The Ties That Bind: Irish and Jewish Connections

The Ties That Bind: Irish and Jewish Connections

Atlanta’s Irish Consul General Shane Stephens, who hosted the “Representations of Jews in Irish Literature" exhibit, spoke to the AJT ahead of the annual IrishFest Atlanta.

Kevin Madigan is a senior reporter for the Atlanta Jewish Times.

Musicians at the 2018 IrishFest Atlanta.
Musicians at the 2018 IrishFest Atlanta.

The Jewish population in Ireland is quite small, according to Atlanta’s Irish Consul General Shane Stephens, “but the community has been unbelievably productive from a cultural point of view, and in their contribution to politics and academic life.”

Stephens, host of an exhibition last year called “Representations of Jews in Irish Literature” at Savannah’s Congregation Mickve Israel, spoke to the AJT ahead of the annual IrishFest Atlanta taking place this weekend in Roswell.

The two-day event Nov. 8-9 will showcase concerts and dance performances by well-known Irish artists, as well as workshops, lectures and family activities throughout the city’s downtown area.

The number of Jews living in Ireland had been declining steadily from a high of almost 4,000 in 1946, according to a 2017 article in The Irish Times. But a sharp rise of almost 30 percent within just the last decade is attributed to the influx of high-tech firms and their need for staff. The most recent Irish census in 2016 states 2,557 Jews are now residents, the highest number recorded since 1971.

Maurice Cohen, chairman of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland, told the Irish Independent newspaper in 2017, the number of Jewish people now living in Ireland is “easily in excess of 3,000.”

Stephens said, “On a personal level, I grew up in the most Jewish part of Ireland – Dublin – and quite a few went to my high school.” All three of the country’s remaining synagogues (there were 11 in 1940) are located in the city; a fourth one in Cork closed in 2016 due to falling attendance after holding services there since 1905, according to online sources.

The Irish Constitution was amended in 1937 to provide protection to Jews, granting those of the Jewish faith the right to exist in a predominantly Catholic country, a departure from the scant recognition accorded them in other European countries during that period, the sources state. The measure received considerable resistance, however, and did little to stem the anti-Semitism that prevailed in Ireland and elsewhere.

Irish singer Kathleen Donohoe, based in Atlanta, plays at IrishFest.

In 1977, a son of Lithuanian Jewish emigrants, Gerald Goldberg, was elected mayor of the city of Cork, according to the online sources. Chaim Herzog, an Irishman from Belfast, served as president of Israel for a decade starting in 1983. His father, Isaac Herzog, had been chief rabbi of Ireland.

In his 2011 book “Jewish Ireland: A Social History,” author Ray Rivlin writes that Orthodox Russian Jews, fleeing tsarist persecution, began arriving in Ireland in the 1880s, primarily from Lithuania, with no means of support, little education, and no knowledge of the English language.

“Overcoming poverty and antipathy, they established Jewish enclaves in townships and cities throughout Ireland, educated themselves from peddlers to professionals and entrepreneurs, took an active part in the Irish civil war and other major conflicts, engaged in national politics and sport, and achieved acclaim in literature, art, and music.”

Both Israel and Ireland became independent in the 20th century, and their people have a long history of being on the margins due to discrimination. Each has a particular homeland but have had an enormous influence in subcultures through their diasporas, Stephens said, “and both really have achieved a lot as artists, writers and performers in the United States as well as places around the world.”

Tickets for IrishFest Atlanta are available at

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