In Irish writer Charles Maturin’s 1820 Gothic novel, a young student named John Melmoth discovers his devilish ancestor was a mythological “wanderer.”
Using the stereotype of the Jewish biblical character who persecuted Jesus on way to his crucifixion, in the Anglican clergyman’s “Melmoth the Wanderer,” the ancestor sold his soul to Satan in return for 150 years of life. Now, he regrets his pact and roams the earth in search of someone who will take his place.
In its day, Maturin’s “Wandering Jew” character was so influential that it is believed to have been the template for Irish author Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” This fascinating little-known fact and many other tidbits can be gleaned by visitors to the traveling exhibition, “Representations of Jews in Irish Literature,” which has shown at locations throughout Ireland.
On a day this past February, an Irish 5th Year class from St Angela’s School, Ursuline Convent visited the exhibition at the Luke Wadding Library at the Waterford Institute of Technology. The students spent time reading the texts and looking at the images on the panels organized by chronology and theme.
Many, like 16-year-old Orla Charles, were most excited to discover that the biblical Wandering Jew was the inspiration for Stoker’s “Dracula.”
The biblical Wandering Jew was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’
“I had no idea about any of the writings about Jews that contributed to things like Dracula. I thought that was so interesting,” she said.
But the students also learned there were references to Jews in Medieval Miracle Plays, Early Modern epic poetry and Picaresque, and 18th century drama and satire. They saw examples of Jews in 19th century Anglo-Irish Big House, Irish Gothic, and historical fiction, and also in religious and political poetry. They saw that Jews figured in Irish literature consistently again throughout the 20th century.
This St. Patrick’s Day, as the Irish worldwide celebrate Ireland’s national pride and storied past, the exhibition is now set to cross the Atlantic for its American debut in New York next month.
Unlike in the US, where the Jewish contribution to arts and letters is well documented, the extensive role Jews have played in Irish literature since the Middle Ages came as a huge surprise even to the academics involved in the research project that gave rise to the exhibition, “Representations of Jews in Irish Literature,” which has travelled around the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland since its inauguration at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin in June 2016.
An unusual finding
Several years ago, Professor Pól Ó Dochartaigh, who has a background in German-Jewish literature and history, came across references to Jews in the Irish literary record. Now at Galway’s National University of Ireland, Ó Dochartaigh was at the time dean of the faculty of arts at Ulster University. Intrigued by his findings, he employed Dr. Barry Montgomery to help him search for more references.
Originally, Ó Dochartaigh and Montgomery, like most of their countrymen, were familiar only with Leopold Bloom, the Jewish fictional protagonist of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Little did they know that Bloom was just the tip of a proverbial iceberg that would stretch back as far as the famous Annals of Inisfallen, the manuscript chronicling the medieval history of Ireland dating to the 11th century.
“The material uncovered proved most intriguing from a literary historical point of view, as references to Jews appeared consistently throughout each era from Medieval Gaelic literature through to the present day across all genres,” Montgomery said.
The researchers were intrigued by two main questions. They wanted to know what this body of references signified from an Irish literary historical point of view, especially given the consistently small Jewish population of Ireland throughout the centuries (never more than 5,500). And they were intrigued as to why has such a body of literary work and references remained undetected for so long.
Ó Dochartaigh partnered with Dr. Elmer Kennedy-Andrews, a professor in Irish literature in Ulster and secured a £400,000 ($487,000) grant from Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK for a three-year project that would produce a book, exhibition and conference. Kennedy-Andrews unfortunately died not long after the project began, and his role in he project was assumed by Dr. Don MacRaild, a professor of Irish and British History, and Dr. Frank Ferguson a senior lecturer in Irish and Ulster-Scots writing.
‘The team looked at over 1,000 books for Jewish writers and references about Jews’
Dr. Marie-Claire Peters, a research associate in the School of English and History at Ulster University, joined the team when it was time to curate and coordinate the exhibition based on the accumulated research.
“The team looked at over 1,000 books for Jewish writers and references about Jews, and I ended up distilling their findings down to 12 exhibition panels,” Peters told The Times of Israel.
