11 October 2019

The Synagogues of Dublin:
13, Walworth Road

The synagogue at No 3-4 Walworth Road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The Beth Hamedresh Hagadol Synagogue at 13 Walworth Road was the youngest of the small henbroth or synagogues that sprang up in the ‘Little Jerusalem’ area between the South Circular Road and Portobello in Dublin.

The Walworth Road Synagogue dates from 1912 and was formed on the upper floor of two neighbouring terraced houses at Nos 3 and 4.

The Beth Hamedresh Hagadol Synagogue could accommodate a congregation of about 150 people.

As other synagogues in ‘Little Jerusalem’ closed in the 1950s and 1960s, Walworth Road still had 120 seat-holders or subscribing members in 1954. But this figure had fallen to 70 by 1962, and with the continuing drift of most of the Jewish population to Dublin’s southern suburbs, the synagogue fell into disuse and stopped functioning around 1970.

The original synagogue survives upstairs in the Irish Jewish Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The premises were locked for almost 15 years, but the building was brought back to life again with the formation of the Irish Jewish Museum Committee in 1984. The Irish Jewish Museum opened the following year.

The museum was the brainchild of Rafael Sief, who was its curator until he died in 2009. The then President of Israel, the Irish-born Chaim Herzog, officially opened the museum on 29 June 1985 during his state visit to Ireland.

A Torah scroll in the former synagogue in the Irish Jewish Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The original synagogue upstairs retains all its ritual fittings. It was never formally deconsecrated, and so was used for a wedding as recently as 2013. There is still a pair of mannequins beneath a canopy, 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 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, telling the stories of Jewish communities not just in Dublin but also in Belfast, Cork, Derry, Drogheda, Limerick and Waterford.

A unique feature on the ground floor is a traditional kitchen, with double kitchen sinks and a typical Sabbath meal setting from a Jewish home of the late 19th and early 20th century in this neighbourhood.

There are photographs of some of the Jewish characters named by James Joyce in Ulysses, as well as many religious and other Jewish objects he refers to.

A Menorah in the former synagogue in the Irish Jewish Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The collection of photographs also includes 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 of former TDs from three mainstream political parties – Ben Briscoe of Fianna Fail, Alan Shatter of Fine Gael and Mervyn Taylor of Labour.

The museum has plans to expand and redevelop the site, including the three adjacent terraced houses. This would substantially increase the size of the museum, but generally retain the façade of the terraced houses on Walworth Road.

There are two plaques on the front of the building. The upper plaque reads in Hebrew: ‘Beth Hamedresh Hagadol.’ The lower plaque commemorates the opening of the museum by President Chaim Herzog.

The two plaques on the façade of the Irish Jewish Museum … the upper plaque in Hebrew recalls the name of the Walworth Road Synagogue, ‘Beth Hamedresh Hagadol’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Tomorrow: 14, 6 Grosvenor Place (1936-1940)

Yesterday: 12, Greenville Hall Synagogue, South Circular Road

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