Over the past few years, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s small Jewish community, now numbering about 3,000, has become the focus of outsized literary attention. There has been a recent proliferation of creative and autobiographical writing related to Irish Jewry by both Jewish and non-Jewish authors, including poet Gerry Mc Donnell, novelist Ruth Gilligan, former Fine Gael politician Alan Shatter and educator Simon Lewis.
When Lewis could no longer afford to live in Dublin, he applied for jobs in less expensive areas, landing his first teaching position near Carlow, in southeast Ireland. He and his wife moved to Carlow in 2003, and she encouraged him to join a writers’ group there as a hobby.
Carlow College’s Derek Coyle, a lecturer in the group, took Lewis under his wing, helped him begin composing poetry and challenged him to write about his own Jewish and Irish background, leading Lewis to examine the Jewish community of Cork, in southwest Ireland.
Cork’s first Jewish community was comprised of a small group of Sephardim, who arrived in Ireland in the 18th century. In the 1890s, Jews fleeing persecution in the Russian Empire began arriving there. Many of those immigrants settled in the center of the city, which became known as Jewtown.
“When I came across Jewtown, I just thought it was a perfect name, because you couldn’t get away with calling a place Jewtown now! My great-grandmother was born there and I soon discovered most Irish Jews can trace their journey through this small area of Cork City,” Lewis said.
Lewis’ research and writing about Cork culminated in the publication of “Jewtown” (Doire Press, 2016), a collection of 57 brief poems. As seen in the collection’s 10th poem, “Tashlich” (a reference to the symbolic casting away of sins into a body of water during or around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year), the first-person narrations of “Jewtown” frequently reference the difficulties Cork’s Jews experienced both in Imperial Russia and in their new Irish home.
The anonymous speaker in “Tashlich” recalls his dangerous escape from Czarist anti-Semitism and recounts his present poverty in Ireland, while also expressing 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
at every checkpoint all the way
to the harbour at Riga, and the
when I could barely breathe,
questioning my faith, broken from
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.
The poem immediately following “Tashlich,” however, makes it clear that Jewish immigrants were not entirely assured of physical safety in Cork, either. The anonymous speaker in “Bromide” focuses on her husband, who has been beaten and harassed:
You make up a tale
of how you tripped on Albert Quay,
gave yourself a fine big shiner,
grazed your brow or chipped a tooth,
or you make a joke about staying off
that Irish whiskey or smile, tell me
I should see the other guy
before you limp off to our bed.
It’s only in the darkness I feel
every punch, slap and threat.
If you aren’t stirring
or jerking, I try to find a bruise
and press it. Sometimes a wince
is as good as sleeping pills.
The Jewish population of Cork decreased from around 400 people in the 1930s to just a handful in 2016, the year the Cork Hebrew Congregation at 10 South Terrace, the city’s last remaining synagogue, closed.
There is an apparently global phenomenon connected with Orthodox synagogues with dwindling or defunct congregations in which a man, usually elderly, amalgamates his destiny with a once-vibrant Jewish space that is ultimately destined for complete closure or for transformation into some sort of museum. This deep identification allows for a preternatural – though in the end temporary – prolonging of both the life of the man himself and of the synagogue he tends to.
In Providence, the late Joe Margolis assured that Shaare Zedek, on Broad Street, where I used to attend warm and welcoming High Holiday services, remained open for as long as he was able to, while Congregation Sons of Jacob’s president, Harold Silverman, continues to mind the synagogue on Douglas Avenue.
And so too it was in Cork, where Freddie Rosehill, chair of the trustees of the Cork Hebrew Congregation, watched over the remaining synagogue, built in 1896, for many years until it closed in February 2016. The concluding poem of “Jewtown,” titled “The Last Sabbath at South Terrace Synagogue,” describes one of the Cork Hebrew Congregation’s final services, with Lewis poignantly conveying how the shuttering of the dilapidated synagogue also portends Rosehill’s end:
Shipped in from Dublin, the men
gathered like beetles
around the orange glow of the
gas heaters, grumbling
as the Sabbath candles were lit.
Above them, the women
looked down from the crumbling
balcony at the ruins,
the walls twinkling with dew, the rot
chewing the panels
and the blue velvet table covers air-
brushed by damp.
The men shifted in the pews as their
and they mumbled along to the can-
tor’s funereal chants.
At the front of the Shul was Freddie,
his silver crutch
rooted to the carpet bearing the
weight of his body,
of the synagogue, of one-hundred and
of peddlers, grocers, directors. His
face, red with the strain,
gave in by the first Kaddish,
drooping back into the pew,
knowing he was part of the
furniture, ready to be moved on.
Rosehill passed away less than 10 months after the closing of the synagogue. An exhibit at the Cork Public Museum, which my brother and I viewed this past summer, memorializes Rosehill, the synagogue and Cork’s Jewish history.
I wasn’t able to make it to Carlow on either of my trips to Ireland, but Lewis and I have corresponded by email over the past six months. He has been the principal of Carlow Town’s local Educate Together elementary school since its opening in 2008. The only multi-denominational school in County Carlow, it has a capacity for 500 pupils, which is considered large in Ireland.
“We are growing into the building. Currently there are 350 pupils in the school. It should be full within the next four years,” Lewis predicts. “In Ireland, multi-denominational generally means that schools do not show a preference to any one belief system. Ninety-six percent of all elementary schools are denominational, which means they teach children with an overarching religious affiliation. In the vast majority, 90 percent, they are run under a Catholic ethos.”
Lewis is pleased with the reception “Jewtown” has received, including winning the 2015 Hennessy Poetry Prize. “The Jewish community has also been supportive. I have had a number of readings in the Irish Jewish Museum and this was very much appreciated,” he said. “I always enjoy giving readings because often I meet people that lived or had family that lived in the Jewtown area of Cork.
SHAI AFSAI lives in Providence. Supported by a grant given to R.I.’s Congregation Beth Sholom, he traveled to the Republic of Ireland and to Northern Ireland, and has been writing about Jews and Irish literature.