[A sequel to this article can be read here]
In the early half of the twentieth century, there were roughly 3,700 Jews living in Ireland. This represented about 0.12% of the total population. Though their numbers were minuscule, members of the the Jewish community were disproportionately active in the fight for Irish independence. Melisande Zlotover in his 1966 memoir ‘Zlotover story: A Dublin story with a difference’ assessed the overall situation by writing that Dublin’s Jews “were most sympathetic [to the fight for Independence] and many helped in the cause”.
Michael Noyk (1884–1966) Jewish Dublin-born republican activist and lawyer who most famously defended republican prisoners during the War of Independence and afterwards. In the 1917 Clare East by-election he was a prominent worker for Eamon de Valera and in the 1918 general election was election agent for Countess Markievicz and Seán T. O’Kelly. He was later involved in renting houses and offices for all the ministries established under the first Dáil. During the War of Independence he regularly met Michael Collins in Devlin’s pub on Parnell Square and helped to run the republican courts. In 1921 he was to the fore in defending many leading members of the IRA, including Gen. Seán Mac Eoin and Capt. Patrick Moran, the latter of which was executed for complicity in the shooting of British intelligence officers.
While Arthur Griffith’s early anti-Semitic comments (c.1904) are frequently recalled, it should be noted that he was an extremely close friend of Noyk’s from 1910 onwards and he remained Griffith’s solicitor until his death in 1922. So close did Griffith’s relationship with Noyk become that his own daughter would act as a flower girl at Noyk’s wedding as Manus O’Riordan reminded us in an excellent 2008 article.
In later years, Noyk became a founder-member of the Association of Old Dublin Brigade (IRA) and a member of the Kilmainham Jail Restoration Committee. Keenly interested in sport, he played soccer in his youth for a team based around Adelaide Road and was for many years the solicitor to Shamrock Rovers. He died on 23 October 1966 at Lewisham Hospital in London. A huge crowd, including the then taoiseach, Seán Lemass, attended his funeral and the surviving members of the Dublin Brigade rendered full IRA military honours at his graveside. He is buried in Dolphin’s Barn cemetery.
Robert Emmet Briscoe (1894–1969) was a Jewish Dublin-born republican and businessman who most famously ran guns for the IRA during the War of Independence. Named after revolutionary leader Robert Emmet, his father, a steadfast Parnellite called another son Wolfe Tone Briscoe. Politicised after the Easter Rising, Robert attended meetings of Clan na Gael in the United States, meeting Liam Mellows, who influenced his return to Ireland (August 1917) to join the headquarters staff of Na Fianna Éireann. The clothing factory that Robert Briscoe opened at 9 Aston Quay, and a subsequent second workshop in Coppinger’s Row, both served as headquarters for clandestine Fianna and IRA activities before and during the War of Independence. Unknown to government authorities owing to his lack of prior political involvement, Briscoe engaged in arms-and-ammunition procurement and transport, and gathering of intelligence. Transferred to IRA headquarters staff (February 1920), he was dispatched by Michael Collins to Germany, where, with his knowledge of the language and country, he established and oversaw a network of arms purchase and transport. He maintained a steady flow of matériel after the July 1921 truce, and from 1922 to the anti-treaty IRA, with which he maintained links for some years after the civil war. Returning to Ireland after the 1924 general amnesty, he managed the Dublin operations of Briscoe Importing, a firm already established by two of his brothers.
During the summer of 1926 the IRA raided the offices and homes of moneylenders in both Dublin and Limerick. Manus O’Riordan wrote that:
Those who were raided were indeed predominantly Jewish, but the IRA explicitly stated that their attack was on moneylending itself, “not on Jewry”.
Historian Brian Hanley summed up the situation well when he said that the IRA:
…were supported in their claims by the prominent Jewish politician in Ireland, Robert Briscoe of de Valera’s Fianna Fáil Party. He argued that he did not see the raids as anti-Semitic, and wished it to be known that he and ‘many other members of the Jewish community’ abhorred moneylending and expressed his admiration for the IRA’s attempts to end ‘this rotten trade’.
