16 August 2021

When Youghal became
the first Irish town to
elect a Jewish mayor

The Town Hall in Youghal, Co Cork … William Annyas or William Moses Annyas Eanes (Ben Yohanan) was elected Mayor of Youghal in 1555, the first Jewish Mayor in ay town in Ireland or Britain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

This year’s ‘road trip’ or summer ‘staycation’ has had a brief return, and after a busy weekend, including a wedding, I stayed overnight in Youghal, Co Cork, on the estuary of the River Blackwater, 30 km south of Cappoquin, which holds so many of my childhood memories.

I was staying last night in the Old Imperial Hotel on Main Street, close to Youghal’s two main historic landmarks, Saint Mary’s Collegiate Church and the Clock Gate Tower. But I also went in search of the story of Ireland’s first Jewish Mayor.

Youghal, with a population of about 8,000, stands on the edge of a steep riverbank, and has long, narrow streets and narrow side lanes. The town dates back in time to a Viking settlement in the 11th century, and received its first charter of incorporation as a town in 1209.

The Clock Gate Tower, the symbol of the town, was built in 1777 on the site of Trinity Castle, part of the town’s mediaeval fortifications. The Clock Gate was the town gaol until 1837, and later became a family home, until the McGrath family left in 1959.

Youghal is the first town in either Ireland or Britain to have a Jewish mayor when William Annyas or William Moses Annyas Eanes (Ben Yohanan) was elected Mayor of Youghal in 1555.

His grandfather, Gil Anes, was a Marrano Jew or converso who had emigrated from Belmonte in Portugal. Belmonte was the birthplace of Pedro Álvares Cabral, the navigator who discovered the land of Vera Cruz, now known as Brazil.

Many of the first Jews to come to Ireland were Marrano merchants from Spain and Portugal, who arrived in the aftermath of the Inquisition.

His surname Annyas is sometimes written as Ãnes and anglicised to Ames, and in some casse the family may have used the surname Ennis. His daughter married Yacov Kassin, son of Yehuda Kassin (Juan Cassin), a Marrano merchant who had moved to Galway.

Later, Francis Annyas was a three-time Mayor of Youghal in 1569, 1576 and again in 1581. He commanded the English garrison in Youghal during the Desmond Rebellions and had a colourful life working as a spy for Sir Francis Drake in the Azores. However, his exact relation to William Annyas is not known.

The Town Hall in Youghal, Co Cork … Youghal elected Jewish mayors in 1555, 1569, 1576 and 1581 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

There never seems to have been been a synagogue in Youghal. The first Sephardic synagogue in Cork City may date from the later arrivals of merchants and families from Portugal and Spain in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

The site of the Sephardic cemetery in Cork was discovered in the last century in Kemp Street, on the south-east corner of White Street, to the rear of the Cork Hebrew Congregation’s synagogue in South Terrace, which closed in 2016. But no traces of a Sephardic synagogue have been found in the city.

As for Belmonte, it is, perhaps, the Portuguese town with the strongest Jewish presence. Hebrew culture and tradition have survived there continuously from the early 16th century until today.

The Jewish community in Belmonte dates from the Middle Ages and the town’s first synagogue may have been founded in 1297. King Manuel issued an edict in 1496 expelling all Jews from Portugal, but a group of Crypto-Jews remained in Belmonte and this community has survived until today.

They were a closed community, where the women preserved their Jewish traditions and kept them alive in their isolation, handing them down through the generations for 500 years. The post-Inquisition Jewish presence in Belmonte was first documented in 1917 by Samuel Schwarz, a Jewish engineer from Poland. He was working at a nearby tin mine when he noticed the secretive habits of many families in the town.

The Sephardic Jews in Belmonte returned to Judaism formally in 1989 and founded the Jewish Community of Belmonte.

The Clock Gate Tower, the symbol of Youghal, was built in 1777 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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