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Pogrom: Limerick 1904

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THE POGROM of Limerick in 1904 was small by international standards. From 1880 to 1920 throughout Tsarist Russia hundreds of thousands of Jews were butchered, dispossessed and left impoverished, and Western Europe and the United States experienc~d an enormous influx of Jewish refugees.

There is good reason to believe the pogroms - in which Jewish ghettos were often razed to the ground-were carefully organized affairs. The Bessarabian peasants who in the first pogroms of 1881-83 refused to attack their Jewish neighbours only revealed a lack of hostility thin was ultimately worn away by diligent propaganda. In particular, the use of medieval demonology, with the Jew cast as a wicked old man, drinking the blood of Christian boys, castrating them and mutilating the consecrated host, ultimately had its effect. Within 20 years Bessarabia was the scene of the most vicious pogroms.

The Tsars willingly accepted the anti-semitic delusions of paranoids and messianic clerics. In 188 I , an ordinance was passed which stipulated that all Jewish boys over 12 should be conscripted for the army. Clearly, this was an attempt to destroy the Jewish communities. Only families with one boy were exempt. Consequently, many boys changed their names, calling themselves after local towns like Goldberg and Goldstein, and when the pogroms began, whole communities moved West, largely keeping together. Their strong sense of group-identity, which would in the West be portrayed as conspira~ torial clannishness, was a natural response to such a patently hostile world.

The Jewish communities which ended up in Ireland were mostly from Lithuania. The majority of Limerick Jews came from the village of Achmeyahn and those in Cork were from a neighbouring village in Lithuania. One of the first immigrants, Lows Goldberg, landed in Cobh, walked to Dublin, and then to Limerick and Clare, where he found the peasants poor and unstintingly hospitible. It was around 1885 that the Limerick community of Jews moved into the town, although the first Jew to settle there had been a Pole, in 1870. Originally, they intended to move on to America, but later decided to stay.

Limerick at the time was wretchedly poor, and the arrival of a group which the normal people of the town had only heard of in unflattering biblical and mythological terms clearly p'romised trouble. Yet elsewhere in Ireland, though there was antisemitism-as Leopold Bloom could willingly testify-there was never the equal of Limerick's pogrom. Cork, particularly, managed to accept and assimilate its Jewish population, though its poverty was as grinding as that of Limerick.

The new immigrants were economically very assertive. Traditional folk lore has cherished the notion that Jews are financially grasping, acquisitive and icy-hearted extortioners. Yet financial astuteness is often the hallmark of the exile: Huguenots in the seventeenth century London, Indians in East Africa, Chinese in Indonesia and Malaya, all bear witness to this fact. And in all these cases there developed friction between the older population, sunk in apathy and clinging to outdated and restrictive trading methods, and the newcomers whose attitude to trading had been sharpened by the bitterness of exile. For the Jews particularly, entrepreneurial assertiveness probably was a kind of compensation for the social insecurity that they must have felt after past Tsarist persecutions and present Christian demonology.

Medieval Demonology
Limerick, of course, experienced the growth of such tensions, particularly with the advent of the Boer War at the turn of the century. Because it was a garrison town, many of its male population were overseas and their families fell heavily into debt. There is no evidence at all that Jews were their primary creditors - o~ly two Jews out of the whole population are known to have been moneylendersbut naturally when accusing fingers were pointed, the Jewish population was an easy target. Although, Limerick Jews were of Lithuanian origin the anti-semitic response to them owes much to French inspiration than to any Tsarist precedent. In France the rise of the Assumptionist Fathers, and the hysterical anti-semitic braying of some of their leading demagogues, had produced a flood-tide of anti-semitism. This anti-semitism was closely associated with reactionary clerical elements and combined modern fears with medieval demonology. The notion that Jews formed a treacherous and subversive infrastructure to Christian society, plotting for the overthrow of monarchies and church alike, took hold of a large section of the French Church. This anti-semitism was closely associated with right wing patriotism, and often drifted into mysticism, spiritualism and sexual malpractice. It is not coincidental that Father Creagh in the notorious sermon which triggered off the Limerick riots made mention of the situation in France. Elemental to this anti-semitism was the "Jewish" responsibility for Christ's crucifixion.

The demonology that surrounded medieval jewry and which was r~surrected by nineteenth century antisemitic pamphleters ultimately looked on the murder of Jesus Christ as the responsibility of the Jewish people. Clearly gripped by intensive pathological fear, such propagandists saw the Jews as an indivisible and infinitely rutWess group, which, through the agency of freemasons-also the target of Father Creagh-was intent on manipulating liberalism and republicanism for its own evil purposes, This same combination of right wing nationalism, religious fanaticism and anti-semitism became formulated in the group Action Francaise in France, and the comparable, if much more murderous Black Hundreds of Russia. Aside from the clerical inspiration for the affair, there was always the susceptibility of the general populace to fantasy. It is relevant to point out, for example, that today in an era of total mass communication, half the British population believe coloured immigrants total 10 to 20% of the population, when their total is more like 2 %. They also believe that coloured immigrants manage to both take all the jobs and deprive good Britons of employment and yet be idle, shiftless and oversexed layabouts living on unemployment benefit. When a mythology is spiced with fear, any mutual contradictions can be reconciled.

Limerick: January 1904
So it was in Limerick. 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."