A founding member of Fianna Fáil (1926), he served on its first executive committee, and worked on constructing the party’s national constituency organisation, transporting party workers countrywide in his recently purchased motor car. Defeated in the June 1927 general election and in an August 1927 by-election occasioned by the death of Constance Markievicz, in the September 1927 general election he was elected to Dáil Éireann, becoming the first Jewish TD, and commencing an unbroken tenure of thirty-eight years, representing Dublin South (1927–48) and Dublin South-West (1948–65). Twice lord mayor of Dublin (1956–7, 1961–2), he made a spectacularly successful whistle-stop tour of the USA (1957) – the first of several official visits, trade missions, and speaking tours – lauded by Irish- and Jewish-Americans as Dublin’s first Jewish lord mayor.
Estella Solomons (1882–1968), who “hailed from one of the longest established Jewish families in Dublin”, was a distinguished artist active with the Rathmines branch of Cumann na mBan (Wynn, 2012, p. 60). One of her first jobs was distributing arms and ammunition which she kept hidden under the vegetable patch at the family home on Waterloo Road. (Wynn, 2012, p.60) When her sister visited from London with her British Army husband,, Estella stole his uniform and passed it onto the IRA. Solomons sheltered IRA fugitives in her studio during the War of Independence, and concealed weapons under the pretence of gardening. Estella’s IRA contact was a milk delivery man, who acted as a perfect cover for moving arms and gathering information. She persuaded him to teach her to shoot, in exchange she painted a portrait of his wife. Taking the anti-Treaty side and sheltering Republicans during the Civil War, her studio was often raided by Free State troops.
Solomons was elected an associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) in July 1925, but it was not until 1966 that Solomons was elected an honorary member. Her work was included in the Academy’s annual members’ exhibition every year for sixty years. As her parents were opposed to her marrying outside her faith, it was not until August 1925, when she was 43 and her husband 46, that she married Seumas O’Sullivan, the editor and founder of the influential literary publication Dublin Magazine.
Gerald Yael Goldberg (1912–2003), Cork-born solicitor, politician and writer, retained vivid childhood memories of the War of Independence and Civil War period, including the burning of central Cork by crown forces (during which his family had to leave their home temporarily). He attended the lyings‐in‐state of Tomàs MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney both of whom he always revered. In later life he commissioned portraits of MacCurtain and MacSwiney for the City Hall while he was Lord Mayor. Goldberg also acquired a long-lasting respect for fellow Corkman Michael Collins after hearing him speak at a public meeting.
The Goldbergs moved to Cork after the anti‐Semitic Limerick riots, and subsequent boycott, of 1904, in which Gerald’s father Louis was assaulted. In secondary school, he and his brother got into trouble after they applied to be excused from Armistice Day (as a German pupil was excused) because the British had murdered MacCurtain and MacSwiney. In the 1930s Goldberg established a committee in Cork to help Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution; in later life he spoke bitterly of the refusal of the state to admit such refugees, and recalled how a German Jew who deserted a ship at Cobh was sent back to the concentration camps despite the Cork community’s willingness to assist him. A successful solicitor, he was elected president of the Cork Hebrew Congregation in 1943, and remained the public face of Cork Jewry until his death.
Goldberg was elected to Cork corporation as an independent alderman for the north‐west ward in 1967 but joined Fianna Fáil in 1970, stating that it was impossible for an isolated councillor to achieve anything on the corporation. In 1977, he was elected lord mayor of Cork, the first Jew to hold this office. During his term he researched the history of the civic regalia, including the mayoral chain (he published a pamphlet on its connection with Terence MacSwiney) and the mace (leading him to make a public appeal for the British Museum to return to Cork several former Cork maces it had acquired over the years). In 1982 he openly considered leaving Ireland after he received death threats and after a fire‐bomb attack on the Cork synagogue, which were linked to hostile relations between Irish peacekeeping forces in South Lebanon and Israeli and Israeli‐backed forces. He retired from Cork corporation in 1985. He died, at the age of 91, in Cork, on 31 December 2003, and received a civic funeral on 4 January 2004 to the Cork Jewish graveyard at Curraghkippane. Cork corporation members wore skullcaps in his honour.
Francis Rebecca ‘Fanny’ Goldberg (1893-?) and Molly Goldberg (1896-), sisters of Gerald, were active with Cuman na mBan. Dermot Keogh in his book ‘Jews In Twentieth Century Ireland’ (1998) mentions this fact but unfortunately no further information seems to be available about their activities.
