05 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


Unknown said...

Thank you for the short but interesting history of the Jewish community in Ireland, and the description of the museum within the synogogue.

Jeffrey Ornstein
Brooklyn, NY

Patrick Comerford said...

Thank you,