Saturday, 28 September 2019

The synagogues of Dublin:
2, Ballybough Cemetery

The Jewish Cemetery on Fairview Strand, Ballybough is Ireland’s oldest Jewish cemetery and one of the earliest Jewish burial grounds on these islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The 300-year-old Jewish Cemetery at 67 Fairview Strand, Ballybough, dates from 1718. It is Ireland’s oldest Jewish cemetery and one of the earliest Jewish burial grounds on these islands. It merits consideration for National Monument status, according to a conservation and management plan commissioned by the Dublin City Council.

The façade of the caretaker’s cottage has a shield with an inscription that reads ‘Built in the Year 5618’ – the Hebrew calendar dating for 1857-1858 CE. The inscription is well-known on northside Dublin and has caused mirth among generations of Dublin schoolboys, but the Jewish new year that begins tomorrow evening [29 September 2019] is 5780.

Many Dubliners think the cottage is either a mortuary chapel or a synagogue, so any list of Dublin synagogues must also take account of the cemetery in Ballybough.

A small number of Jews had settled in the Annadale area off Ellis Avenue (now Philipsburgh Avenue), Fairview, by the 1700s. Most of them were Marranos, descended from Jewish families forced to convert to Christianity by the Inquisition. Some had fled from Spain and Portugal, others had arrived indirectly through the Netherlands.

Acting on behalf of the community, Alexander Felix (David Penso), Jacob do Porto, and David Machado de Sequeira, on behalf of the Sephardic community, and Abraham Meirs on behalf of the Ashkenazic community, leased a plot of land for a graveyard from Captain Chichester Phillips (1647-1728) of Drumcondra Castle. Phillips had been MP for Askeaton, Co Limerick (1695-1699) and probably gave his name to Philipsburgh Avenue.

A 40-year lease was signed on 29 September 1717, and the lease was granted on 28 October 1718. The foundation date of 1718 makes this cemetery older than the Alderney Road cemetery in Mile End, London, acquired by the Great Synagogue, London, in 1725.

The Jewish community sought assistance from German and Polish Jews in London to build a wall around the cemetery. At first they failed to receive support from the Bevis Marks Synagogue or Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London. But eventually the Bevis Marks community not only funded the wall but provided a supervisory agent from London.

Many members of the Jewish community in Dublin had Sephardi roots. By 1748, the congregation was in financial difficulty and was £7 10s in arrears with paying the rent on the cemetery lease. Members of the Bevis Marks Synagogue came to their assistance, and in the name of Michael Philips, a member of the Crane Lane synagogue, bought the freehold of the cemetery from Michael Phillips, grandson of Chichester Phillips, for £34 10s. The title deeds for the cemetery were deposited at Bevis Marks and remain there until the 20th century.

The small site is only about one-seventh of an acre in size. The cemetery has more than 200 graves, and Louis Hyman lists the inscriptions in an appendix in The Jews of Ireland (pp 267-273).

The cemetery has almost 150 headstones with inscriptions in both Hebrew and English, and holds about 200 graves. The oldest legible headstone marks the grave of Jacob Wills (1701-1777). He was born in France, the son of Yochanan Weil, and lived in London before moving to Dublin, where was a jeweller and goldsmith on Essex Quay. In the synagogue he was known as Jacob Frenchman, but in secular life he was known as Jacob Will or Wills. He died on 11 March 1777.

In the past, visitors have shown particular interest in three or four Rothschild family graves – although they are not related to the banking family.

The mortuary house built in 1857 served as the caretaker’s cottage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The mortuary house was built in 1857, 139 years after the cemetery first opened, as a defence against grave robbery and the theft of headstones, and served as the caretaker’s cottage.

The largest tomb belongs to Lewis Wormser Harris of Suffolk Street, a former alderman, who was been elected Lord Mayor of Dublin. He would have been the city’s first Jewish Lord Mayor but died the day before he was due to take office in 1876. Eighty years later, Alderman Robert Briscoe became Dublin’s first Jewish Lord Mayor in 1956.

The only burials in the 20th century were of members of the Harris family: Juliette Harris, widow of Alderman Lewis Wormser Harris (1908), their son, Ernest Wormser Harris (1946), and his wife, Maude Jeanette Harris (1958), the last burial.

The cemetery officially closed in 1978. Meanwhile, a new cemetery, dedicated to Sir Moses Montefiore, had opened on Aughavannagh Road in Dolphin’s Barn 80 years earlier in 1898. It was established by Robert Bradlaw and the Dolphin’s Barn Jewish Burial Society. Bradlaw was one of the founders of the Saint Kevin’s Parade Synagogue.

Until recently, the cottage at Fairview was lived in by the cemetery caretakers, Con and Gloria O’Neill. Gloria was so devoted to her task that she was even seen handwashing the gravestones.

Dublin City Council took ownership of the cemetery on Fairview Strand two years ago [2017] from the Dublin Jewish Board of Guardians, who could no longer afford its upkeep. It had been a Jewish cemetery for 300 years.

The Irish Times reported two months ago [15 July 2019] that the cemetery is to be refurbished and reopened to the public more than 40 years since its closure, under new plans from Dublin City Council.

However, the fabric and character of the cemetery is under threat due to the overgrown condition of the grounds, the dilapidated state of the mortuary house and encroachment from neighbouring sites.

‘Of particular concern, given international experience, is the risk of anti-Semitic vandalism leading to the defilement of this sacred space’ if its poor condition is not addressed, the plan states.

The conservation report notes the grounds have been ‘colonised’ by invasive plants, including Japanese knotweed, and mature trees are displacing memorials, damaging their stonework and metalwork.

In recent years, the cottage has suffered from break-ins and squatting. While there are ‘no obvious examples’ of anti-Semitic vandalism, the report said, this is a risk, and the house and cemetery would ‘remain a focus for anti-social behaviour’ unless a strategy was put in place to ensure the ‘preservation of the built heritage and the sanctity of the burials, while also making the site more secure and accessible to the public.’

The council has carried out historic research, cleared weeds and secured the house. It plans further conservation and restoration work before the cemetery opens to the public. There have been suggestions the house should be used as a museum or interpretive centre. The report recommends it be restored for use as a caretaker’s house for surveillance of the cemetery.

Most members of Dublin’s Jewish community are now buried in Dolphin’s Barn cemetery or in the Progressive Jewish Cemetery at Woodtown, near Rathfarnham.

The cemetery in Ballybough was a Jewish cemetery for 300 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Monday: 3, Marlborough Green Synagogue

Yesterday: 2, Crane Lane Synagogue

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