Leon Spiro, who moved to Dublin from Lithuania at the age of two was manager of the Pearl Printing Company in Drury Street. The IRA newspaper An t-Olgach was printer by Spiro during the early 1920s and he employed Oscar Traynor (Commanding Officer of the Dublin I.R.A.) as a compositor. Natalie Wynn in her essay ‘Jews, Antisemitism and Irish Politics : A Tale of Two Narrative’ (2012) suggests that the paper was indeed printed by Leon Spiro but only after he had been “forcibly detained” in his office. This information was gleaned from a unpublished memoir written by Leon’s daughter Jessie Spiro Bloom.
George White, member of ‘C’ Company 3rd Battalion Dublin Brigade IRA from 1917 and later Quartermaster Active Service Unit from 1921, recalled in his Witness Statement (no. 956) that a Jewish man by the name of Max Cohen lived in a house that was being used an arms dump at 3 Swifts Row beside Ormond Quay in Dublin city centre. Max “knew all about the dump but said nothing about it” to the authorities. His brother Abraham, who ran an antique shop at 20 Ormond Quay, told White and another IRA member that they could use his shop anytime “as a means of escape”.
Unidentified Jew who sheltered Dan Breen
In the Witness Statement (no. 723) of Dr. Alice Barry, a close friend of many IRA leaders, she mentions that Dan Breen was taken in by a Jewish person while on the run in Fernside, Drumcondra, North Dublin*. In October 1920, Breen, who had badly cut his legs while escaping from the Black and Tans, “wandered round looking for refuge” until he eventually found it in the home of a unnamed Jewish person who also “provided him with dry clothing”. (Unfortunately and somewhat ironically, Breen took a very strong pro-Axis side and had a portrait of Adolf Hitler hanging in his study until as late as 1948.)
*Thanks to Politics.ie posters for bringing my attention to the fact that the incident happened in Fernside, Drumcondra not Fernside, Killiney.
Unidentified Jewish families who supported Sinn Fein and the IRA
Mrs. Sean Beaumont, a member of executive of Cumann na mBan, recalled in her Witness Statement (no. 385) that trained nurses within the organisation set up a bureau at 6 Harcourt Street in October 1918 to help the general public during the flu pandemic. Among those nursed “were many” Jewish families who showed their gratitude by providing financial support for the Republican movement and voting for Sinn Fein candidates in the years ahead.
There are several other more general references to the Jewish community in the recently digitised witness statements.
After taking part in the Easter Rising, Captain Sean Kavananagh (WS 1670) mentions that the soldier who told him that were about to be deported to England was a “Dublin Jew” called Lieutenant Barron.
Thomas Pugh of the Irish Volunteers recalled in his Witness Statement (397) that after taking part in the Easter Rising, he was brought to Portobello Barracks where the person in charge of taking personal belongings from the prisoners was:
a Jew whom I knew very well. He was one of the Barrons, the furniture people. I am sure he knew me well, because I saved him once from a beating in the football grounds in Inchicore.
Further afield, a Jewish cinema owner in New York apologised to local Irish Republicans after his cinema inadvertently showed a British propaganda film called ‘Whom the gods would destroy’ (1916). Sidney Czira (Secretary of Cumman na mBan, New York) wrote in her Witness Statement (no. 909) that the film portrayed Irish volunteers like they were of “half-ape type”. As a result, a group of Republicans visited the cinema and explained the situation to the Jewish owner. Czira wrote that he was “quite unaware of its significance … apologised … and withdrew it at once”.
Another side note is that the badly damaged Hotel Metropole on O’Connell Street was bought after the Rising by Jewish cinema owner Maurice Elliman who turned it into the successful Metropole cinema.
In the summer of 1919, a successful raid took place on the Rotunda which was being used at the time as the temporary General Post Office. A number of IRA men were involved in the action in which “very valuable and confidential documents” destined for Dublin Castle were seized. Afterwards, a number of sympathetic postman overheard a colleague say to someone that “I know the fella in charge of this raid”. He was referring to Oscar Traynor who he knew through playing football. The postman in question was described by Traynor (WS 340) as an “English Jew” who lived on the North Circular Road . This “cockney Jew” was visited by a number of IRA men and was told to keep his mouth shut or else. As a result of being threatened, he decided to move back to London.
That same year, a group of Tipperary IRA men seized a gun from a Jewish businessman who ran a skin and hide business at the back of Connolly Street in Nenagh. Volunteer Edward John Ryan (WS 1392) was approached by a comrade who was employed in the business. In the raid, both the volunteer (to make not look like an inside job) and his Jewish employer were tied up. No-one was harmed in the robbery.