For Peters, this project afforded her not only a first-time exploration of the topic of Jews and Jewish literature, but also an opportunity to meet Jewish people for the first time.
“Not many Irish people know Jews. I’ve met Irish Jews for the first time in my life at some of the exhibition launch events we’ve had in the past year — that tells you everything right there,” she said.
The Jew as ‘other’
There were few positive portrayals of Jews in Irish literature prior to the 20th century. Jews were for the most part presented as a negative stereotype, or at the very least as “the other.” As Jews grew in number and became more integrated into Irish society in the late 19th century and early 20th century, their portrayal became more positive.
Jewish writers also began to contribute to literary life in Ireland, not surprisingly by writing about their Irish-Jewish hyphenate identity. Ó Dochartaigh and the other researchers were aware of more contemporary Irish-Jewish writers such as David Marcus and Ronit Lentin, but they were preceded by others dating back to the 19th century.
“Rosa Solomons, mother of Estella Solomons (a well known artist and member of Cumann na mBan, an Irish republican women’s paramilitary organization) was a poet. The novelist, Julia Frankau, was mentored by George Moore, a prominent figure in the Irish Literary Revival. The Dublin-based Lithuanian immigrant, Hannah Berman, also participated in the Literary Revival, and published a number of her short stories in Irish literary magazines,” Montgomery said.
“Joseph Edelstein published his 1908 notorious novel, ‘The Moneylender’ about an unscrupulous Jewish moneylender practicing in Dublin, causing much upset to the local Jewish community. E. R. Lipsett (writing under the pseudonym, ‘HaLitvack’) composed articles examining Irish-Jewish identity, as did A. J. (Con) Leventhal, friend to James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. The poet, Leslie Daiken, also engaged in matters of Irish Jewish identity,” he said.
‘It’s in my heritage. I can’t run away from it and I wouldn’t want to’
With only between 500 and 2,000 (depending on who’s doing the counting) Jews remaining in Ireland today, there are not many Jewish writers left. However, two works were published in the last year by young Irish-Jewish writers. One was “Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan,” a novel about Jewish immigrants to Ireland by Ruth Gilligan. The other was a 2015 Hennessy Prize-winning book of poetry by Simon Lewis, also about the immigrant experience.
Lewis, 38, read from his poetry collection, titled, “Jewtown,” at the Waterford launch event for the “Representations of Jews in Irish Literature” exhibition in early February. Lewis, who grew up in Dublin but now lives in Carlow, told The Times of Israel that he doesn’t personally know any other Jewish writers in Ireland. He isn’t very involved in the Jewish community and didn’t start out planning to write poetry about Jewish immigrants in Cork over a century ago.
“The poems began as a prompt from my writing group mentor. I’m fifth generation Irish. My great-great-grandparents came to Cork from Lithuania in 1883. It’s in my heritage. I can’t run away from it and I wouldn’t want to,” Lewis said.
Local Irish-Jewish heritage has been highlighted at each of the exhibition’s host venues so far. In Waterford, Kieran Cronin, developmental librarian at the Luke Wadding Library, delved into the story of Jacob Lappin and Fanny Diamond, the first Jewish couple to wed in Waterford to create a special exhibition displayed alongside the panels produced by Peters.
Cronin pieced together Jacob and Fanny’s history with the help of Valerie Lapin Ganley, the couple’s great-granddaughter living in California and the producer of “Shalom Ireland,” a film about how Irish Jews participated in the creation of both the Irish Republic and the State of Israel.
Cronin collected documents ranging from Jacob and Fanny’s November 14, 1894 wedding invitation to ships’ manifests to WWI army service awards and medals rolls tracing their lives from their births in Russia through their immigrations to Ireland, the US and the UK.
The students from St. Angela’s School welcomed the opportunity to learn about the historic Waterford Jewish community, which peaked — nearly a century before they were born — at 62 members in 1911.
“I never knew that there were a lot of Jews once in Waterford. Sixty-two — that’s such a huge number because you really never hear about it nowadays,” said 17-year-old Ruth Cullinane.
“Representations of Jews in Irish Literature” opens at Columbia University in New York City on April 4.