Jun 2006 Journal

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When Irish Eye's Weren't Smiling

The ninetieth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, in the crucible of whose bloodstained suppression modern Irish nationalism was largely forged, raises the somewhat neglected subject of Irish attitudes to the Jews - neglected because Jews in Ireland were so few. In the most famous Irish text of the twentieth century, James Joyce's Ulysses, Mr Deasy asks Stephen Dedalus if he knows why Ireland has 'the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the Jews', then answers his own question: 'Because she never let them in.'

For a century and a half after the great famine of the 1840s, Ireland was a poverty-stricken land that could not support even its existing population, as the vast emigration from its shores demonstrated. It was also sunk in deeply conservative Catholicism (or, in the north, Protestant bigotry). Both factors made it unattractive to Jews. After Ireland won independence from Britain in 1921-22, its inward-looking conservatism intensified as the government, especially under Eamon De Valera, deployed an obsessive nationalism and hostility to external cultural influences.

Consequently, Ireland played host to very few of the Jews fleeing Nazism after 1933. One of the handful who did gain admission was Hans Reiss, who arrived as war broke out, studied at Trinity College Dublin, and went on to enrich British academic life as Professor of German at the University of Bristol for over 20 years. But Reiss's entry into Ireland was perhaps smoothed by having the backing of a priest, Dekan Hermann Maas of Heidelberg, who was deported to a forced labour camp in France by the Nazis for aiding Jews and after the war was the first German to be officially welcomed to Israel by the Israeli government. Otherwise, those admitted were mostly people who brought capital with them and could benefit the country's economy.

The Irish policy of neutrality during the war - quaintly dubbed 'the Emergency' in Ireland - reflected the ambivalence of its attitude to Nazi Germany. Though Ireland's neutrality in practice tended to favour the Allies, the very fact of its neutrality, behind the shield of the British war effort (as the British saw it), counted against it, as did its refusal to allow the British to use on its Western coast the strategically valuable Treaty Ports, which had been British until 1938; they could have saved Allied ships and lives from German submarines. In Jewish eyes, neutrality towards Auschwitz was indefensible. This was compounded by Prime Minister De Valera's bizarre decision to express his condolences to the German minister in Dublin on the occasion of Hitler's death in April 1945, just as the horrors of the camps were being revealed to a shocked world.

It is now known that important people in the Irish political establishment were pro-German - and not just out of an ingrained hostility to Britain that proclaimed Britain's enemies the friends of Ireland. For the Irish nationalism that emerged from the Easter Rising was not without ideological elements uncomfortably close to National Socialism. Pádraig Pearse, who with James Connolly led the uprising, spoke of the sacred Irish soil that could be liberated by Irish blood - terms reminiscent of Nazi 'Blut und Boden' ideology; and the doomed Rising itself, whose leaders were executed by the British with wholly counter-productive brutality, was stylised into an act of martyrdom in the national cause, in form (though not in substance) similar to the mythologisation of those Nazis who fell in Hitler's failed beer-hall putsch in Munich in November 1923.

The Easter Rising and its aftermath also permanently advanced the cause of the extremists in Irish politics, for they allowed the men of violence to parade as the purest defenders of the Irish national cause, a tactic employed ad nauseam by the Provisional IRA, a paramilitary, proto-fascist organisation whose 'revolutionary' nationalistic aims are propagated by its political wing, Sinn Fein. The most famous line in the most famous of all Irish poems, 'A terrible beauty is born', from W. B. Yeats's Easter, 1916, reflects precisely the powerful but ambivalent attraction that violence in the struggle for national liberation has exercised over Irish politics for nearly a century.

The dangers of that ideology were apparent to James Joyce well before the Rising: he made the representative of extreme Irish nationalism in Ulysses, the Citizen, his equivalent of the one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus, who held Ulysses captive in his cave and devoured his men. Brutal, intolerant and ideologically blind to all but his own one-eyed perspective, the Citizen is also the natural spokesman for Irish antisemitism. Leopold Bloom encounters him in Barney Kiernan's bar and has the temerity to state that Christ was a Jew: 'By Jesus', roars the Citizen, 'I'll brain that bloody jewman for using the holy name. By Jesus, I'll crucify him so I will', and he hurls a biscuit tin after Bloom, as Polyphemus flung a rock at the escaping Ulysses.

Irish nationalism grew out of a small nation's struggle for freedom from a powerful, oppressive neighbour. Irish nationhood, achieved as late as 1922, was insecure, aware of the shallowness of its historical roots when compared to the more settled national identity of the British. That insecurity led it to emphasise national and ethnic homogeneity, inevitably diminishing its tolerance of 'non-Irish' minorities like Jews. Those still in thrall to the seductive myth of the Easter Rising, with its call to violence in the name of nationally exclusive extremism, should contemplate other lines by Yeats:

Out of Ireland have we come,
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother's womb
A fanatic heart.
(from Remorse for Intemperate Speech)
Anthony Grenville

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