By Edward T. O’Donnell
Ninety-eight years ago this week, on Jan. 18, 1904, the people of Limerick began a boycott against the city’s tiny Jewish population. Inspired by the preaching of an anti-Semitic priest, they hoped to drive the Jews out of business and out of Limerick.
Despite its overly dramatic name (violence compared to that in Eastern Europe was minor), the “Limerick Pogrom” marked a dark chapter in Ireland’s generally tolerant experience with Jews.
The first Jews arrived in Ireland in the 17th Century, but they numbered only a handful and their numbers grew slowly over the next 200 years. In 1881, Ireland was home to just 394 Jews out of a total population of 5 million. But that was the year anti-Jewish riots known as pogroms broke out all across the Russian empire and soon spread to most of eastern Europe. The deadly violence created a massive flow of refugees to Western Europe and the U.S. By 1904 there were more than 3,000 Jews living in Ireland (compared to 150,000 in England and 1 million in the U.S.). Of them, about 170 (25 families) lived in Limerick.
As its Jewish population grew in the 1880s and ’90s, Ireland proved a relatively tolerant host society. Still, there were a few incidents of anti-Semitic violence and intimidation. In 1884, for example, a mob surrounded a Jewish home in Limerick and attacked its residents. In Dublin two years later, someone put up posters bearing anti-Jewish slogans. Separate attacks on Jews occurred in Limerick in 1892 and ’96, as well as in Cork in ’94.
None of these compared to the events in Limerick in the winter of 1904. The campaign against the Jews there began with a series of anti-Semitic sermons preached by a Redemptorist priest named Fr. John Creagh. The sources of Creagh’s hatred for Jews is not known, but it is believed he had been approached by the city’s shopkeepers, who claimed Jewish peddlers and merchants were hurting their business. Creagh found a receptive audience among the city’s large population of impoverished citizens. They were an easy mark for a demagogue like Creagh, who told them that their troubles were caused by the tiny Jewish population.
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Anti-Semitism had persisted for centuries in European culture. Historically Jews were blamed for killing Christ and for persecuting the early church. In more recent times, Jews were the victims of wild rumors alleging all manner of devious activity. Many established small shops or worked as peddlers, selling everything from clothes to food. Such activity led to charges of trickery, alleging that Jewish shopkeepers and peddlers sold drugged tea to unsuspecting customers in order to force them into debt and eventually acquire their land. Others assailed the “immoral” nature of peddling — Jewish men knocking on the doors of homes while the “man of the house” was at work.
Creagh hit on these and many more stereotypes in his sermons, the first of which occurred on Jan. 11, 1904. Expelled from other Christian nations, he declared, Jews were now descending upon Ireland “to fasten themselves on us like leeches, and to draw our blood.” He said they were conspiring with Jews on the continent to import cheap goods to Ireland and thereby destroy the livelihoods of native shopkeepers. Worse, Creagh told his listeners, Jews were known to “kidnap and slay Christian children” as part of their secret tradition of ritual murder (a twisted reference to the story of Abraham and Isaac).
Creagh called for a boycott of Jewish businesses. The town’s newspaper, the Limerick Leader, supported Creagh. “Ireland is, at present, being drained of its Gaelic population by emigration,” warned the editor, “and Jewish colonists are trooping in to fill up the places of emigrants, and to turn Ireland into a filthy Ghetto.” The town’s trade unions likewise cast their support to the boycott, arguing that Jews were threatening the economic livelihood of their membership. Some Limerick residents took the campaign a step further and attacked Jews and their homes and shops. No one was killed, though several victims suffered serious injuries.
The Limerick Pogrom attracted the attention of two of Ireland’s leading nationalists, Arthur Griffith and Michael Davitt. Griffith, a journalist who later founded the organization that became Sinn Fein, held deeply anti-Semitic views. Five years before the troubles in Limerick began, he wrote in the pages of his paper, the United Irishman, that the three great evils of modern times were freemasons, pirates, and Jews. He openly cast his support to Creagh and his followers. On the other hand, Davitt, the veteran nationalist from the days of the Land League and lately a human rights activist, denounced Limerick’s campaign of hatred.
Creagh’s campaign ended when nearly all of Limerick’s Jews packed up and left, some to other parts of Ireland, others to England or the United States. It’s a chapter in Limerick’s history, indeed the history of Ireland in general, that many remember with regret.
Postscript: In 1990, in a gesture of reconciliation, the city of Limerick paid for the restoration of the its Jewish cemetery.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Jan. 19, 1937: aviator Howard Hughes sets a transcontinental air record, flying from Los Angeles to New York City in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds.
Jan. 29, 1897: 50 prominent Irish Americans meet in Boston to establish the American Irish Historical Society.
Jan. 20, 1961: John F. Kennedy is inaugurated as the 35th president of the United States.
Jan. 17, 1860: Gaelic League founder and statesman Douglas Hyde is born in Castlerea, Co. Roscommon.
Jan 22, 1943: Writer James P. Carroll, is born in Chicago.
Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at >odonnell@EdwardTODonnell.com.