22 October 2020

Philip Baker, the Jewish
refugee from Latvia who
became Irish chess champion

Philip Baker (1879-1932) was the Irish Chess Champion on four occasions in the 1920s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

When Philip Baker filled out the census form in his small, single lodging room on Castle Street, Tralee, on the night of 31 March 1901, he may well have thought he was the only Jew living in Co Kerry.

He was a 22-year-old draper, and he gave his religion as ‘Hebrew’ and his place of birth as ‘Russia.’ There were four Jewish short-term guests staying at the Great Southern Hotel in Killarney that night, all linen manufacturers from London in their 20s. But the only other Jew who was resident in Kerry at that time was Amélie Bischoffsheim (1858-1947), wife of Sir Peter FitzGerald, Knight of Kerry, who were living at Glanleam on Valentia Island.

The paths of Philip Baker and Lady FitzGerald probably never crossed. She was the London-born daughter of the Dutch banker Henri Louis Bischoffsheim (1829-1908); her sister Ellen (1857-1933), the Dowager Countess of Desart, later became a Senator in the new Irish Free State and has been described as ‘the most important Jewish woman in Irish history.’

But Philip Baker’s accomplishments as a poor Latvian Jewish refugee fleeing the pogroms in the Tsarist empire are worth recounting. For Philip Baker (1879-1932) was an Irish Chess Grand Master who won the Irish Championship on four occasions in the 1920s, including three consecutive years, and a clothing factory owner who was regarded as a model employer. In time, he became the patriarch of an important Irish legal family.

The brothers David and Philip Baker were born in Riga in Latvia, then part of Imperial Russia. They were the sons of Simon Baker, a Jewish grocer or draper, and they came to Ireland at a young age, fleeing the pogroms in Tsarist Russia.

David Baker began his working life in Dublin as a ‘rags and metal merchant,’ a ‘draper’ and a ‘wool merchant,’ and at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, he lived in a number of houses in the narrow streets off the South Circular Road that became known as Dublin’s ‘Little Jerusalem,’ including Spencer Street, Raymond Street, and Greenville Terrace.

He married Yetty (Gertrude) Berman on 25 July 1899. She was a daughter of Abraham Berman, a self-employed draper and traveller, of 5 Oakfield Place, and his wife Rachel, both originally from Telshi in the Kovno district of Lithuania. David and Yetty were the parents of at least three daughters and a son. Like his brother Philip, David Baker too was noted chess player and played first board for the Clontarf Chess Club. He later moved with his family to Leeds.

Philip Baker was born in Riga on 31 March 1879. He began his working life in Ireland as a draper and a cap factory representative, and eventually owned his own clothing factory. He was a 22-year-old draper and was living in Upper Castle Street, Tralee, Co Kerry, at the time of the 1901 census.

The Aliens Register (1914-1918) shows he arrived in Dublin from Tralee on 31 January 1903. He was living at 15 Vernon Street, Dublin, on 9 September 1904 when he married Fanny Berman, a sister of David Baker’s wife Yetty. Her father Abraham Berman was 71 when he died at 5 Oakfield Place on 26 October 1919. Her widowed mother, Rachel Freda Berman, died at the age of 73 on 27 May 1922.

At first, Philip and Fanny also lived in the streets of ‘Little Jerusalem’ off the South Circular Road, including St Alban’s Road, Raymond Street and Wolseley Street. Their children included Edmund Salem Adam Baker, born 1905, died an infant; Joshua Baker (1906-1979); David Baker, born 1908; Isaac Baker, born 1911 (married Ellen Kelly); Sarah Rebecca, born 1911 (married Lazare Scheps); Sheila, born 1916 (married Barry Spain); and Sylvia ‘Lammie’ (1918-1984), who married Henry Aimers Wheeler (1916-1993), archaeologist, Office of Public Works and a president of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.

Philip joined the Sackville Chess Club, which was founded in 1902, and soon became an Irish Grand Master. He was the Leinster champion in 1922 and 1926, and first became the Chess champion of Ireland in 1924, when he finished first in the Tailteann Games. With the Sackville Chess Club, he won the Armstrong Cup in 1926 and 1929, and he was the Irish Champion again for three consecutive years, in 1927, 1928 and 1929.

Later, as the proprietor of his own clothing factory, Philip was recognised as a model employer. He died at 77 Kenilworth Square, Rathmines, Dublin, on 18 April 1932, aged 53.

Philip Baker’s son, Professor Joshua Baker (1906-1979), earned a double first in Hebrew and Oriental Studies and Legal Science at Trinity College Dublin, and earned a gold medal and a scholarship to the US, where he completed his doctorate.

Josh Baker had a demanding practice as a senior counsel and legal expert, yet he lectured at TCD for 30 years in Hebrew and as Reid Professor of Criminal Law. His friend and colleague, Professor Jacob Weingreen, in his obituary in the Jewish Chronicle, praised his ‘lucid, analytical mind, genial personality, special sense of humour, and many acts of friendship.’

Another son, David Baker, was the Hebrew/Gaelic interpreter when the leaders of Israel and Ireland met.

Philip Baker’s eldest daughter Sarah married Leslie (Lazare) Scheps, a Swiss Jewish immigrant. Their daughter Rosalind married Judge Henry Barron (1928-2010), who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1997. He presided over the inquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, in which 33 people were killed in 1974, and granted Ireland’s first legal divorce in 1997. He was also president of the Irish Jewish Museum.

A chess set in a shop window on the island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

1 comment:

Sean Coffey said...

Fascinating article! I was aware of the general outlines of his biography (place and approximate year of birth, rough years of residence in Kerry and Dublin), but you seem to have vastly more detailed information. I am curious: is some of this information from his family?

I posted some more specific chess information at https://www.irlchess.com/2021/05/24/rynd-baker-armstrong-1907-08/, and added details from your post to his player biography at https://www.irlchess.com/players/.