05 September 2020

Two Judaica prints are
reminders of Kilkenny’s
great Jewish senator

Two Judaica prints, one Sephardic and one Ashkenazic … a surprising find in a shop window in High Street, Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Walking along High Street in Kilkenny, my eye was immediately caught by two items of Judaica in the window of the Oxfam shop.

These were high-quality prints or reproductions of pages from the Barcelona Hagadah in the British Library in London and ‘Kennicott 3,’ a rare example in the Bodleian Library in Oxford of a lavishly illustrated 13th century Ashkenazi Pentateuch, first collected by Benjamin Kennicott.

The second stage of this late summer ‘Road Trip’ had brought two of us from Clonmel to Kilkenny, and we were staying in the River Court Hotel, with views of Kilkenny Castle sitting high on the banks of the River Nore.

Both items struck me for their beauty, but also because there has never been a continuous Jewish presence in Kilkenny and yet Kilkenny has been the home of Ireland’s most famous Jewish woman politician and public figure.

The Hagadah is used in Jewish homes on Passover eve to commemorate the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. The text is a mosaic of biblical passages, blessings, legends and rituals arranged into a 14-step sequence. The Hagadah teaches young people about the continuity of the Jewish people and faith in God.

The Barcelona Hagadah was produced in Barcelona in the 14th century. The text is written in a neat square vocalised Sephardi script. As well as the Hagadah text, the manuscript contains the Laws of Passover, liturgical poems and Torah readings for the Passover festival according to the Sephardi custom, and poems and other readings according to the Provencal rite.

Unlike other Spanish mediaeval Passover Hagadot, the Barcelona Hagadah lacks the characteristic cycle of full-page biblical miniatures that normally precede the main text. In contrast, many of its folios abound in glorious illustrations depicting Passover rituals, biblical and midrashic episodes and symbolic foods. No fewer than 64 of its 161 folios are ornamented.

The tooled Gothic word panels are particularly stunning, as are the marginal lush foliage scrolls interwoven with human figures, birds, hybrids, grotesque and fabulous animals.

Nothing is known about the makers of this codex. But several inscriptions in the manuscript help to identify some of its past owners. It was sold by Shalom Latif of Jerusalem to Rabbi Moses ben Abraham of Bologna in 1459 for 50 gold ducats, showing it had left Spain prior to the expulsion of Jews expulsion in 1492.

It was owned in the 17th century by Jehiel Nahman Foà, a collector of manuscripts and books, and later by Mordecai and Raphael Hayyim, two members of the Ottolenghi family, a prominent Jewish Italian family. The British Museum bought the Barcelona Hagadah in 1844.

On the other hand, ‘Kennicott 3’ is a rare example of a dated and lavishly illustrated Ashkenazi Pentateuch with the Five Scrolls and additional readings from the Prophets.

Its origins are still unclear, with possibilities ranging from northern France to Krinau in north-east Switzerland. But it is noted for the quality and imaginative power of its illuminations, and the coherent arrangement of the various components of text on the pages.

The Carnegie Library on John’s Quay … one of the philanthropic projects in Kilkenny sponsored by Lady Desart (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Kilkenny’s most famous Jewish politician and public figure was also one of the city’s great benefactors at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries: Ellen Odette Cuffe (1857-1933), Countess of Desart, was the widow of William Ulick O’Connor Cuffe (1845-1898), 4th Earl of Desart. She was born Ellen Odette Bischoffsheim in London, and became a philanthropist and politician, as well as President of the Gaelic League. She could be described as the most important Jewish woman in Irish history.

Lady Desart was a daughter of Henri Louis Bischoffsheim (1829-1908), a wealthy Jewish banker of German origin. He was responsible for founding three of the largest banks in the world: the Deutsche Bank, Paribas Bank, and Societe Generale. She married William Cuffe (1845-1898), 4th Earl of Desart, in Christ Church in Down Street, Mayfair, on 29 April 1881.

The Bischoffsheim family originally came from the Rhineland. In 1827 Jonathan-Raphael Bischoffsheim married Henriete Goldschmidt and co-founded the bank of Bischoffsheim and Goldschmidt. When Henri Louis Bischoffsheim took over the family bank in the late 1860s, he was said to be one of the wealthiest men in Germany. In 1856, he married Clarissa Biedermann, whose father had been court jeweller to the Hapsburgs in Vienna. The head office of Bischoffsheim and Goldschmidt later moved to London.

For much of their life, Lady Desart and her husband lived at Desart Court, between Kilkenny and Callan. The Carnegie Library on John’s Quay is one of the many philanthropic projects in Kilkenny she sponsored with or in memory of her brother-in-law, Captain Otway Frederick Seymour Cuffe (1853-1912), a former Mayor of Kilkenny. Her other projects included Aut Even Hospital (1915) and the Desart Hall in Kilkenny. She also established local woodworking and woollen industries.

This Carnegie Library, a distinctive landmark by the banks of the River Nore in Kilkenny, opened in 1910. It was built through sponsorship from Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), was designed prepared by the Tyars and Jago practice in association with E Stewart-Lowrey and Son, and stands on a site donated by Lady Desart.

It is a detached, three-bay, single-storey classical-style building, with an elegant bowed Doric portico at the centre, single-bay, single-storey, gabled flanking end bays, and four-bay, single-storey side elevations. The classical theme of the composition is enhanced by finely-detailed dressings to the window openings, and an open work steel turret on an octagonal plan with a copper-clad square-profiled base and a lead-lined ogee dome.

In a cost-effective measure that appealed to Carnegie’s frugal agent, James Bertram (1872-1934), the library was built almost entirely in fine concrete block, imitating local Kilkenny limestone. This was an early use of concrete block in the Kilkenny area.

The site was bought for £600 by Lady Desart, who also paid for the furniture. The foundation stone was laid in 1908. The library was handed over to Kilkenny Corporation in 1910 and was opened on 3 November by Lady Desart. Later that day, she was conferred with the Freedom of the City. Until 1972, this remained the only purpose-built facility offering a range of library services in Co Kilkenny.

The Lady Desart Pedestrian and Cycle Bridge opened in 2014 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Lady Desart was appointed to the Irish Free State Senate as an independent Senator in December 1922. She was one of the four women in the new Senate and she was the first Jew to serve as a Senator in Ireland.

She remained a senator until she died at Waterloo Road, Dublin, on 23 June 1933. In her will, she left £1.5 million to the charities she was associated with.

Beside the library, Lady Desart is commemorated by the Lady Desart Pedestrian and Cycle Bridge, which opened on 30 January 2014.

Lady Desart’s younger sister, Amélie Bischoffsheim (1858-1947), married Sir Maurice FitzGerald (1844-1916), 20th Knight of Kerry. When her father died, Amelia inherited Bute House in London, which she sold to the Egyptian government in 1927 – it is now the Egyptian Embassy.

And Lady Desart’s sister closed a circle on this summer’s ‘Road Trip,’ for Sir Maurice FitzGerald was the last of the Knights of Kerry to live on Valentia Island, one of the first stops on this two-week journey, and I had visited his grave in the churchyard at the ruined Saint John’s Church at Kilmore, outside Knightstown, early last week.

Kilkenny Castle and the River Nore seen from the Lady Desart Pedestrian and Cycle Bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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