02 July 2017

A hidden cemetery
tells the story of
Limerick’s Jews

The Jewish Cemetery tells the sad story of a minority community in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Early one morning, I caught a taxi out into the suburbs of Limerick and at the end of a narrow laneway found Limerick’s small Jewish cemetery at the back of a housing estate. The cemetery tells the story of an interesting minority community and a series of attacks that became known as the ‘Limerick Pogrom.’

The earliest records of Jews living in Limerick date from 1790, when the travel writer Charles Topham Bowden noted that a few Jews were living in Limerick, although they did not have a place of worship.

John and Robert Genese Bernal, who moved to Limerick in the 1840s, set up a business as auctioneers in Thomas Street and lived in Sexton Street. When Robert Bernal died in 1847 he was brought to Dublin for burial in a Jewish cemetery. John Bernal became a city councillor, and when he died in 1898 he was buried at Saint Mary’s Cathedral.

Early Jewish services were held in a house Emmet Place (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

A small group of Lithuanian Jews began arriving in Limerick in the 1870s as they fled persecution in the Czarist Russian empire. But by 1881 there were still only four Jews living in Limerick.

Some of the fiercest Russian pogroms took place in 1881, 1882 and 1903 – the last was the most violent, when over 3,000 Jews were killed. Whole communities fled, and those who arrived in Ireland were mainly from Lithuania. Most of the Jews who arrived in Limerick were from the village of Akmijan in Kovno province, while those who settled in Cork came from a neighbouring village.

Rabbi Elias Bere Levin arrived with his wife and family from Tels in Lithuania and first lived at 36 Collooney Street (now Wolfe Tone Street). In 1883, the Diemant family from Germany were living in Wellesley Street (now Clontarf Place). Other arrivals in the 1880s included the Greenfield, Zaffa (Jaffe), Solomon and Barron families. Louis Goldberg, whose family later became prominent merchants in Cork, landed in Cobh (Queenstown) and walked to Limerick.

First attacks

The rabbi was living at No 18 Wolfe Tone Street from 1889 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In the first a series of violent attacks and protests on Easter Day 1884, the wife of Lieb Siev and their infant were injured by stones and their house on Edward Street was attacked by an angry mob. The Jaffe and Stein families, including their children, were beaten up in 1892 as they were walking by the Model School on Military Road (O’Connell Avenue). There was another stoning in 1896.

The Jaffe and Stein families were beaten up outside the Model School in 1892 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

For a period in the 1890s, there were two rival Jewish congregations, but for a generation members of the Jewish community lived in harmony with their neighbours. Early Jewish services were held in Emmet Place, but an Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogue was soon founded at 63 Collooney Street, and the rabbi was living at No 18 in 1889.

An Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogue was founded at 63 Wolfe Tone Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In 1902, the Jewish community bought land for a small cemetery in the suburbs, close to Newcastle and Castletroy. The first burial was a Sheimos or burial of holy books and artefacts, a year before the first human burial.

An early Jewish gravestone in Hebrew lettering (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

By 1904, about 35 Jewish families were living in Limerick, totalling about 150 people. They lived mainly in Collooney Street and the surrounding streets, at the west end of O’Connell Street, and close to landmark churches including the Jesuits’ Sacred Heart Church in the Crescent, the Redemptorist church at Mount Saint Alphonsus, and the new Saint Joseph’s Church.

Prosperity and poverty?

The Redemptorist Church at Mount Saint Alphonsus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

A renewed wave of violence began in January 1904. A month earlier, at a large Jewish wedding, attended by the whole Jewish community and many Christians, Judge Adams commented on the vibrancy and success of the Jewish community. His remarks drew a sour response in the Limerick Leader, which compared the prosperity of the Jews to the poverty of native Limerick people.

Father James Creagh was a Redemptorist priest and spiritual director of the Limerick Confraternity. On 11 January 1904, he bitterly attacked the Jews, referring to the Jewish community as ‘a viper that at any moment might slay its benefactor,’ with an ‘unquenchable hatred of Jesus Christ and his followers.’

He accused the Jews of ritual murder, blaspheming Christ, taking the clothes off children’s backs and ‘the bite out of their mouths … They came to our land to fasten themselves like leeches and to draw our blood when they have been forced away from other countries.’ He claimed Jews were in league with Freemasons and together had driven 200 priests from France.

In a riot the next day, large numbers of confraternity members, with their wives and children, attacked Jewish families and their homes, and called for a boycott of their businesses. At least 300 people took part in the attacks, but only 10 culprits were fined, from 2/6 to 10 shillings, and the case against an eleventh defendant was dropped.