In the statement of Mary Flannery Woods (no. 624) of Cumann na mBan, she mentions that she bought a safe house for Michael Collins on Harcourt Terrace in 1920 that was owned by a Jew called Mr. Cantor. Seamus O’Connor and not Michael Noyk was the solicitor involved. In this house, a special hidden cupboard was built for arms and ammunition.
Dr. Josephine Clarke (no. 699), member of Cumann na mBan, wrote that her and her husband Liam moved into an “unfurnished flat in a Jew’s house in Sydenham Road” in roughly the same period.
In July 1920 the IRA shot dead Unionist landowner Frank Brooke, the Chairman of the Dublin South Eastern Railways, inside his office at Westland Row train station. Brooke was a secret member of the British Military Advisory Council and was signaled out specifically by Michael Collin’s Squad. Laurence Nugent (Lieutenant ‘K’ Company, 3rd Battalion Dublin Brigade IRA) remarked in his Witness Statement (no. 907) that they had planned to shoot another director of the Railways but spared him after a Jewish woman ‘Miss Zigmen’ asked the IRA to spare his life. Zigmen, who lived on Upper Baggot Street, was a private cigarette manufacturer and the unnamed director was a customer of hers. (Note: ‘Zigman’ may have been incorrectly transcribed as ‘Zigmen’).
In November of that year, Lieutenant Peter Ashmun Ames and Captain George Bennett were shot dead by the IRA in their rooms at 38 Upper Mount Street. Jewish solicitor Michael Noyk (WS 707) took up the defence of two volunteers including Patrick Moran from Roscommon who were arrested in the aftermath. Moran strongly protested his innocence and had a solid alibi since he was at Mass in Blackrock at the time and was seen there by several people including a member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Among the witnesses that Noyk called in to help Moran’s case was Joseph Mirrelson, a Jewish Turf Accountant from Dun Laoghaire. He had seen Moran on a tram on the morning of the shooting. Mirrelson knew Moran well as he used to frequent a pub in Dun Laoghaire called Lynch & O’Brien’s pub that Moran used to work in. Despite the evidence laid out that proved Moran and another Volunteer Thomas Whelan were not in the area of the shooting, both were hanged in Mountjoy Jail in March 1921.
As this was a time when both ignorant and deep-rooted anti-Semitism was more prevalent, this seeps through in a couple of Witness Statements.
Seamus MacManus, one of the founders of the National Council (pre Sinn Fein), said that most French newspapers in 1890s “were under the thumb of the Jews financially” in his Witness Statement (no. 283).
Richard Walsh talked about a pub down by the London docks that was run by a English Jew and his Irish catholic wife. A strong Irish republican, the wife would act as a messenger for the IRA and her herself and her husband allowed the pub to be used for preparing arms packages for shipment. Walsh makes an anti-Semitic off-the-cuff mark in his Witness Statement (no. 136) describing this publican as a “Jew … (that) like all his race was cute and well able to conceal his feelings”.
Not forgetting the disgusting anti-Semitic remarks from John Devoy (called De Valera “a half-breed Jew”), J. J. O’Kelly, W. J. Brennan-Whitmore and a small number of Irish republicans in this time period.
In a February 1944 heated Dail debate about pensions for veterans of the Easter Rising and War of Independence, the toxic, anti-Semitic TD Oliver J. Flanagan proclaimed:
We had not got the rancher, the capitalist, the financier or the Jew in the Old I.R.A. We had the plain, poor, honest people.
Flanagan had obviously overlooked (or decided to forget) the roles that Robert Briscoe, Michael Noyk, Estella Solomon, the Goldbergs and (possibly) Abraham Spiro played in the War of Independence. It is only coming to light now the small but important day-to-day roles that ordinary Jews played by sheltering volunteers like Dan Breen or offering their premises as a means of escape like the Cohen brothers.
Sadly the Jewish community has a whole were targeted in 1923 by two Republican veterans of the War of the Independence who launched their own personal indiscriminate anti-Semitic crusade – shooting four, killing two.
Manchester-born Jewish jeweller and father-of-four Bernard Goldberg (42) was shot dead in the early hours of October 31st 1923 outside his home at 95 St. Stephen’s Green after being questioned by three men. His brother Samuel had a narrow escape. He was hit on the head but managed to run towards Cuffe Street, later discovering three bullet holes in his overcoat.
