Ireland and the Jewish Traveller

The Practicalities of an Irish Vacation for Jews

Confusion - in Northern Irish iconography, the Israeli flag may often be combined with the old one of Northern Ireland - do not expect any Jews to live in this house, a staunch Presbyterian would be a better bet
© Bernd Biege 2017

You are Jewish and want to travel to Ireland - and why wouldn't you? Never mind your specific reason to head for the “Emerald Isle”, it could be business, the pure pleasure of sightseeing, or even a visit with family and friends. Generally speaking, you will not encounter any major problems on your way. Though Ireland has had a turbulent history with some basis in religion, Irish Jews, though small in number, do not tend to face discrimination.

Naturally, the practicalities of getting permission to land depend on what passport you are holding, you will have to meet the immigration and visa criteria, regardless of race or religion. 

Here we shall be practical, and to the point, and ask only one question initially - is it problematic, or can it even be recommended at all, to travel to and in Ireland as a Jew?

Traveling as a Jew in Ireland

One thing has to be clearly stated - simply being Jewish should in no way influence any practical aspect of a vacation in Ireland. Unless you yourself choose to let your beliefs influence your travels. Being a Jew per se will not single you out in a crowd, though everyone who travels to Ireland and is not Irish is usually recognized as being foreign, the Irish people are open and welcoming. 

In Irish law, no discrimination against any ethnic or religious group is permitted in any form, so being Jewish and traveling in Ireland means that the authorities are well placed to protect your rights. You will not, in general, be treated differently from Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, or anyone practicing any other religion.

But one question has to be asked - is it likely that you will have to face prejudice and aggressive behavior? Actually, what you may come to find is that people in general in Ireland do not know a lot about Jews and the Jewish faith. Most of the populations of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are both predominately Christian, either Protestant or Catholic. Neither has a large Jewish population and so you may face some genuinely curious questions about your life and the role of your religion in it.

Summing up: should you visit Ireland as a Jew? Yes, if you need or want to. There are no threats or concerns related specifically to people practicing Judiasm, and so a general awareness of basic travel safety is all you need to have.

Irish Accommodation from a Jewish Perspective

Apart from a few recommended accommodation providers featured on the pages of the Irish Jewish Community, all near the Dublin shul, you will be left to your own devices. And your choice will largely depend on your personal needs and budget. Booking rooms via the internet is easy, but they might not be that good once you see them. If you are worried about any aspect, it might be a good idea to ask other Jews for advice though the odds are slightly stacked against you the more specific your questions become, due to the relatively low numbers of Jews living in or visiting Ireland.

Dublin currently (2016) has a population of about 2,600 Irish Jews, and that is the largest community on the island.

You may want to be aware that the open display of Christian religious symbols is common - especially in private accommodation, where any number of crosses might adorn the walls. If that poses a major problem for you, Ireland, in general, might not be the place to visit. It is common to find crosses hanging over beds or Christian religious icons displayed in Bed and Breakfast accommodations because these symbols are very common in Irish private homes.

The most important problem you might run into, however, is booking accommodation with breakfast included if you have specific dietary needs.

Kosher Food in Ireland

In general, Kosher food is extremely difficult to find without researching ahead of time in Ireland. This is due to the relatively low demand for Kosher food because the Irish Jewish population is so small.

If you want to start the Irish day off in a typical Irish way, you might rethink that idea quickly as a Jewish traveler. Tucking into a hearty Irish breakfast is definitely not recommended if you observe specific dietary practices, as it will more than likely include pork sausages and bacon rashers. And even if you get offered vegetarian alternatives, you might not be sure about what fat they are fried in because kosher is not really a word used in Irish cuisine, let alone a concept understood.

If you have concerns about keeping Kosher in Ireland, never order a cooked breakfast off the shelf. Talk to the landlord or the chef directly and be ready to explain a bit of background because they may not be familiar with your needs. You might be offered real alternatives in the form of cereals, fresh fruit, fish, but before accepting, be sure to explain the basics of kashrut, or you might find shrimps added to your fish as a special treat.

As to kosher food in Ireland in general - here is the bad news: you will not really find food outlets offering kosher products, except in Dublin (the SuperValu near the synagogue stocks some kosher food). To help Jewish travelers and immigrants, a basic list of kosher foods is also available from the Irish Jewish Community website. There also is some information on kosherireland.com, who also provide a glatt kosher catering service.

Some "ethnic" or "specialty" food stores may also stock the odd item of kosher products, usually imported from the UK. Though it might simply be not worth the time hunting those down during your vacation, sticking to fruit and vegetables instead. One other alternative is halal food stores that cater to the Muslim community in Ireland (a basic lists of shops can be found on zabihah.com). And finally there is always one alternative - go vegetarian during your holidays.

Worshipping as a Jew in Ireland

Unless you are invited into a private house or similar, you will be a bit stuck outside of the capital cities because currently only Dublin and Belfast have fully functional synagogues. See the websites for the Belfast Jewish Community and the Irish Jewish Community for more details.

