The vanished world of Cork’s Jews

Book review: Jewtown by Simon Lewis (Doire Press)

JEWTOWN, SIMON Lewis’s debut poetry collection, published by Connemara's Doire Press, tells the story of Cork’s Jewish community, from their arrival fleeing pogroms in 19th century Czarist Russia, to the closure of the last synagogue at South Terrace in February 2016.

Reading the final poem, ‘The Last Sabbath at South Terrace Synagogue’, it is impossible not to feel something of the stoic grief the man portrayed must have felt: “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.”

You do not have to be Jewish, or religious, to mourn the passing of such a community. Immigration always brings difficulties, or ‘challenges’ as establishment political hacks like to call them, especially for the immigrants themselves. Yet imagine for a moment a world without immigrants; a Galway made up exclusively of ‘racially pure’ Galwegians.

As far as I know, I’m about as racially pure as they come – a purity which no doubt partly explains my dodgy lungs – and if such an eventuality ever came about I’d be on the first Ryanair flight out of here, because I know that those who want rid of immigrants tend to come for the likes of me once the Jews, Muslims, or Poles are gone.

In opening poem ‘The Zoo’, locals are told of the impending arrival of these exotic outsiders: “At Mass we heard of aliens/who travelled here by steamboat/.People said they all had beards,/darkened faces and black clothes;/some complained they didn’t pray/to our lady.”

The conclusion of ‘The Albert Road Kids’ makes it clear that relations with the host community were not all candy canes and sunny days: “We did play together, the Albert Road kids,/then they got older, called us kikes, shylocks, yids.” Of course the children of Albert Road, Cork, did not get their incipient antisemitism from the wind; I remember when, as a 10-year-old living in Rahoon Flats I became friends with a Traveller, Thomas Sweeney. We used to kick a ball around, that sort of thing, until I was told it was inappropriate to be hanging around with a person of his (ahem ) ethnic origin. No doubt such conversations took place behind closed doors on Albert Road.

This is a fantastically subtle collection of poems which, in its few enough words, tells a bigger story than is contained in the average, often rather overweight, contemporary Irish novel. It is clear that, while the Jews of Cork did face suspicion, and sometimes worse, they did not face the level of hostility they did in places like Limerick, where there was a boycott of the city’s Jewish community (1904-06 ) brought about by the rantings of a particular Redemptorist. In Cork one of their number, Gerald Steinberg, rose to be mayor and indeed clashed with Limerick Labour TD Stephen Coughlan, when Coughlan retrospectively defended that boycott.

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