28 December 2019
Chichester Phillips: the MP for Askeaton
who gave Ireland its first Jewish Cemetery
Captain Chichester Phillips (1647-1728) was a politician in the 17th and early 18th century who made his career in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Boyne as MP for Askeaton, Co Limerick, in the Irish House of Commons from 1695 to 1713.
Phillips was the owner of Drumcondra Castle, Dublin, and his family may have given their name to Philipsburgh Avenue in the Fairview/Marino area, previously known as Ellis Avenue.
The Phillips family had a long-standing connection with Ireland. His grandfather, Sir Thomas Phillips, played a key part in the Plantation of Ulster. He founded the town of Limavady in 1610, also held lands in Coleraine, and was Governor of Coleraine. Sir Thomas died in London in 1636, leaving the Limavady estates to his eldest son Dudley. His younger son, Chichester Phillips, married Susannah Warner, daughter of the Revd Thomas Warner, Vicar of Balsham.
The younger Chichester Phillips was born in Balsham, Cambridge, in 1647, but as a child was brought to Ireland when his family moved to Dublin, where the elder Chichester Phillips died in 1656.
His widowed mother Susannah Phillips remarried, and her second husband was Sir Simon Eaton, of Dunmoylin, near Shanagolden Co Limerick. Sir Simon was given the title of baronet in 1683 and died in 1697; Susannah died in 1701. This family connection with Co Limerick may explain why Chichester Phillips became the Earl of Cork’s agent for his estates in the Askeaton and MP for Askeaton while his step-father was still living.
After the Williamite Revolution, Phillips took the side of William III against James II of England. He served in several regiments as an ensign, lieutenant and captain, and his last military appointment was as a captain in the Earl of Granard’s Regiment of Foot.
As a reward for his loyalty in 1691, the Commissioners for Forfeited Estates sold him lands in Killucan and Rathwire in Co Westmeath that had been forfeited by the O’Mulledy family. He was listed as an alderman of Dublin in 1696. He was the second MP for Askeaton, sitting first with George Evans and later with Robert Taylor.
Phillips bought the freehold title to Drumcondra Castle in 1703. Ironically, his claim to Drumcondra was based originally on a lease from King James II to Giles Martin in 1677.
Captain Phillips married Sarah Handcock in 1685. She was the daughter of William Handcock, MP for Westmeath, and they were the parents of six children, two daughters and four sons.
Captain Chichester Phillips died in 1728. He is best remembered today not as the Williamite MP for Askeaton but for giving the land to create Ireland’s first Jewish cemetery at Ballybough, Dublin. Ten years before he died, on 28 October 1718, Captain Phillips leased a plot of land to Jews who had recently established a small community in Dublin. This land became 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 bearing 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 present Jewish year that began on 29 September 2019 is 5780.
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.
A 40-year lease was signed on 29 September 1717, and the lease was granted on 28 October 1718. This makes this cemetery older than the Alderney Road cemetery in Mile End, London, acquired by the Great Synagogue in 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.
The Dublin Jewish congregation was in financial difficulty by 1748, 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 Synagogue and remained 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 his book 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 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 in 1898. It was established by Robert Bradlaw and the Dolphin’s Barn Jewish Burial Society.
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 in 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 recently [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.
As for Captain Phillips of Askeaton, two of his sons were priests in the Church of Ireland: the Revd Charles Phillips, Rector of Kilcolman, Co Cork; and Canon Marmaduke Phillips, MA, DD (1698-1770) friend of Jonathan Swift and at different times Rector of Raheny, Dublin (1732-1736), and Prebendary of Inniscarra in Cloyne, Co Cork (1751-1770).
In a letter to Dean Swift in 1734, Marmaduke Phillips quoted lines from an unknown author:
What’s past we know, and what’s to come must be,
Or good or bad, is much the same to me;
Since death must end my joy or misery,
Fix’d be my thoughts on immortality.
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is the Church of Ireland priest in Askeaton
This feature was first published in December 2019 in ABC News 2019 (pp 61-63), the annual magazine of Askeaton/Ballysteen Community Council Muintir na Tíre