Wednesday, February 24, 2010

One Limerick That Isn't Funny

I stumbled over a reference to the Limerick anti-Jewish riots and thought I should assemble the information for you, too.


In 1904 there were over 150 Jews living in Limerick, a small city at the head of the Shannon estuary. At the turn of the century, anti-Semitism certainly existed in Ireland. The prejudice was imported from Europe and accepted by many. When this nonsense was preached from the pulpit by one Father John Creagh in 1904 (a priest of the Repemptorist order whose views were not officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church), the Catholic population were duly incited.

In 1899 Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, wrote that 'the three evil influences' were Jews, Freemasons and pirates. Father Creagh preached that the Jews were 'blood-sucking' money-lenders and that a common Jewish ritual was to 'kidnap and slay Christian children'. He urged a boycott on Jewish businesses. It was alleged the Jews added substances to the tea leaves they sold and that they were physically unhygenic.

Over the next two years the small Jewish population was subject to a trade boycott which brought them to financial ruin. They suffered harrasment, intimidation and abuse (both physical and verbal). There were no fatalities but most were forced to leave the city.

There were some voices of protest raised against the pogrom. Michael Davitt, the influential leader of the Land League had this to say -

'I protest, as an Irishman and a Christian, against this spirit of barbarous malignity being introduced into Ireland, under the pretended form of material regard for the welfare of our workers.'

There have been other individual instances of violence and displays of prejudice against Jews since then, but the Limerick pogrom is the only organised campaign of anti-Semitism in Irish history. On the European scale these events may seem insignificant, but to the people of Limerick they leave an indelible stain.

A Lord Mayor of Limerick stated in 1970 that the pogrom was justified in 'defending the impoverished Limerick population against the exploitative Jews'.

In 1904, in Limerick, Father John Creagh, a priest of the Redemptorist order, incited the local population against "blood-sucking" Jewish money-lenders and travelling pedlars. His sermons brought about a two-year trade boycott of Jewish businesses, which was accompanied by intimidation, abuse, harassment and beatings (although there were no fatalities) and resulted in the almost total departure of the 150-strong Limerick Jewish community.

The issue of the Limerick "pogrom" resurfaced three times in more recent years, when various individuals sought to justify it. In 1965 there was correspondence following a television programme on the incident by Radio Telefis Éirean (RTE), the national broadcasting agency. In 1970, there was a further controversy when the then lord mayor of Limerick, Stephen Coughlan, declared his support for Father Creagh's "defending the impoverished Limerick population against the exploitative Jews". The issue flared up again in 1984, with the Jews being defended mainly by left-wing politicians. Only in 1990 did Limerick seek to make amends to its Jews by restoring the city's Jewish cemetery.

In the Republican movement at the turn of the century, Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin, published antisemitic articles in the nationalist paper the United Irishman . In 1943, Oliver J. Flanagan, a Dáil (house of representatives) member for the Fine Gael party, aroused little protest when he proposed to the house to "rout the Jews out of this country".


Creagh received his theological training in France in the era of the Dreyfus affair, no doubt returning to Ireland having absorbed the antisemitic culture prevalent in France at the turn of the century. His sermons brought about a two-year trade boycott of Jewish businesses which was accompanied by harassment and beatings (although there were no fatalities) and resulted in the almost total departure of the 150-strong Limerick Jewish community.


The messianic complex of a young and vigorous priest reacted with a surly, pent-up resentment, to produce an ugly display of bigoted thuggery. The clear hostility of the city burgers to the Jewish population also underlines the success of the immigrants in the lines of business which presumably had hitherto been the province of Corporation aldermen.

By 1904, there were roughly 35 Jewish families in Limerick, a total of 150 people. They lived in Collooney Street (now called Wolfe Tone) and had their burial ground in Kilmurray. The first link in the chain of violence came in January when, at a large Jewish wedding attended by the whole Jewish community and a number of Christians, Judge Adams commented on the vibrancy and success of the Jewish community. This produced a sour report in the Limerick Leader, comparing the prosperity of the Jews to the poverty of native Limerick people. Father Creagh, spiritual head of the Limerick Confraternity of the Holy Family, which even then had a membership of 6,000, took up the case. In a sermon the following Monday, he bitterly attacked the Jews. He was later to claim that "the Jewish religion has nothing whatever to do with my statements", yet obviously from his first controversial speech, it was a very significant factor for him.

The metaphor he used to open his sermon was certainly unambiguous enough. "It would be madness for a man to nourish in his own breast a viper that at any moment might slay its benefactor. So it is madness for a people to allow grow in their midst that which will eventually destroy them. . ."

