight I found that the Irish Jewish Museum and Heritage Centre was open in the late afternoon.

The Irish Jewish Museum and Heritage Centre is housed in two terraced houses in area once known as “Little Jerusalem” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Debbie Briscoe graciously and generously gave me my own personal guided tour of the museum, which is housed in the former Walworth Road Synagogue in Portobello. This area once had a proportionately large Jewish population, so that some of the streets around the South Circular Road were known as “Little Jerusalem.” The museum is housed in what was originally two adjoining redbrick terraced houses in Walworth Road, which had a functioning synagogue in the upstairs floor.

Due to the drift of the Jewish population from Portobello and Little Jerusalem to the suburbs of south Dublin, the synagogue fell into disuse and stopped functioning around 1970. The premises were locked for almost 15 years, and but the building was brought back to life again with the formation of the Irish Jewish Museum Committee in 1984. The museum was opened by the Irish-born former President of Israel, Dr Chaim Herzog, during a state visit to Ireland the following year.

The museum was opened in 1984 by the former President of Israel, Chaim Herzog (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

On the ground floor, the museum preserves an important part of Ireland’s cultural and historic heritage, with a collection of memorabilia relating to Ireland’s Jewish communities and their associations and contributions to present-day Ireland. The material relates to the last 150 years and tells the stories of Jewish communities not just in Dublin but also in Belfast, Cork, Derry, Drogheda, Limerick and Waterford.

The museum is divided into several areas. In the entrance area and corridors there is a display of photographs, paintings, certificates and testimonials. The ground floor contains a general display relating to the commercial and social life of the Jewish community.

Debbie told me how the first reference to the presence of Jews in Ireland is found in the Annals of Innisfallen, which record the arrival of five Jews, probably from Rouen in France, in 1079. Following the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century, more Jews settled in Ireland, and 1555 William Annyas became the Mayor of Youghal, Co Cork, and the first Jewish mayor in Ireland.

However, the first synagogue in Ireland did not open until 1660, with the opening of a prayer room in Crane Lane, opposite Dublin Castle. The ground floor exhibits include memorabilia and photographs from Dublin’s many synagogues, including the now-closed synagogues on Adelaide Road and the South Circular Road (Greenville Hall).

There are photographs here too of famous Jewish politicians and judges, including Mr Justice Henry Barron, Otto Yaffe, who became the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1899, Bob Briscoe, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1956, and Gerald Goldberg, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Cork in 1977, and Ben Briscoe of Fianna Fail, Alan Shatter of Fine Gael and Mervyn Taylor of Labour.

When Gerald Goldberg was Lord Mayor of Cork, he opened the Trinity pedestrian bridge, which is also close to the synagogue on South Terrace where he had been President. The bridge was named after a nearby church, but local wags nicknamed it “the Passover.”

A special feature on the ground floor of the museum is a kitchen with the kosher double sink and a table laid out with the traditional Sabbath or Festival meal setting of a typical Jewish home in this area of Dublin in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The displays include photographs of some of the Jewish characters mentioned by James Joyce in Ulysses, as well as many religious and other Jewish objects mentioned in this book. One showcase also contains a wide selection of items referred to in the various episodes of Ulysses that have a Jewish or Irish connection.

Debbie Briscoe says there has never been any concern within the Dublin Jewish about James Joyce’s portrayal of Leopold Bloom. She told the Jerusalem Post on Bloomsday last month: “Nobody has ever complained about the fictitious character Leopold Bloom. In fact everyone enjoys it. Jews everywhere have accepted it as a story.”

The synagogue was used for a wedding as recently as last year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Upstairs, Debbie showed me the original synagogue, complete with all its ritual fittings. The synagogue could hold about 150 men and women, and has never been formally deconsecrated. Indeed, Debbie told me, it was even used for a wedding last year, and she pointed out a pair of mannequins beneath a canopy and dressed for a wedding.

