18 September 2020

‘This year, I thank God … to be able
to walk without looking behind me’

A small Shofar on the bimah or reading desk in the Beth El synagogue near Bunclody, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

In my Friday evening reflections, I often draw on the Authorised Daily Prayer Book, with its introduction, commentaries and notes by the former Chief Rabbi, Lord (Jonathan) Sacks, on Service of the Heart, published in London by the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues in 1967, and edited by Rabbi John Rayner and Rabbi Chaim Stern, or on poetry I am reading.

But this evening is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish New Year, welcoming in the year 5781. Although celebrations are restricted this year, households will still be able to mark the start of the High Holy Days – also known as the ‘Days of Awe’ – and many synagogues will still be welcoming visitors for prayer with social-distancing in place.

Rosh Hashanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה‎), literally meaning the ‘head of the year,’ is a two-day celebration that takes place from sundown this evening (18 September) to nightfall on Sunday (20 September).

The first day of Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of ten holy days known as the High Holy days. This is a time of repentance when Jewish people reflect on their actions over the previous year. Traditional celebrations will see families and friends spend time together, pray, listen to the sound of the Shofar (the ram’s horn) and eat special food.

The tenth day, Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – begins this year at sunset on Sunday 27 September and ends at nightfall on Monday 28 September.

In recent weeks, I was exploring Cork’s Jewish history and legacy as part of this year’s ‘Road Trip,’ and went on a walking tour around Jewish Cork, following the new ‘Virtual Walk’ through Jewish Cork launched last month by the performance artist Ruti Lachs, who is active in the Munster Jewish Community.

The virtual tour is presented by Ruti Lachs and Marnina Winkler, and includes interviews, stories, and music, and a poem by Simon Lewis.

Simon Lewis’s Jewtown (Doire Press, 2016) is a collection of 57 brief poems that recall many of the stories of this area.

Simon Lewis moved from Dublin a few years ago to take up a teaching post in Carlow. There he joined a writers’ group and was challenged to write about his Jewish and Irish background, leading him to examine Jewish history in Cork.

The tenth poem in his collection, ‘Tashlich,’ is read by David Goldberg in the new ‘Virtual Walk’ of Jewish Cork.

‘Tashlich’ refers to the symbolic casting away of sins into a river or flowing water during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The anonymous narrator in ‘Tashlich’ recalls his dangerous escape from Tsarist antisemitism and recounts his present poverty in Ireland. But he also expresses relief at feeling free from physical danger in Cork:

I toss breadcrumbs in the river
and pray to God for forgiveness:
for the food I stole from the houses
in empty shtetls, the lies to the soldiers
at every checkpoint all the way
to the harbour at Riga, and the evenings
when I could barely breathe,
questioning my faith, broken from the day.
This year, I thank God for a mattress
on a dirt floor, a small knob of butter
melted in mashed potato, to be able
to walk without looking behind me.

Shanah tovah (שנה טובה), ‘Good year.’

The O’Rahilly’s homes
and questions about
a claimed family title

Michael Joseph O’Rahilly, an image of ‘The O’Rahilly,’ at his birthplace in Ballylongford, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Despite months of protests, an Bord Pleanála has approved the demolition of 40 Herbert Park, Ballsbridge, the former Dublin home of The O’Rahilly, the only leader to have been killed fighting during the 1916 Rising.

The planning authority earlier this week approved the demolition of the house to make way for an apartment and hotel development of up to 12 storeys on adjoining sites of 36, 38 and 40 Herbert Park.

Numbers 36 and 38 have already been demolished but several houses of similar vintage and style at numbers 1-34 Herbert Park are included on Dublin City Council’s Record of Protected Structures.

Derryroe Ltd, a development company owned by the McSharry and Kennedy families, also owns the Herbert Park Hotel, and has received approval despite opposition from several residents’ associations and heritage organisations, Dublin city councillors and the Department of Culture and Heritage.

The birthplace in Ballylongford, Co Kerry, of Michael Joseph O’Rahilly, who called himself ‘The O’Rahilly’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The decision has angered many people in The O’Rahilly's birthplace of Ballylongford, in north Co Kerry, according to this week’s edition of the Kerryman. Michael Finucane, the owner of the house where The O’Rahilly, tells the Kerryman that the decision is ‘a disgrace.’

He says the fact that the O’Rahilly’s in Ballylongford home is a listed building, while his Dublin residence is to be demolished is ‘frustrating.’ The O’Rahilly’s widow, Nancy (née Brown), lived in the house until 1961.

Michael Joseph O’Rahilly (1875-1916), who called himself The O’Rahilly, was a founding member of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and took part in the Howth gun-running. Despite opposing the action, he took part in the Easter Rising in Dublin and was killed during the retreat from the GPO.

He was born in Ballylongford, Co Kerry, the son of to Richard Rahilly, a grocer, and Ellen (née Mangan), who lived in a substantial house on the corner of Bridge Street and Quay Street in Balylongford.

He was educated at Clongowes Wood College, Co Kildare. When his father died 1896, he abandoned his medical studies and returned to Ballylongford to take care of the family business in Ballylongford.

But he sold the family business in Ballylongford to the Finucane family in 1898, married Nancy Brown in New York in 1899, and become a wealthy man with a substantial private income, before returning to Ireland in 1902. After a number of return visits to America, he moved to 40 Herbert Park in 1910.

In Gaelic tradition, chiefs of clan were called by their clan name preceded by the definite article, such as The O Morchoe, The O Donnell, The O Neill and The MacGillicuddy of the Reeks. Michael Rahilly assumed the title The O’Rahilly, but was he ever entitled to the title?

The Rahilly family grave in Ballylongford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

He spent much time in genealogical research, trying to prove a family connection with – if not direct descent from – the Gaelic poet Aodhagán Ó Rathaille (ca 1670-1726), and used a coat-of-arms, complete with supporters, for the Rahilly family that was based on the coat-of-arms of the O’Reillys of Cavan, but that was never registered.

He was born Rahilly, but spelt his name in different ways at different stages in his life. When his first child was born in 1900, he was still calling himself Michael Joseph Rahilly. But by 1901, he was calling himself Michael Ioseph Rathaile, Ua Rathaille in 1903 in 1909, and using the moniker ‘The O’Rahilly’ from as early as 1905. He seems to have used the spelling O’Rahilly from 1909 on, a change that was followed other members of the Rahilly family.

When he adopted the title The O’Rahilly, he claimed he was the eldest surviving member of the male line of his family. His wife Nancy became known as Madame O’Rahilly.

But there never was a known figure called The O'Rahilly before that in traditional Gaelic nobility. Michael Joseph Rahilly was the eldest male line descendant of Michael Rahilly (ca 1765 - ca 1810) of Killarney. His son, Michael Joseph Rahilly was living in Ballylongford by 1832, and was the father of Richard Rahilly, the father of ‘The O Rahilly.’

However, there is no substance to his claims that he was the eldest male line descendant of the entire family.

The plaque on O’Rahilly’s childhood home in Ballylongford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

William Butler Yeats defended O’Rahilly on this point in 1938 in a poem The O’Rahilly that begins:

Sing of the O’Rahilly,

Do not deny his right;
Sing a ‘the’ before his name;
Allow that he, despite
All those learned historians,
Established it for good;
He wrote out that word himself,
He christened himself with blood.

How goes the weather?

An inscription on the Rahilly family grave in Ballylongford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)