22 February 2019
Childhood memories and
suburban Jewish life in
Terenure and Rathfarnham
Four of us were at a family dinner in Bellagio, an Italian restaurant in Terenure, on Wednesday night. It was one of those dinners that was a late but long-promised celebration of birthdays, anniversaries and a much delayed Christmas get-together.
Inevitably, when families get together, we remember the houses where we grew up and the houses we moved to or lived in as children.
We were just 500 metres from the house on Rathfarnham Road that I remember as one of the happy and secure homes in my childhood. I have clear memories of the move from No 9 Arbutus Avenue in Harold’s Cross to No 104 Rathfarnham Road.
But was it 1961 or 1960?
The details of that move are so clear in my memory that they are paired with the memories of moving house in south Dublin in the mid-1990s, and they have come back in emotional torrents at different times. As my sons ran around an empty house, discussing in a very boyish way who would have which room, and as I listened to their running steps on the bare floorboards above, I recalled my own awe-filled impressions of that house.
But on Wednesday night I came to figure out the year that move had taken place. We finally settled on 1960, which explained why I had returned to the Comerford family that summer, when I went with them on holidays to a house in Kilcoole, Co Wicklow.
It must have been a very vivid year for a boy of my age, shaping memories for the man of the future. I recall not only my interest in the Rome Olympics that summer, but also how I found my own space, distancing myself from a family that seemed strange and different, and finding my own, independent reading that filled many of those days when I felt alone, different and estranged: the King James Version of the Bible, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson, including Kidnapped and Treasure Island.
But this week’s dinner brought me back to that house on Rathfarnham Road. I had been born a few doors away, in No 28, a house between the Laundry and the Synagogue, and across the road from the Classic Cinema.
Nos 2 to 142 on the east side of Rathfarnham Road and Nos 1 (the Bank of Ireland) to No 75 on the west side were listed in Terenure, while Nos 144 to 200 were in Rathfarnham.
No 14-18 was the Terenure Laundry, later the premises of the Sunday World, and is now Lidl.
Across the street were Terenure Library (Nos 11-13), the Classic Cinema in the former tram station (No 17), and Rathfarnham War Memorial Hall (No 39). The Revd George S Nowlan lived in Rathfarnham Rectory at No 41 – his son, Dr David Nowlan, was later a colleague on the staff of The Irish Times.
The Synagogue at No 32-34 Rathfarnham dates back to a meeting in 1936, when it was agreed to set up a synagogue in the Rathmines, Rathgar or Terenure area to cater for families in those suburbs who found it was too far to walk to the synagogues on Adelaide Road or at Greenville Hall on the South Circular Road.
The shul started in rented rooms at 6 Grosvenor Place, Rathmines, and moved when No 52 Grosvenor Road was bought in 1940.
At Rosh Hashanah 1948, the congregation moved from Rathmines to a Nissen hut in the grounds of ‘Leoville’ on Rathfarnham Road, bought a few years earlier for £1,490 on behalf of the congregation by Woulfe Freedman and Erwin Goldwater.
Building work on the new Terenure Synagogue began in August 1952, and it was completed and dedicated on 30 August 1953.
In typical Dublin wit, some members of the Adelaide Road synagogue referred to the new synagogue opposite the Classic Cinema as the ‘cinema-gogue.’
The synagogue was supported by or attracted a number of Jewish families to this part of Terenure and Rathfarnham, including the Leon, Citron, Lazarus, Gafson, Khan and Davis families who lived on Rathfarnham Road.
The Kerr family moved from No 9 Arbutus Avenue in Harold’s Cross to No 104 Rathfarnham Road in 1960. I can still remember the names of some of the families who were neighbours on Arbutus Avenue, including the Dormer and Byrne families.
No 104 Rathfarnham Road had been the home of Samuel Rosenthal and his family. As I recall running around the empty house, and hearing the sound of my footsteps on the bare floorboards upstairs, I also recall where the mezuzot had been hung at tilted angles on the right-hand doorposts at adult shoulder-height, and in my mind’s eye I can still see the double sink in the kitchen meeting kosher requirement to separate cutlery, crockery and utensils for meat and milk produce.
Samuel Rosenthal and his wife Rosie had established the ‘Modern Pharmacy’ as a family business at 6 Merrion Row in the 1920s. Ray Rivlin, in Jewish Ireland, tells how Sam Rosenthal was born in Cork in 1894, and first worked as a pharmacist with Hayes, Cunningham and Robinson, and fell in love with 20-year-old Rosie Isaacson when he saw her photograph.
They married in 1923, and opened their ‘Modern Pharmacy’ that year, dispensing a wide variety of cures for ailments from Rosenthal’s Cough Balsam and Rosenthal’s Corn Cure to his own unique cure for a hangover – in the words of Hugh Leonard, a combination of a ‘telling off’ and a pink mixture that tasted ‘like drinking sand’ but that ‘did the trick.’
In his book Jewish Dublin, the late Asher Benson recalls how the Rosenthal daughters, Sonia Patt and Audrey Sless, remembered their father as ‘a humanitarian,’ not only as a chemist but considered by many customers – from Leeson Street, Baggot Street and Ely Place – as their doctor, his advice available for the modest sum of ‘tuppence in the poor box on the way out.’
Sam Rosenthal was also a peace commissioner (PC). Asher Benson lists a clientele that included Mr Justice Reddin, the then Archbishop of Dublin, the artist Louis Le Brocquy, Captan Hepburn, father of the actress Aubrey Hepburn, Hugh Leonard, Professor Abrahamson, Harry Wine, and Míchéal Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards.
The ‘Modern Pharmacy’ continued until 1964, when Sam Rosenthal moved to the Harcourt Street Pharmacy, which finally closed in 1969.
In the 1960s, our other interesting neighbours on Rathfarnham Road included Colonel JJ Burke-Gaffney (96), who had been decorated with the Military Cross (MC), at least three doctors – Dr Joseph Davis (No 48), Dr George Donald (No 71) and Dr Richard Brady (No 94) – and the Revd Johnstone Hunter (No 116) of Centenary Methodist Church, beside Wesley College on Saint Stephen’s Green.
As we came out of Bellagio into the night air in Terenure on Wednesday, I realised we were just across the street from one of Dublin’s almost-unknown synagogues, the Machzikei haDas, at Rathmore Villas, behind Terenure Road North, which moved in April 1968 from an older synagogue at Saint Kevin’s Parade off Clanbrassil Street, in the ‘Little Jerusalem’ area of Portobello in Dublin.
In recent months, I have been visiting synagogues and former synagogues in Porto, Prague, Venice, Tangier, Seville, Berlin, Chania, Thessaloniki, London and Limerick. But I realised this week that there are many synagogues and former synagogues in Dublin that are part of my childhood story and that I need to reacquaint myself with.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. With antisemitism on the rise throughout Europe, and one of the causes of this week’s rupture in the Labour Party in Britain, it is important that we continue to remember and to tell the stories of these communities, and that we should never forget.
Stars of David in the darkness of the night at the synagogue on Rathfarnham Road in Dublin ... the spirituality that sustained a people and a faith through the dark night of the Holocaust is rich, deep and profound (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)