Gaining a Footing

Maurice arrived in Dublin in 1892 with just three words of English: rabbi, synagogue and Jew.  With this basic vocabulary, he set out to find a Jewish community.  Everyone he approached tried to help him, people going out of their way to guide him to Dublin’s South Circular Road ‘ghetto.’  The helpfulness and concern of total (Christian) strangers was a stark contrast to the ignorance and bloody persecution he had escaped in Tsarist Russia, and which still beset his family and the millions more Jews still trapped there.

Directed by strangers, Maurice reached Clanbrassil Street in south Dublin’s inner city, the heart of the square mile that came to be known as Little Jerusalem. (James Joyce later chose 52 Clanbrassil Street as the birthplace of Leopold Bloom, one of the most famous Jewish characters of prose fiction.)  In this warren of streets off the South Circular Road, Dublin’s new wave of Jewish immigrants had converged, creating a thriving enclave of butchers, fishmongers, bakers, haberdashers and drapers. Yiddish (increasingly inflected with an Irish brogue) was the language of the shoppers bustling to buy bagels from Weinronks, groceries from Ordmans, kosher meat from Solomons, and haggling over fish sold by the pram-load. The Census of 1911 census found that 329 (28 percent of the 1,185 households) around Dublin’s South Circular were “of the Jewish faith,” and Alison Gill, in The Irish Independent of February 7, 2020, notes that “Jewish families were well known in the area for being hard-working and entrepreneurial, and this community founded some of Ireland’s most iconic businesses and brands.” Among them was Maurice Elliman, a “penniless immigrant, who started off as a grocer, became a big player in the entertainment industry.”

Maurice was among some 2,000 Jews who came to Ireland from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1910.  By 1909, Ireland’s Jewish community was 2,700 strong, peaking at around 5,500 in the 1930s.  Today, it numbers about 1,700.

Ireland had known Jews by then for some 800 years. The earliest reference to Jews in Ireland is in the mediaeval chronicle, Annals of Innisfallen.  It states that in 1079: “Five Jews came from over the sea [probably from Rouen in France] with gifts to Tairdelbach [king of Munster] and then were sent back again over the sea.”  It was with the Anglo-Norman invasion of the 13th century that Jewish communities took root in the Emerald Isle.  There was a Jewish community in Ireland at least as early as 1232, according to Bernard Shillman, author of A Short History of the Jews in Ireland, whose daughter Elaine was to marry Maurice’s 10th child Bertie. In 1555, there had even been a Jewish mayor:  William Moses Annyas Eanes, descendant of a Converso family from Belmonte, Portugal, was elected mayor of Youghal, County Cork . In 1823, the annual report of the Church of Ireland Jews’ Society recorded that there were 13 Jewish families in Dublin, and stated: “Perhaps it is little known but, even in this city, there is a synagogue of Jews, who assemble in the private house of an individual.”

It wasn’t until the late 19th century, however, that Jewish settlement in Ireland began in earnest.  The large numbers flooding into the country in flight from the pogroms of Eastern Europe submerged the 600-year-old community. These newly arrived Russian Jews of the late 1800s were spiritually and intellectually dissimilar from Ireland’s native-born Jews, but their numbers rapidly made them the dominant force in Irish-Jewish life. 

“The Russian Jew is among us, but not of us,” wrote an uncharitable English contemporary in 1884, in a sentiment which expressed the attitudes of Ireland’s native Jews to those newly arrived.  “His dress, his food, his habits, his speech, his mode of prayer are as near as possible here to what they were in the half-civilized village in which he was born.”

By the time Maurice reached Dublin in 1892, the city’s original four synagogues, were dying, none of them considered sufficiently Orthodox by the newcomers.

Among them was Ireland’s earliest recorded synagogue — a prayer room in Crane Lane off Dame Street, opposite Dublin Castle, established in 1660 as a branch of the Great Synagogue in London.  

The others were the synagogue in Marlborough Green, between Marlborough Street and Lower Abbey Street, which had opened in 1781, and two shuls founded after the 1816 repeal of the Naturalization Act that had denied Jews citizenship — one in Ormond Quay in 1828, and the St. Mary’s Abbey Synagogue in north Dublin in 1836. The country’s first Jewish cemetery had opened in the early 1700s near Ballybough Bridge in Clontarf.  

The arrival of Russian and Lithuanian Jews created an upheaval in Jewish Dublin. The newcomers were poor, largely illiterate in any language but Hebrew and many lacked work skills. For their part, the immigrants found the existing shuls, which held services only on Shabbat, were unsuited to their needs.  The community split.  The Lithuanian/Russian Jews settled in the south of the city, where they set up Orthodox synagogues off the South Circular Road in St. Kevin’s Parade, Lennox Street and Lombard Street. 