What was the women’s gallery now houses the Harold Smerling gallery, with many religious objects, including richly decorated covers for Torah scrolls.

The Irish Jewish Museum seeks to collect, preserve and present for public display material and artefacts relating to the Irish Jewish Community and Judaism in general and to make this memorabilia available to visitors, researchers and students.

The former Primitive Wesleyan Methodist Church, which opened on Victoria Street 140 years ago, is now for sale

Outside, the summer sun was still shining. Around the corner, the former Methodist Church and school on the corner of Victoria Street and Saint Kevin’s Street looks abandoned and derelict, and is for sale.

The granite-block former Kingsland Place Church was designed by John McCurdy in 1870 for the Primitive Wesleyan Methodist Church, and opened in 1871. From the 1950s, the church was used as the Women’s Employment Exchange, and it stands as a reminder of another religious minority that has been lost to this part of Dublin.

A sunny, peaceful spot on Windsor Terrace by the banks of the Grand Canal, near Harold’s Cross Bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

I wandered on by the banks of the Grand Canal, enjoying the architectural charm of the Victorian houses that line Windsor Terrace, and caught a bus at Harold’s Cross Bridge, close to the terrace of houses on Clanbrassil Street where James Joyce says Leopold Bloom was born.

The Irish Jewish Museum is at 3 Walworth Road, off the South Circular Road, Dublin 8. Opening hours: 1 May to 30 September: Monday to Thursday, 11 am to 3.30 pm; 1 October to 30 April: Sunday only, 10.30 am to 2.30 pm. Admission is free but donations are gratefully accepted. Arrangements can be made outside opening times for adult and school groups. Contact: museum_at_jewishireland.org

Why Much Wenlock wants a flame that may be coming to Ireland

Much Wenlock ... the tiny market town wants the Olympic Torch next year. But why?

Patrick Comerford

In all the excitement about Queen Elizabeth and President Barack Obama visiting Ireland in recent weeks, many commentators have overlooked the fact that Dublin may be on the list to give a warm welcome to another distinguished visitor next year.

Dublin could be added to the venues for the Olympic torch relay in the build-up to the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The London organisers have already announced 74 locations for the relay, and it seems Dublin is being considered as another venue.

The Olympic Flame arrives from Greece in May and the relay starts in Land’s End and continues on an 8,000-mile, 70-day journey as far as the Outer Hebrides and Belfast, arriving in London for the opening ceremony on 27 July 2012.

A decision is expected soon on whether to include Dublin. The Olympic Council of Ireland says that if the torch comes to Dublin, it plans is to have 50 to 75 people carrying it.

But why should the flame come to Dublin?

In the early games, Irish athletes won several medals for Britain at the Olympic Games, in the decathlon, long jump, high jump, triple jump, tennis, hockey and polo. Since 1924, Ireland has been represented separately at the games and has won 23 Olympic medals, including eight gold, seven silver and eight bronze in swimming, boxing, athletics and sailing.

However, should the flame comes to Dublin next year, the people of Shropshire are going to feel very snubbed indeed. For Shropshire is one of only six counties in England to miss out on an overnight stop, although the British Olympic committee wants the torch to pass through Much Wenlock and officials in Shropshire have entered their case for the relay to stop overnight at either Much Wenlock or the Ironbridge Gorge.

So, you may ask, why Shropshire? And why Much Wenlock?

An English market town

Wenlock Edge and Wilderhope Manor ... the paths and woodlands are excellent for walks, cycling and riding

It’s now 40 years since I spent some time hitch-hiking and youth hostelling in the area around Much Wenlock and Wenlock Edge, a 15-mile limestone escarpment formed 400 million years ago.

