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November 19, 2004

In the footsteps of Leopold Bloom: Portraits from Jewish Dublin

Posted by Christie Davies

In the footsteps of Leopold Bloom: Portraits from Jewish Dublin
James Joyce Centre, 35 North Great George Street, Dublin 1
28th September - 28th November 2004
Monday - Saturday 9.30am - 5pm,
Sunday/Public Holidays 12.30am - 5pm

On the stairway in the James Joyce Centre are hung a series of black and white photographs by Jack Clarke of Jewish Dubliners from grey haired, grey bearded patriarchs to Deborah who looks more Irish than anyone I have ever seen. So much for stereotypes. One looks like a Jewish version of Gerry Adams; by Jewish I mean that his face shows kindness and humanity. The prize though must go to the photograph of Michael Coleman caught framed beneath a Dublin bridge, the brim of his hat a triumph of trompe d'oeil.

A learned rabbi from Chicago who happened to be at the exhibition asked me why the photographs were there. He complained, or rather pretended to complain:

Why don't they have a bigger show in larger premises called 'Faces of the Dublin goyim'?
He pointed out to me that several of the photographs were marked Lag b'Omer and for twenty four minutes expounded the significance of this minor holiday, the 33rd (Lag) day from the second day of Passover and explained its location within a fifty day period of partial mourning when weddings and haircuts are forbidden. Why did the organisers of the exhibition not provide this vital information alongside the photographs? Why should visitors have to depend on a chance meeting with a Jewish scholar on the stairs?

Upstairs is a permanent collections of original drawings by Mervyn Rowe for the feature film Bloom. Predictably here is Dublin's Night-town, 'Monto', in its day the biggest red light district in Europe with 1,600 whores, and its violence as well as its sex is shown. Here is Bella Cohen in corsets with her cane. Here are the redcoats, the Yorkshire-singing frequenters of Bella's brothel with whom Stephen Dedalus had an altercation. Biff him, Harry! Bello. Bella. Causus belli. Joyce had been a customer since he was fourteen. Today in our less tolerant times, the working-girls would probably not want to risk a prosecution.

There is something odd about the way in which the 1904 Jewishness of the not very Jewish Bloom is being celebrated in Ireland a hundred years later. In real life 1904 was less the year of Bloomsday than of the Limerick pogrom when a boycott organised by Father Creagh drove the Jews out of town. But for the vigilance of the RICs, serious violence would have been offered them. The American generated myth of a special Irish-Jewish amity is just that a myth. Father Coughlin did not subscribe to it though Roy Cohn may well have done.

Joyce, an outsider, was loyal to his fellow outsiders. In Ulysses he placed the standard anti-Semitic sentiments of Ireland in 1904 into the mouths of knaves and suckers like Mr Deasy or the Cyclopean citizen who swore at Bloom:

By Jesus, I'll brain that Bloody Jewman for using the Holy Name. By Jesu I'll crucify him, so I will.
In the real world it was the educated, sophisticated Buck Mulliganed Oliver St. John Gogarty, who denounced the Jews in lurid terms in 1906 in Arthur Griffith's Sinn Fein publication. I'm not joking, Mr. Feinman. There had been earlier outbursts of anti-Semitism in 1886 and 1893 at the time of the Home Rule Bills. It was an integral part of Irish nationalism. Saunders Lewis would have seen the point.

In the James Joyce Centre tribute is rightly paid to Paul Leon, Joyce's Jewish devotee who recovered the author's papers in Paris after Joyce had left in 1940 and took them to the Irish embassy in January 1941; they are now in the National Library of Ireland. In August 1942 Leon was arrested by the Nazis and later murdered somewhere in Silesia. Even if he had known, de Valera would have done nothing to assist him. Charles Bewley, de Valera's minister in Berlin, did everything he could in the 1930s to prevent Jews getting visas to go to Ireland. De Valera's strict neutrality during World War II, the time of the Holocaust, ensured that there was no bending or unbending on this point. Franco probably issued more passports to save Jewish lives than his fellow Spaniard De Valera. In 1944 at a time when there were only 4000 Jews in Ireland, it was commented in the Irish parliament that there were too many of them. The spirit of Mr Deasy, that rebel on the spindle side, lived on. Now in 2004 when multi-culturalism has struck Dublin, much against the wishes of its ordinary working people, we should remember another time and kind of unfairness, when the Jews were excluded.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, Transaction Publishers, 2004, a study of Irish as well as British morality. For more James Joyce related reviews by Christie Davies see James Joyce and the centenary of Bloomsday and James Joyce and Ulysses at the National Library of Ireland.

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This is an excellent review - although it must be somewhat tough, verging on incomprehensible in places, on those who know little or nothing about Ulysses.

Posted by: Jane at November 19, 2004 06:36 PM

The topic of Irish anti-Semitism is always guaranteed to raise passions. The two equally odd extremes - that the Irish and Jewish peoples are united by a mighty love and kinship because both were "victims of history" and that the Irish were only a small step below the Waffen SS in their anti-Semitism - equally fail to match the reality. The facts outlined about the Limerick pogrom and the few visas given to European Jews are true.

Having said that, I remember discussing this with Joe Briscoe, one of the famous Jewish Fianna Fail family (incidentally isn't it interesting that for a community of its size, the Jewish community in Dublin has produced some of the best-known political names in Irish life - Briscoe, Shatter, Taylor) - he acknowledged all the above, but said "when I go abroad I shout it from the rooftops, no Jew was ever killed for his religion in Ireland." Furthermore, he ascribed the Limerick pogrom not to indigenous anti-Semitism but to the influence of priests trained in Dreyfus-era France.

Posted by: James McQueen at November 22, 2004 06:12 PM

Hi Christie, Just stumbled on your website, glad you got to see my Jewish Dublin photos on at J.J.C. Good to see it sparked debate, I had the idea of everyone doing a little speel on their Jewish/Irishness. The first man I rang about it, the one under the bridge, told me to get wise, I'd never get them all to agree, and if I did, once they got going, I would never shut them up. Now that I have met a cross section of the community, I realise it was probably the soundest advice I was given,during the duration of the project. Its a larger show than went on display, if you know of any other gallery or museum interested, let me know, Yours,Jack Clarke.

Posted by: jack clarke at January 29, 2005 12:57 AM

Is the reference to Saunders Lewis a suggestion that anti-semitism was a feature of early Welsh-Nationalism? There is much evidence to the contrary. His political opponents often raise the spectre of Lewis's anti-semitism based on a single phrase in a poem in which the excesses of capitalism are personified in a Shylock figure. Is there more to this than politically motivated innuendo?

Posted by: tasgmon at February 17, 2006 01:36 PM
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