One hundred years ago a small group of Irish men and women staged a military uprising from Dublin’s General Post Office in a futile attempt to throw off the British yoke and achieve Irish independence. The leadership of the uprising were foolishly executed after courts-martial. They became martyrs in a religious country which believed in martyrdom. But the manner of their deaths fuelled a national movement which confronted the British military to secure an Irish Free State in the 1920s. Its participants were witnesses to civil war and to a partition of the island – a period characterised by a nationalism bent on reclaiming Irish history and culture.
The Easter Rising in 1916 made a tremendous impression on a second generation Irish Jew, Robert Briscoe – the subject of an excellent new biography by Kevin McCarthy. Briscoe, who is hardly known on this side of the Irish Sea, was, as the book’s sub-title states, a “Sinn Féin Revolutionary, Fianna Fáil Nationalist and Revisionist Zionist”.
This rising tide of Irish national awareness went hand-in-hand with the deaths of thousands of Irishmen, fighting for Britain at the battle of the Somme in 1916. Briscoe who was in New York running a Christmas light factory, became involved in the broad Irish-American republican movement. In August 1917, he returned to Ireland, established a clothing business as a front and operated as an independent gun-runner using the pseudonym of Captain Swift. Michael Collins, the Irish revolutionary leader, was also in charge of arms procurement for the IRA, and Briscoe’s operation came to his attention. Appointing Briscoe to his personal staff, Collins sent him to post-war Berlin which was awash with arms after Germany’s defeat. Briscoe successfully smuggled arms into Ireland on board the tugboat, Frieda and also the City of Dortmund. A delighted Collins affectionately referred to Briscoe as his “Jewman”.
Briscoe however disagreed deeply with Collins over his support for the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 which instituted partition. The civil war which ensued drew Briscoe to Éamon De Valera and the anti-treaty camp. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and the beginning of De Valera’s close ties with the Irish Jewish community and its chief rabbi, Isaac Herzog. For Briscoe, De Valera possessed “the moral grandeur of the Prophet Elijah”. Briscoe entered the Dáil as a member of De Valera’s Fianna Fáil party in 1927 and remained until 1965.
Kevin McCarthy’s work highlights the antisemitism within Irish republicanism and the willingness of the local Catholic Church to endorse the imagery of Jews as Christ-killers. Even before the Easter Uprising, Sinn Féin periodicals ran “No Jews” advertisement. The celebrated writer and poet, Oliver St. John Gogarty – James Joyce modelled one of his characters in Ulysses on him – depicted the Jew in the crudest fashion. “The blood in him is worming and he fattens on decay”.
Briscoe met antisemitism from pro-treaty Irishmen and on election for Dublin South as a “Judeo-Bolshevik” and “an alien ruffian”. McCarthy records that on one occasion in December 1927, an unmarked car drew alongside him and fired shots. In the 1930s accusations were imported from the French proto-fascist press that Briscoe operated an agent for the American investment bank Kuhn Loeb while others insinuated that he had instigated the assassination of Michael Collins.
Briscoe’s Jewishness was not central to his identity at this stage in his life, but it was the rising tide of Nazism and the sympathetic attitude of the Catholic church towards the anti-Communism of international fascism that made him a contact for Jews desperate to get their relatives out of Germany. The Blueshirts arose in Ireland with their overwhelmingly Catholic membership while the Irish Christian Front supported General Franco in Spain. Yet there were other groups such as the Legion of Mary and the Pillar of Fire Society which confronted such antisemitism.