Two weeks later, a Dublin-born Jew Emmanuel ‘Ernest’ Kahn (24) of 36 Lennox Street who worked as a clerk at the Department of Agriculture, was gunned down on Stamer Street in Portobello on the evening of November 14th. His friend David Miller (21), who lived at 25 Victoria Street, was shot in the shoulder but survived.
The principal instigators of these two murders were Free State Army officers – James Patrick Conroy and Fred Laffan – who held an anti-Semitic vendetta after a “lady friend” of Conroy’s was allegedly assaulted by a Jewish dentist. Laffan’s brother Ralph, a taxi driver, was also implicated in the murders. James ‘Jimmy/Jim’ Conroy had a distinguished IRA career and was a member of Michael Collin’s squad.
The two Laffan brothers fled to Mexico while Conroy evaded justice (I believe he emigrated to the United States but returned to Ireland in the early 1930s). During a tetchy Dáil debate in February 1934, Sean MacEntee (Fianna Fáil Minister for Finance) accused Fine Gael TDs of knowing who killed Kahn and Goldberg saying “The man who committed these crimes, as I have already stated tonight, is a member of the Blue Shirt organisation at the present moment. He was allowed to go free even though those charged with the administration of the law at that time were well aware of the crimes he had committed”.
Other Irish Jews became active in Irish left-wing and republican politics in the 1930s most notably Maurice Levitas and Harry Kernoff.
Communist ‘Morry’ Levitas who was born 8 Warren Street, Portobello, Dublin fought against Mosley’s Blackshirts during the Battle of Cable Street in London in 1936 and the following year joined the British battalion of the XV (International) Brigade to fight against Franco in Spain. First seeing action in the final days of the unsuccessful defence of Teruel, he was among the troops forced to retreat from Belchite on the second day of the massive fascist Aragon offensive (March 1938). After three weeks of costly engagements and repeated withdrawals, he was in a company (which also included IRA veteran Frank Ryan) that was captured by a Italian fascist unit at Calaceite (March 1938). His excellent entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography describes his following 11 months of hell:
Imprisoned at San Pedro de Cardeña, near Burgos (April 1938–January 1939), in addition to interrogations, arbitrary beatings, and mock executions, he was subjected to the indignity of pseudo-scientific measurements by visiting German Gestapo agents testing Nazi theories regarding the physiognomy of Jews and ‘social deviants’. Transferred to San Sebastian prison (January–February 1939), he was among sixty-seven republicans released in a prisoner exchange sought by Mussolini. Soon after returning home to London, he visited Dublin to address a public meeting calling for the release of Ryan (27 February).
He later served in India and Burma with the Royal Army Medical Corps and then worked as a plumber, teacher and lecturer. In his later years Levitas renewed ties with his native Dublin, attending functions honouring the Irish who served in Sapin, and the unveiling of the statue of James Connolly in Beresford Place in 1996. He died 14 February 2001 in London. His brother Max Levitas, born in Dublin in 1915, was a Communist councillor in London borough of Stepney for seventeen years and continues to be engaged in anti-Fascist activity.
Harry Kernoff, born in London in 1900, moved to Dublin at the age of 14. After winning the Taylor scholarship in 1923 he became a full-time day student, encouraged by established painters such as Seán Keating and Patrick Tuohy . He showed a particular interest in drawing Dublin, and was one of the few artists at work in the city whose work demonstrated a social conscience and awareness of the plight of the unemployed, as revealed in such paintings as ‘Dublin kitchen’ (1923). Strongly left-wing, he was a member of the Friends of Soviet Russia and his woodcuts were often used in republican and labour newspapers in the 1930s and 1940s. He designed the masthead of the communist weekly the Irish Workers’ Voice, was part of a delegation to visit Leningrad and Moscow (1930) and was involved in anti-fascist campaigns in Dublin. One of his most famous woodcuts is the (below) 1936 one of James Connolly. Thirty-four years previously Connolly had issued an election leaflet written in the Yiddish language to the Jewish voters of Dublin’s ‘Little Jerusalem’. Kernoff lived at 1 Stamer Street, Portobello, in the heart of this area, for the last 40 years of his life. He passed away in 1974.
References: Dictionary of Irish Biography (Noyk/Briscoe/Solomons/Levitas/Kernoff); Bureau of Military Witness Statements; Saorise Feb 2003 (Solomons); Natalie Wynn, ‘Jews, Antisemitism and Irish Politics : A Tale of Two Narrative’ (2012); Dermot Keogh ‘Jews In Twentieth Century Ireland (1998)’.