The confraternity members passed a resolution: ‘We tender to Father Creagh our very best wishes on his recent lectures on the ways and means of Jewish trading and at this meeting representing 6,000 members of the Confraternity we express our full confidence in his views.’

The Redemptorist and the Rabbi … John Creagh (left) and Elias Bere Levin (right)

Only two people of national standing condemned the attacks – Michael Davitt, the hero of the Land War 20 years earlier, and John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

Earlier, Davitt had investigated a pogrom in Kishinev in the Russian Bessarabia, present-day Moldova. Now he wrote: ‘I protest as an Irishman and a Catholic against this barbarous malignity of anti-semitism which is being introduced into Ireland under the pretended form of a material regard for the welfare of our workers.’

Standish O’Grady, a prominent figure in the Celtic Revival, spoke out, declaring that the Irish and Jewish people should consider themselves brothers in adversity. But Creagh’s call for a boycott was echoed fervently by the Limerick Leader, the Irish Independent and by Father Murphy of the Women’s Confraternity. Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, added his voice in favour of the boycott.

Julius Grande, director of the Irish Mission to the Jews, and EH Lewis Crosby, Secretary of the Church of Ireland Auxiliary London Jews Society, wrote to The Times asking for an end to the boycott. Grande claimed the police only gave passive protection to the Jews.

Renewed violence

Hillview on Wolfe Tone Street … once a synagogue in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The violence flared again in late March and early April, with over 40 attacks on Jews as Creagh continued with his bigotry. ‘Jews have always been a danger to the Christian people: they were the cause of the Spanish Inquisition being instituted,’ he claimed. ‘The Jews are a curse to Limerick, and if I have the means of driving them out, I shall have accomplished one good thing in my life.’

The Roman Catholic Bishop of Limerick, Dr Edward O’Dwyer, denied any responsibility. He severely criticised the mob, but refused to meet Saul Goldberg and a deputation asking him to use his influence to end the pogrom.

The Church of Ireland Bishop of Limerick, Dr Thomas Bunbury, strongly condemned the violence. But on 20 April, the Mayor and Corporation passed a motion: ‘We condemn and repudiate in the most emphatic manner the attack made by Dr Bunbury on the good name of the city … which we consider unjustifiable and uncalled for.’

In sectarian tones, the Munster News warned: ‘Let Bishop Bunbury behave himself. The days are gone when a Papist, ridden over by a Protestant fox-hunter, should crawl hat-in-hand to beg his honour’s pardon for having been in the horse’s way’.

John Raleigh, a 15-year-old, was convicted of stoning Rabbi Elias Levin, and jailed for a month. The Corporation pleaded for leniency and unanimously called for his release. When he returned to Limerick, he was greeted by a crowd of several hundreds, presented with a gold watch and chain, and carried shoulder high from the station.

The boycott was having its effect. Max Bland, a grocer who had built up his business over 11 years, was ruined overnight. One by one, Jews began leaving Limerick, heading mostly for Leeds, Newcastle and other parts of England.

Despite a heavy police presence in the Jewish quarter, Jews continued to be attacked until July. In the last act of violence that month, Louis Goldberg and a friend were severely beaten by a man with a blackthorn stick. The boycott continued until October. By then, only half a dozen Jewish families remained in Limerick.

It is a curious coincidence that Limerick boycott began in 1904, the same year James Joyce chose for the setting of Ulysses. The boycott came to an end in May 1906 when Creagh was removed from Limerick and transferred to Belfast.

Decline of a community

The site for the Jewish Cemetery was bought in 1902 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In the decades that followed, the Jewish community in Limerick dwindled in size. The last rabbi in Limerick, Simon Gewurtz from Bratislava, died in 1944, the synagogue was sold in 1953, and the cemetery fell into disuse and disrepair.

The grave of Limerick’s last rabbi, Simon Gewurtz from Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

I found the cemetery in the suburbs, almost opposite ‘The Hurler’ pub. Jim Kemmy, who died 20 years ago in 1997, ensured that the early Jewish community would not be forgotten. The cemetery was restored in 1990 and is now maintained by Limerick Civic Trust and the Limerick City Council as a small public green space.

A plaque in the cemetery remembers Limerick’s Jewish community (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

It is now in excellent condition although there are only 12 headstones, including two to ‘Unknown Jewish Souls’ and two in Hebrew. The latest burial was of Stuart Clein, a prominent businessman who had lived in Limerick for almost 60 years and who died on 5 March 2012.