Wilderhope Manor ... an introduction to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams 40 years ago

Wenlock Edge and its woodlands are excellent places for walks, cycling and riding, with long-distance routes like the Jack Mytton Way and Shropshire Way. During those days, I stayed seven miles outside Much Wenlock at Wilderhope Manor, which was built by the Smallman family in the16th century. There I was introduced to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, who captured the dramatic landscape of Wenlock Edge in 1909 in his setting of six poems by AE Housman. On Wenlock Edge was written for a tenor, piano and string quartet, combining English pastoral and lyric music with Housman’s pastoral images of the English landscape – the glowing of a gale, church bells, or a cemetery.

Much Wenlock is a 700-year-old mediaeval market town that feels more like a village

Much Wenlock is off the beaten track on north-east end of Wenlock Edge, a rustic, 700-year-old, mediaeval market town on the way to Ironbridge from Bridgnorth. With a population of about 3,000, it feels like a village. This is a quintessentially English town, with streets lined with black-and-white, timber-framed buildings, limestone cottages, speciality shops, cosy inns and much-feted bookshops. The 16th century Guildhall, with its overhanging first floor held up by stout oak pillars, was pre-fabricated and raised in two days in 1577.

The ruins of a 12th century priory, dedicated to its first abbess, Saint Milburga, provide a backdrop for many events and performances in Much Wenlock, including “Tales from the Edge,” an international festival that keeps alive the ancient art of story-telling. Holy Trinity Church is a Norman parish church and has a battlemented tower and a Jacobean pulpit with carved panels depicting some two-tailed mermen.

And there lies another tale. For Dr William Penny Brooks is buried in Holy Trinity churchyard.

The High Street in Much Wenlock is lined with black-and-white, timber-framed buildings, and limestone cottages

Two years ago, while the world was marking the bicentenary of the birth in Shrewsbury of Shropshire’s most famous son, Charles Darwin, Much Wenlock was celebrating the fact that Dr Brookes was born there 200 years ago in 1809. And it is all because of that good doctor that Much Wenlock challenges Athens for recognition as the birthplace of the modern Olympic movement, and wants to rank alongside other famous British sporting venues, such as Twickenham, Wimbledon, Wembley, Old Trafford and St Andrews.

Dr William Penny Brookes created the Much Wenlock Olympics that inspired the creation of the modern Olympic Games

The little market town holds its very own Olympics every July, recalling how Dr Brookes created the Much Wenlock Olympics that inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937) to create the modern Olympics.

‘Every grade of man’

Much Wenlock has many speciality shops and cosy inns

Dr William Penny Brookes (1809-1895), a surgeon, magistrate, botanist and educationalist, was the son of a local doctor in Much Wenlock, and he lived, worked and died in the Shropshire market town apart from the time he spent as a medical student in Guy’s Hospital and Saint Thomas’s Hospital, London, and in Italy and France.

Padua was known for its 16th century mediaeval herb gardens, and there he developed an interest in herbal medicines and botany. At the Sorbonne, he learned of his father’s death from typhoid. Returning to Much Wenlock in 1831, he inherited the family home and his father’s practice.

As a botanist, he provided information on plants around Much Wenlock for Charles Hulbert’s The History and Description of the County of Salop (1837), and William Leighton’s Flora of Shropshire (1841), and his herbarium survives at the Much Wenlock Museum.

As a GP, Brookes actively campaigned to have physical education on the school curriculum. As a social reformer, he sought opportunities for what he called “every grade of man” to expand his knowledge and to become mentally and physically fit.

One of the many and much-feted bookshops in Much Wenlock

In 1841, he established the Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society, an early lending library that developed into lecture classes including art, music and botany. In 1850, he established the Olympian Class to help local people to keep fit and “for the promotion of the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock and especially of the working classes...”

As a Philhellene, Brookes admired the ideals of ancient Athens, where all were expected to vote, to take an active part in politics, and to compete in sport. He resisted requests to limit the games to public schoolboys and the sons of professionals, and his Olympian Class opened the door to the working class to enter competitive sport, until then a privilege only for the elite.

When the class was renamed the Wenlock Olympian Games in 1859, Brookes was criticised for insisting the games must be open to “every grade of man.” His critics claimed this would cause rioting and lewd behaviour, and that men would leave their wives.