The viper, as it transpired, was the Jewish population. Their initial crime, Fr. Creagh claimed, was that they rejected Jesus. "They crucified Him . . . they called down the curse of His Precious Blood on their own heads. And when they were scattered over the surface of the earth, they bore with them the unquenchable hatred of Jesus Christ and his followers. . . They persecuted the Christians. . . they slew St. Stephen, the first martyr, and ever since as often as opportunity afforded they did not hesitate to shed Christian blood, and that in the meanest and cruellest manner, as in the case of the Holy Martyr St. Simeone, whom they crucified out of hatred and derision of our Lord Jesus Christ. Twenty years ago and less Jews were known only by name and evil repute in Limerick, sucking the blood of other nations, and now they've fastened upon us . . ." and so on.

Of their habits Father Creagh was equally sure. "Nowadays they dare not kidnap and slay Christian children, but they will not hesitatc to expose them to a longer and even more cruel martyrdom, by taking their clothes off their backs and the bite out of their mouths. . . They came to our land to fasten themselves like leeches and to draw our blood when they have been forced away from other countries."

That was clear enough as well. Their purpose, Fr. Creagh outlined darkly. "Are the Jews a religion? I do not hesitate to say that there are no greater enemies of the Catholic Church. . . The Jews are in league with the Freemasons in France, and have succeeded in turning out of that country all the nuns and religious orders. . . The Redemptorist Fathers to the number 200 have been driven out of France."

And their achievements in Limerick received full elucidation. "They have wormed themselves into every form of business. . . in furniture, mineral water, milk, drapery and into business of every description, and trade under Irish names."

The litany of their malevolence was thorough. They forced their wares on unwilling women, they extorted their clientele by subtle manipulation of credit, they were ruining Limerick's trade. The Jewish population were portrayed as the cause of all Limerick's troubles.

The first attack

This bile and brimstone sermon had its effect. Large numbers of confraternity members, joined by their wives and children, launched an attack on the Jewish sector of the town, pelting Jews with mud, breaking windows, and throwing stones. In the subsequent prosecutions of eleven people, it was admitted that at least 300 people took part in the attack. Probably, it was more. Ten of the culprits received fines, ranging from 2/6 to 101-. The case against the other defendant was dismissed.

Michael Davitt was prompted by this outrage to write of the events. "I protest as an Irishman and a Catholic against this barbarous malignity being introduced into Ireland under the pretended form of a material regard for the welfare of our workers". Davitt was particularly sensitive to anti-semitism; only the year before, he had written an account of the persecution of the Jews in Kishinev, the capital of Bessarabia.

At the trial of the eleven, Davitt's letter was dismissed as the unwarranted intervention of an outsider-a response that seems to be the hallmark of Limerick authorities in any age. Nash, the defence Counsel who scorned Davitt's intercession, also claimed the events were greatly exaggerated. Whether they were or not, they set the precedent.

Father Creagh then claimed that he deprecated violence, that if the citizens of Limerick want to put an end to Jewish commercial enterprise they should boycott it. It was a cry echoed fervently by the Limerick Leader, the Irish Independent and by Father Murphy, spiritual director of the Women's Confraternity. Creagh claimed that Limerick was merely the centre of their activities, and that their network spread far beyond it.

The violence continued throughout January, but seems to have tapered off then. Far more pernicious was the boycott, which severely hit the Jewish traders. Many people were reneging on their debts, and the Jews were unable to collect without the threat of violence. Witnesses later declared that they thought the terms the Jews demanded were reasonable but that they were driven into complicity with the boycott by their neighbours and the native authority of Father Creagh. Despite recent claims that this credit was the consequence of rapacious moneylenders, no single contemporary source mention them as a source of friction. What was very probably behind the hostility was that some women in their husband's absence had been gulled into buying something on credit which they could not afford.

Vile practices, and Spanish Inquisition

In late March, the violence flared up again. In the last week of that month and the first of April, there were over forty attacks on Jews, and Father Creagh continued his educational courses in Hebrew perfidy. "Jews have always been a danger to the Christian people: they were the cause of the Spanish Inquisition being instituted." His sense of history varied from the indiffcrent to the dangerous. He reasserted his belief in the old medieval fantasy of Jews secreting young boys away for obscene rites and ultimately murder, quoting as authority medieval chronicles which at best warrant extreme circumspection. His logic was impeccable. "But why did every other land persecute them? Simply because of the vile practices of the Jews." His mission in life was not lofty. "The Jews are a curse to Limerick, and if I have the means of driving them out, I shall have accomplished one good thing in my life."

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