Briscoe was labelled as “a Zionist Jew” even though he knew little about Zionism. Yet the gathering of the storm clouds in Europe during the 1930s and his pivotal role as the sole Jewish parliamentarian in a predominantly Catholic country, imbued by both a resurgent nationalism and a reactionary clergy, was only too clear. Briscoe was drawn magnetically to the Revisionist Zionist leader, Vladimir Jabotinsky, who sent him on missions to the US and Poland. His fundraising trip to South Africa enabled the Revisionists to purchase boats to bring East European Jews to Palestine. Briscoe successfully intervened in the case of Yehezkel Altman, a youthful follower of Jabotinsky who had been sentenced to death by the British in Palestine. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
Jabotinsky’s opposition to partition in Palestine projected a resonance in Irish circles. Through Briscoe, Jabotinsky visited Dublin in January 1938 and met De Valera.
Briscoe had to operate within the constraints of successive Irish administrations which were often anti-foreigner, anti-British and suspicious of Jews – all fortified by the dead hand of the clergy. Despite many attempts, Briscoe failed to secure visas for many German Jews including his aunt Hedwig and her daughter who were in Berlin. Hedwig died in Auschwitz along with 150 other members of Briscoe’s extended family.
Briscoe was told by Paddy Ruttledge, the Fianna Fáil Minister of Justice that “the Jewish community should not be increased by way of immigration” as it would undoubtedly stimulate antisemitism in Ireland. After Kristallnacht, the Irish Minister of State in Berlin, Charles Bewley, wrote a report that the Nazi assault was an appropriate response.
In this deteriorating situation, Briscoe and Rabbi Herzog were supported by De Valera who within the constraints of the situation tried to help. De Valera insisted that the 1937 Constitution include full protection and equality for minority faiths including Judaism, and resisted all attempts to make Catholicism the state religion. Irish fascists dubbed De Valera “the son of a Portuguese Jew”.
During World War II, all the efforts of Briscoe and Herzog met a brick wall, erected by the government of a neutral Ireland. Briscoe attempted to obtain a rescue ship for Hungarian Jews, sailing under Irish colours, while on another occasion, Briscoe attempted to persuade the administration to send a legation to Budapest along the lines of Raoul Wallenberg and the Swedes. All this came to nought. Indeed, at the war’s end and in correspondence with Briscoe, Joe Walshe, the Secretary at the Department of External Affairs, repeated Nazi assurances that “the Germans were not murdering Jews”.
Briscoe’s inability to stop the slaughter of European Jewry weighed heavily. He took to therapy and to gambling.
Even after the Shoah, there were concerted attempts in Ireland to stop Jewish refugees from entering in order “to preserve the Christian character of the State”. De Valera was more sympathetic. He intervened to secure the admission of 100 child survivors of the camps to go to Clough Castle in County Westmeath, but only for one year. According to the 1946 census, there were fewer than 4,000 Jews in Ireland.
In the rise of a Hebrew republic in 1948, Briscoe saw a parallel with the Irish experience. Indeed both the Irgun and Lehi had studied the military struggle of the Irish republicans. Even so, following the partition of Palestine, Briscoe advised Menahem Begin and the Irgun not to embark on civil war. He bitterly regretted the conflict in Ireland over the Anglo-Irish Treaty. “The sorrow, misery and death it caused – no good came of it”.
In 1950 an out-of-office De Valera visited Israel with Briscoe and they dined with Ben-Gurion at Chief Rabbi Herzog’s home. Briscoe was passed over for office in his own country – perhaps his Jewishness was a factor – yet he became Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1956.
The odyssey of Robert Briscoe – his frustrations and his travails – is a fascinating one. He was at the crossroads of both Irish and Jewish nationalism. Kevin McCarthy has recovered his story for a wider audience and has thereby made an important contribution to Jewish as well as to Irish history.
Padraig Pearse, a leader of the Easter Rising, proclaimed: “In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty: six times during the past 300 years they have asserted it in arms in the face of the world. We hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a sovereign independent state and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades-in-arms to the cause of freedom, of its welfare and of its exaltation among the nations.”
Such words convey meaning to Jews. Perhaps Irish nationalism and Zionism have more in common than Gerry Adams and the current leaders of Sinn Féin care to admit.
Jewish Chronicle 1 April 2016