Attitudes Towards Jews in Ireland

It might be a very rough generalization but many Irish people would never have (at least consciously) met a Jew and many have no idea that there is a (very small) Jewish community in Ireland. Yes, they all have heard about the Shoah (known exclusively as the Holocaust here), but that would be about it. 

Does this make Ireland very different from other European countries? Not really, though a Jewish visitor might find it amusing (or aggravating) how the Irish hijack Jewish history at times (starting with the invention of the "Irish Diaspora" and ending in very unfortunate comparisons between the situation of Catholics in Northern Ireland and the situation of the Jews during the Holocaust). And (not only) as a Jew you might at times start to choke at prejudices that could come straight from the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion", or an occasional admiration of Hitler among small fringe groups.

Anti-Semitism in Ireland

As there is anti-Semitism in almost any part of the world, so too can it be found in Ireland to a varying degree though it is certainly not the dominating public opinion. You may, unfortunately, encounter casual anti-Semitism by (generally speaking) uneducated people. More educated persons may present a more refined, not really tangible anti-Semitism. The overwhelming majority of the Irish population will, however, not be "anti-Semitic" as such. Thoughtless at times, but not by malicious intent.

Now this all depends on how you define anti-Semitism.

There is a tendency among the general public understanding to lump everything together - the state of Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish faith are at times seen as interchangeable. Not only by gentiles but also by some Irish Jews themselves. As a Jewish visitor, you might come across very vocal supporters of a Palestinian state, and very loud criticism of Israeli politics, so there is a need to differentiate between criticism of a nation-state and the general non-acceptance of a religion.

Israeli and Palestinian Flags in Northern Ireland

Should you travel to Northern Ireland and happen to come upon the more sectarian quarters, don't be too alarmed when you suddenly see Palestinian or Israeli flags adorning lampposts.

This isn't some sort of weird peace initiative (the flags are never shown together anyway), this is a very desperate attempt to equate the problems of the Middle East with the problems of Northern Ireland. Or at least an attempt at international solidarity.  To cut a long story short - Republicans occasionally fly the Palestinian flag out of solidarity and to show that they are as oppressed as them. Loyalists then, in a knee-jerk reflex, fly the Israeli flag out of pure opposition, and maybe to imply that they are denied their promised land and are God's chosen people after all.

The best advice is to ignore these displays. The conflict in Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided issue.

A Short History of Ireland and the Jews

The earliest reference to Jews in Ireland can be found dated to the year 1079 - annals record that "five Jews came" to the King of Munster, only to record immediately that "they were sent back again over sea". These were likely traders from Normandy.

About a century later, the Anglo-Norman Strongbow proceeded to come to the aid of an Irish king, but effectively conquered large parts of Ireland. According to some sources, the adventurer received financial assistance from "Josce Jew of Gloucester" in this affair. Soon after, further evidence of Jewish involvement in the conquest is sketchy, individuals such as "Joseph the Doctor" are named, but that is really all.

By 1232 there seems to have been a Jewish community in Ireland because a grant by King Henry III explicitly mentions "the custody of the King’s Judaism in Ireland". Again, further evidence is sketchy to non-existent.

Only in the late 15th century was a permanent Jewish settlement established when Jews expelled from Portugal settled on the Irish south coast, with a certain William Annyas later even elected as Mayor of Youghal (1555). The one thriving Jewish community in Ireland was, however, Dublin - in the time of William III it was certainly active. In the first half of the 18th century about 200 Jews resided in Dublin, a cemetery was established and smaller communities (often just resident families, truth be told, were established outside Dublin).

By 1871, the Jewish population of Ireland was counted as 258, rising to 453 within ten years, mainly due to immigration from England or Germany. Later, immigration from Eastern Europe increased (mainly due to Russian anti-Semitic policy), in 1901 the number of Jews in Ireland was estimated to be 3,771, by 1904 already 4,800.

An anti-Semitic boycott in Limerick was part of the backlash at this time and it became known as the Limerick Pogrom, the flames of which were fanned by the fundamentalist Father John Creagh of the Redemptorist Order. Anti-Jewish sentiment was low-key most of the time, with several Jews achieving success in becoming part of the established order in Ireland. Names like the shipbuilder Wolff in Belfast, the politician (and IRA volunteer) Briscoe and Cork's Lord Mayor Goldberg come to mind.

During the Second World War and the shoah, Ireland (with the exception of the North, obviously) sat firmly on the fence and remained neutral while occasionally leaning dangerously to one side. However, only about thirty Jewish refugees were accepted in Ireland. And even those were not totally secure, as a notorious speech by TD Oliver J. Flanagan in 1953 showed - he was all for "routing the Jews out of the country".

After the Second World War, the Jewish population of Ireland peaked at around 5,500, then went into a decline again (many emigrated to the UK or Israel). Only during the Celtic Tiger years was a new influx of Jews noticeable.

More Information for Jewish Travellers to Ireland

Jewish travellers heading for Ireland may find most information by contacting the Jewish Community directly:

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