The grave of ‘an unknown Jewish soul’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Those recorded in English include: Stuart Clein (Solomon Sefton, 1931-2012); Asher Coen (died 1914 aged 57); Louis Fine (1921-1996); Simon Gewurtz (1887-1944) from Bratislava, Limerick’s last rabbi; Dr Dan Levy, Felix (Filo) Loya (1935-2001), a retired senior lecturer at the University of Limerick; Zlato Maissel (died 1906, aged 65); Maurice L Morrison (died 1930); and Samuel Sochat (died 1917).

The grave of Dr Dan Levy, a retired senior lecturer at the University of Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Some of the most prominent Jews in Ireland in later generations were descendants of people who lived through the pogrom. Saul Goldberg became a leading Zionist, and travelled extensively with Chaim Weizmann and Jacob Herzl, the father figures of the modern state of Israel. his brother, Louis Goldmann, became a draper and glass merchant in Cork, Gerald Goldberg was Lord Mayor of Cork in 1977. David Marcus, literary editor of the Irish Press, and Louis Marcus, film director, were sons of refugees from Limerick. Henry Jaffé was the grandfather of the journalist and popular historian Simon Sebag Montefiore.

The Limerick Pogrom, as it became known, remains controversial to this day. Even its classification as a pogrom is controversial, with some historians feeling that this cheapens the horror of the ‘real’ pogroms at the time Russia and Eastern Europe.

It was an exceptional event in Irish history. The tragedy is that this conflict involved two deprived communities living in miserable conditions. Father Creagh’s mission lost Limerick some of its finest citizens.

The last burial was of Stuart Clein, who died on 5 March 2012 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

(Revd Professor) Canon Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This feature was first published in July 2017 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory)

The Jewish cemetery is at the end of a lane in suburban Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

A chilling story that challenges us
to reassess our notions about God

Abraham preparing for the sacrifice of Isaac … a stained glass window in Saint John’s Church, Wall, near Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 2 July 2017,

The Third Sunday after Trinity,

9.30 a.m:
Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, Morning Prayer.

11.30 a.m.: Saint Brendan’s Church, Tarbert, Co Kerry, Morning Prayer.

Readings: Genesis 22: 1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6: 12–23; Matthew 10: 40-42.

The near-sacrifice of Isaac, or the Akedah as it is called in the Jewish tradition, is a story that probably asks more questions than it answers.

Each time we hear it, I imagine we listen in horror as Abraham seems to be preparing to sacrifice his only son. And the story comes with all the gruesome details, as Abraham climbs the mountain, builds the altar, arranges the wood, binds his son, places him on the altar, and takes the knife into his hand. The looming tragedy is averted only at the very moment second.

It is a gripping, chilling and troubling story.

But at a time when child-sacrifice was a cultural norm, where people believed that sacrificing their first-born children was a way of appeasing the gods, this story turns those old superstitions on their head. Abraham knows the old ways.

But his relationship with God is a startling new relationship, founded on love. And this God is different from all the so-called gods. No, he does not demand human sacrifice, no he does not have a mean and violent streak.

Instead, this God that Abraham has begun getting to know, wants a relationship with us that is built not on fear, but on love and on freedom.

The child who was at risk is saved, the child who was bound up is set free, the child who was the victim of old-fashioned, out-dated superstitions now becomes part of the relationship between God and humanity that is sealed not by sacrifices like this, but by love.

Had Abraham forgotten God’s earlier promise so soon, the promise made to Abraham and Sarah that they would have children and through them they would be the spiritual ancestors of all nations?

And it is a story that challenges us to reassess our own notions about God.

Are our relationships with God founded on fear or on love?

Do we see God as a god who needs to be appeased or a God who encourages and enlivens our capacity to love?

In our reading from the Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul challenges us to consider the same differences.

Do we believe in a god who would treat us as slaves who must obey, or as faithful partners who are caught up in his love?

Once again, we are offered a choice between death and life, between slavery and freedom, between blind obedience and love.

And we are given practical examples of how this life of live and freedom are lived out in our Gospel reading, when Jesus tells us that whatever we do for this who are in need, it is as though we do it for him.

It is in serving others and in loving others that we find freedom and a true relationship with God. Amen.

This reflection on today’s readings was prepared for Morning Prayer on Sunday 2 July 2017. (Revd Canon) Patrick Comerford, Priest-in-Charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes.