30 September 2019
The synagogues of Dublin:
3, Marlborough Green
Dublin’s first recorded synagogue was in Crane Lane, off Dame Street. The congregation was first formed by Marrano or Sephardic Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent who arrived in Dublin in the late 1650s and early 1660s.
The community moved to a new synagogue at Marlborough Green, off Marlborough Street, Dublin, in the mid-18th century. Some sources date this move to 1746, but the more likely date is 1762, the same year as the consecration of a new Church of Ireland parish church, Saint Thomas’s, on Marlborough Street.
The new synagogue was in the premises of a former glass factory, according to one account, or the former townhouse of George Felster, a wealthy merchant, according to another account.
The synagogue was visited by the Revd Dr Thomas Campbell, a friend of Samuel Johnson, in 1777, when he found the attendance meagre and the services irregular.
Despite the small size of the Jewish community in Dublin in the second half of the 18th century, the city reportedly had two rabbis in 1785.
However, political and economic circumstances led to the decline and disintegration of the Jewish community in Dublin. Many Jewish residents in Dublin moved to London, and the synagogue on Marlborough Green closed its doors in 1790 or 1791. Dublin was without a formal congregation again until 1822.
The furnishings were moved to the lodgings of Abraham Lyons or Lyon in Fishamble Street, beside Christ Church Cathedral. Some of these furnishings were sequestered for non-payment of rent. The Torah Scrolls were moved to London, although some accounts say they were rescued later and presented to the synagogue that opened at 40 Stafford Street in 1822.
One of my favourite hymns in recent years has been ‘The God of Abraham Praise’ (Church Hymnal No 323), by Thomas Olivers (1725-1799), who was inspired to write this hymn after hearing the Jewish Yigdal sung in the Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place in London in 1770.
‘Leoni,’ the name Olivers gave to the tune of this hymn, is a tribute to a great singer of the 18th century who once ran a theatre and opera company in Dublin and who may have officiated regularly as a cantor or assistant rabbi at the Marlborough Green Synagogue in Dublin.
Praying for the Messiah to come is a daily part of prayer in Judaism, and at the heart of Jewish prayer life is a prayer known as the Amidah (18 Blessings). It is often said three times a day and includes: ‘The offspring of your servant David may you speedily cause to flourish.’ The Yigdal, which is part of daily morning prayers in many congregations, focuses on the 13 Articles of Faith that Maimonides (1130-1205) says every Jew should believe in.
The tune is a Hebrew melody Thomas Olivers heard sung in 1770-1772 by Myer Lyon (Meier Leoni), the cantor of the Great Synagogue in London. Jewish tradition says the Yigdal was sung to this tune at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple … although the tune probably dates from the mid-14th century.
The version sung by Leoni was probably written by Daniel ben Judah, a Jewish liturgical poet who lived at Rome in the mid-14th century.
According to Simeon (Simcha) ben Isaac Luzzatto (1583-1663), a prominent rabbi in 17th century Venice, Daniel ben Judah was the author of this hymn containing the 13 articles of belief of Maimonides. This poem is sung by the Sephardim on the eve of Sabbaths and holy days, is included in the Romaniot ritual for Saturday evening and forms part of the morning prayer among the Ashkenazim.
Myer Lyon (ca 1750-1797) was a hazzan or cantor at the Great Synagogue in London. But during his life he was better known by the stage name Michael Leoni, which he used as a tenor opera singer in London and Dublin, and as the mentor of the singer John Braham.
Myer Lyon may have been born in Germany ca 1750. According to the memoirs of the actor James de Castro, he was born in Frankfurt-on-Main and was invited by ‘the German Jews’ to London, where ‘a very rich Jew, Mr Franks, instantly patronised him.’
The first record of him is in October 1760, when David Garrick (1717-1779) refers to him as ‘ye boy Leoni.’ In his teens, he was appointed meshorrer or choirboy to Isaac Polack, hazzan at the Great Synagogue in London, in 1767 at an annual salary of £40, on the understanding that he was to behave as a Yehudi Kasher or observant Jew.
When his voice came to the attention of the aristocracy and the actor David Garrick, he was given permission by the synagogue elders to appear on stage, where he adopted the name Michael Leoni. He sang a role in Garrick’s The Enchanter at Drury Lane Theatre, and was ‘received with great applause.’
Leoni’s reputation encouraged a number of Christians to come to the Great Synagogue on Friday nights to hear him, including the hymn-writer Thomas Olivers.
Because of financial problems, the synagogue decided to cut Leoni’s stipend by £8 a year in 1772. But he continued to sing in both the synagogue and in the theatre continued for some years.
He appeared frequently on the stage in London from 1770 to 1782, achieving successes in 1775 in Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes (1775) and as Carlos in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Duenna at the Covent Garden Theatre. The Morning Chronicle noted The Duenna could ‘never be performed on a Friday, on account of Leoni’s engagement with the Synagogue.’
Leoni performed in Dublin theatres regularly between 1781 and 1784, and in his history of Irish Jews, The Jews of Ireland (Shannon, 1972), Louis Hyman suggests Leoni officiated in Marlborough Green synagogue, at least during the High Holidays. ‘It is tempting to speculate whether he assisted in 1781 at the marriage of Isaac Franks, of Manchester, who may have found the Jewish authorities in England, in their nervousness concerning the insidious perils of proselytising, unduly hesitant about accepting his fiancée, Miss Nash, daughter of a wealthy Quaker of Norfolk, as a convert to Judaism.’
Leoni’s success and his limited stipend at the synagogue led him to change his career in 1783 and chance his arm as an opera promoter as well as a performer. A rumour spread that he was dismissed by the synagogue for performing in Handel’s Messiah, but the rumour was unsubstantiated.
Leoni began his venture in Dublin with the composer Tommaso Giordani. One of Leoni’s most applauded songs in Dublin was an Italian version of Eileen Aruin. Leoni and Giordani took over the New Theatre in Capel Street, Dublin, to be devoted exclusively ‘to the Exhibition English Opera.’
The new opera house opened on 15 December 1783. During this time, once again, Hyman says ‘it may be safely surmised’ that Leoni officiated as cantor at the synagogue in Marlborough Green, Dublin.
However, this venture turned out to be a disaster, and without enough capital the theatre closed its doors after only seven months. Leoni was still in his mid-30s, and he never fully recovered from the financial consequences of this season in Dublin.
He appeared in 1787 in a benefit performance at Covent Garden Theatre, which was also the first stage appearance of John Braham. He last appeared on stage in London in 1788. He moved to Jamaica to become hazzan or cantor to the Jewish community in Kingston, where he died in 1797.
His former pupil, John Abraham, better known as John Braham (1774-1856), sang at the Theatre Royal in Dublin for 15 nights in 1809 for a fee of 2,000 guineas. He was on stage in Dublin again in 1823 and 1825. His daughter Francese Elizabeth Anne Braham (1821-1879) married as her fourth husband Samuel Chichester Parkinson-Fortescue (1823-1898), MP for Co Louth, and Chief Secretary of Ireland (1865-1866, 1868-1870), and 1st Lord Carlingford (1874-1898) and 2nd Lord Clermont (1887-1898). She was a society hostess and Lord Carlingford’s influence in society was due largely to her. She died on 5 July 1879, aged 58.
Tomorrow: 4, Stafford Street Synagogue
Saturday: 2, Ballybough Cemetery