The events in Limerick received wide coverage throughout Ireland, and indeed in Britain, where they provoked a curious horror mixed with unreserved glee. In The Times of April 4th, the first letter was printed that sympathised with the antisemitic drive, and this was a small sign of a strong undercurrent of antisemitism in England. Many Englishmen sent anonymous encouragement through the correspondence columns of the Limerick Leader which acted -as willing host for every kind of antisemitic lewdness. One of these letters was from an Alfred Walmsley, of the British Brothers League of Stepney, regretting that British workers there had not taken the initiative into their hands in the way that the people of Limerick had. Before the year was out, however, the League was to foment a very ugly riot in London's East end.

The Confraternity, furthermore, in no way regretted the events. It passed a motion that ran: "We tender to Father Creagh our very best thanks for thrs reccnt lectures on the ways and means of Jewish trading, and that this meeting, representing 6,000 members of the Confraternity, express their fullest confidence in his views."

Elsewhere, however, there was concern. Julius Grande, Director of the Irish Mission to the Jews, and E. H. Lewis Crosby, Secretary to the Church of Ireland Auxiliary London Jews Society, both wrote to The Times asking for an end to the boycott and re-establishment of communal harmony. In March, the Lord Chief Justice Baron had been moved to say "There is no justice in Limerick." Grande claimed that the police only gave passive protection to the Jews, that their debts were not paid, and they wcre insulted and abused constantly. Even in court, the Jews were scornfully described as "Israelites".

The Catholic Bishop of Limerick had already disclaimed responsibility for the events in the town. Though he refused to see Saul Goldberg who led a deputation asking him to use his influence to end the pogrom, he severely criticiscd the behaviour of the anti-semitic mob, and in all diocesan churches his position had been made clear. Likewise when the violence restarted in March, Church of Ireland Archbishop Dr. Bunbury strongly condemned it. On April 20th, the Mayor and Corporation passed a motion that ran: "We condemn and repudiate in the most emphatic manner the attack made by Dr. Bunbury on the good name of the city, and also by the English press, which we consider unjustifiable and uncalled for."

A more pungent indication of the Corporation's position was given by the Rahilly case. Rahilly was found guilty of stoning the rabbi, Elias Levin, and was sentenced to one month's gaol without hard labour. The Corporation took up his case, pleading for leniency, and voted unanimously that the Lord Lieutenant should be petitioned for the boy's release. The Lord Lieutenant rejected the appeal, and the only rioter to serve a sentence in gaol went off to Mountjoy. When he returned, he was greeted by a crowd of several hundreds, presented with a gold watch and chain, and carried shoulder high out of the station.

The violence of the time, though never fatal, was very bitter. Max Bland, a grocer who for I I years had built up his own grocery business was ruined almost overnight. He attempted to sue one debtor for his bill and the court insisted on postponing the case because of fear of further outbreaks of violence resulting. Max never got his money and eventually went out of business.

By no means were Protestants exempt from anti-semitic tendencies. Two Councillors, Joshua FitzEll and William Stokes roundly denounced Dr. Bunbury for his intervention. Both were Protestant. The closing of Christian ranks against the infidel Jew, was sounded by the Leader, which published numerous letters from Protestants heartily supporting the crusade against the Jews. The Sheriff, James Flynn, however, was repelled by the whole affair, and condemned the boycott.

The boycott was nonethless having its effect. Slowly, Jews departed Limerick, heading mostly for England. Desperate attempts by Blond and Levin to re-establish harmonious relations were rebuffed. Blond offered to open all the trading account of all Jewish traders to show their profits were not exorbitant, and Elias Levin pointed out that out of the 1,387 civil bills presented in Limerick in 1903, only 31 were issued by Jews. Mythology had taken over the sense of the people of Limerick, and they remorselessly applied the boycott until by October only half a dozen families were left, with the rest driven into penury and near starvation.

From Limerick to Leeds
After the recrudescence of violence in March, the police had put a heavy guard on the Jewish quarter, which acted as a moderating influence on if not an effective defence from, the assaults. Nevertheless, right up until July, Jews were attacked. The last act of violence seems to have taken place in that month, when Louis Goldberg and a friend were severely beaten by a man wielding a blackthorn stick.

But by that time the violence was a mere embellishment to the chilling efficacy of the boycott. Some of the - most prominent Jews in Ireland today are descendants of those who endured the 1904 pogrom. Saul Goldberg became a leading Zionist, and travelled extensively with Chaim Weizmann and Jacob Herzl, the father figures of the state of Israel. Louis Goldmann, his brother, became a draper and glass merchant in Cork. David Marcus, the literary editor of the Irish Press, and Louis Marcus, the film director, are sons of refugees from that pogrom. The achievement of Creagh's mission lost Limerick some of its finest citizens. Worst of all, most refugees from Limerick went abroad, particularly to Leeds, so that their talents were lost to Ireland.

The tragedy of Limerick was that it was a conflict between two deprived communities, one of which was sharpened in commercial practice by exile and an even more miserable recent history than the town's natives. It is an event better consigned to history books than resurrected by modern controversy. An even worse riot took place in the East End of London in 1904, but London councillors today are not pinning their colours to the antics of impoverished bigots. It seems a lesson for Limerick councillors.

Last Updated on Friday, 17 December 2010 22:01

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