Much Wenlock’s 16th century Guildhall was built in two days in 1577

The events were a mixture of athletics and traditional sports, including quoits, cricket and football, as well as occasional fun events to entertain the crowds, such as the “blindfolded wheelbarrow race” and the “old woman’s race for pound of tea.” The most popular event was one known as “Tilting at the Ring,” requiring expert horsemanship to unhook a small ring hanging from a cross bar using the tip of a lance.

Developing links with Athens

The ruins of Saint Milburga’s Priory provide a backdrop for many events in Much Wenlock, including ‘Tales from the Edge’

The games were a huge success and none of the threatened disturbances occurred. News of the games spread and competitors came from as far afield as London and Liverpool. Meanwhile in 1859, Brookes also established contact with Evangelis Zappas (1800-1865), a wealthy Greek living in exile in Romania, who organised a Greek-based revival of the Olympic Games in Athens in 1865.

On behalf of the Wenlock Olympian Committee, Brookes sent £10 to the Athens games organised by Zappas. The Wenlock Prize went to Petros Velissariou, a Greek soldier from Smyrna (present-day Izmir in modern Turkey), who won the “Long” or “Seven-fold” Race. His name was the first foreign name added to the honour roll of the Wenlock Olympian Society, and events from the games in Athens were adopted in future programmes at Much Wenlock.

Brookes also helped establish the National Olympian Association in 1865. Their first Olympic Games, a national event, were attended by over 10,000 spectators in Crystal Palace in London in 1866. The cricketer WG Grace, then 18, came first in the 440-yards hurdles.

In 1877, Brookes asked King George I of Greece for a prize to honour Queen Victoria’s jubilee. The king sent an inscribed silver cup that was presented at the National Olympian Games in Shrewsbury. Brookes become close friends with John Gennadius (1844-1932), the Greek ChargĂ© d’Affairs in London, and tried to persuade the Greek government to revive the Olympics at an international level. However, his attempts to organise an international Olympian Festival in Athens in 1881 failed because of an internal political crisis in Greece.

Brookes invited Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the organiser of an International Congress on Physical Education, to visit Much Wenlock. The two met at the Raven Hotel, the venue for the gala dinner at each year’s Olympian Games, and in 1890 the Olympian Society staged mock games for the baron in Much Wenlock.

The Raven Hotel ... the English doctor and the French baron met here regularly to discuss their Olympian ideals

Inspiring influence

Back in France, Coubertin gave a glowing account of his stay in Much Wenlock. Later, he wrote: “If the Olympic Games that Modern Greece has not yet been able to revive still survives today, it is due, not to a Greek, but to Dr William Penny Brookes.” He is said to have been so inspired by his visit that he began the process that resulted in setting up the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894. Two years later, the first Olympic Games were held in Athens under the auspices of the IOC in 1896.

Although Coubertin later down-played Brookes’s influence, he kept in touch with the doctor for several years and sent him a gold medal for the Much Wenlock games.

Brookes died on 10 December 1895 aged 87, just four months before the first modern Olympic Games opened in Athens in April 1896. He never knew his dream had been achieved. But shortly before his death, the Board of Education finally agreed to include physical education as a compulsory subject in British and Irish schools.

He is buried beside Holy Trinity Churchy, a few feet from his own front door. Juan Antonio Samaranch, then president of the IOC, visited Much Wenlock in 1994 and laid a wreath at Brookes’s grave. “I came to pay homage and tribute to Dr Brookes, who really was the founder of the modern Olympic Games,” he said.

The Wenlock Olympian Society maintains his ideals and continues to organise annual games. The 125th Wenlock Olympian Games take place this year on 3 and 8 to 11 July.

Dr Brookes is buried beside Holy Trinity Church, a few feet from his own front door and from the Guildhall

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first published in the July 2011 editions of the Diocesan Magazine (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Church Review (Cashel and Ossory).