Weeks after Maurice arrived in Dublin, on December 4, 1892, a grand synagogue was consecrated in Adelaide Road, on land acquired by the Synagogue Council.  Among those who contributed to its building fund was Dublin’s Quaker community.  The first place in Ireland erected for the express purpose of Jewish worship, the Adelaide Road shul seated 300 people downstairs and another 150 in its galleries. In 1895, it had 120 seat-holders. An annex with schoolrooms formed part of the new complex. School attendance more than doubled in seven years from about 90 children when the building opened to 200 in 1902.  Thirty years later, the shul was massively expanded to accommodate 600 people in a two-tiered structure. In 1999, it was deconsecrated .

Maurice, straight off the boat, reached Clanbrassil Street and saw a Magen David (Star of David) above a store — one of some 30 Jewish shops that lined the street.  (Today there are two.)  Entering, he found chickens and groceries on sale.  In Yiddish, he asked the shopkeepers for directions to the nearest synagogue.  The couple immediately recognized him for what he was: a newly arrived Jewish immigrant.   At their prompting, he told them about his long journey from the Russian Pale, his hopes of finding work and his dream of earning enough money to bring his mother and three brothers to Dublin.

He was, of course, invited to share a meal with the couple in their living quarters behind the shop.  With the traditional brass candlesticks, menorah, wine goblets and prayer books of the Jewish home all around him, Maurice was forcibly reminded of his distant family and home.  It was only then that he gave way to his hunger and fatigue, and offered a silent prayer of thanks that he had chanced on people so hospitable and charitable.

When the meal was eaten and Grace recited, the couple began discussing with him how he might earn a living.  He told them that in Russia he had sung with a travelling choir, performing in different village synagogues each Friday and Saturday in return for food, lodging and a few kopeks.  He hoped this would stand him in sufficient stead to work as a cantor.

No, the couple told him.  Every second newcomer had a good knowledge of Jewish lore and learning.  It was breathed in with the air of the ghettos.  It would be very hard to find a cantor’s job.  Tailoring and watch-making were the kinds of trade that translated easily to another country, and didn’t require too much English, they told him.  No?  Then perhaps peddling?

It was time for ma’ariv, evening prayers, and Maurice went with his host to the Lennox Street shul. Its rabbi was Kovno-born Isaac Yosselson, who arrived in Dublin aged 32, a year earlier.  He and the congregation welcomed Maurice warmly. By the end of the service, he had secured accommodation with Bernard and Ethel Smullen (also Smullion, Smullian), and their three children — 11-year-old Leah, nine-year-old Jane and two-year-old Willie. David was born two years later. Thee more children died in infancy.

The family was from Riga, 140 miles north of Kovno.  They had arrived in Dublin several years earlier and, like most Jewish families there at the time, were desperately poor. The Smullens rented Maurice a small room in their home.  He ate with them and eked a living as a peddler or “weekla man,” making his rounds of the Dublin suburbs, buying and selling household items door to door.  His workday ended at around 11 p.m.  With minimal English, he made himself understood and managed to bring in enough money for his immediate needs.  Each day, he deducted from the day’s takings the cost of his merchandise and the rent for his room, and then put any profit to one side.

He learned quickly.  In time, his English became serviceable.  He bought a bicycle so he could cover more territory. And he accumulated enough money to bring his mother Molly, brother Jacob and half-brothers, Hyman and Charlie to Ireland — and to marry.  In 1897, he moved to 14 Charlotte Place, and it was from here that he married the elder daughter of his former landlords — Leah Smullen, now 16 years old — in St Mary’s Abbey Synagogue, Capel Street.  He was 25.  It was a true love match.  Decades later, Maurice told his son Hymie that until the day Leah died, Maurice’s heart leapt whenever he caught sight of her.

On March 4, prior to the wedding, a Marriage Settlement deed was drawn up.  In this, Maurice transferred all of his Charlotte Place (LEFT) furniture and effects of every description, together with the sum of £100 or securities to this amount, into the names of his older brother, Jacob Max Elliman, and of Leah’s father, Bernard Smullen, to be held by them in trust until the marriage was solemnized. Once married, Leah would be permitted to enjoy the furniture, effects and money.

It was a marriage that was blessed with nine sons and three daughters, not an unusually large family for either Catholics or for Orthodox Jews in early 20th century Ireland.  Such was Maurice’s greatness of heart that when Leah’s sister Jane died, he took her baby girl, Rose Kynoch, into his family as a daughter.  His younger children, infants at the time of Rose’s arrival or born later, were unaware for years that she was their cousin not their sister.

Maurice’s brothers, too, married and began to establish themselves.  His elder brother, Mollie’s first child, Jacob Max (Mendel) Elliman, born in 1869 (probably in one of the small villages around Kovno), arrived in Dublin probably in 1893 (Ireland kept no official immigration records at this time). He was then in his mid-20s,and travelled with his mother and half-brothers, Charlie and Hymie, their passage paid by Maurice.  In Dublin, he met and married the famously sharp-tongued Rina bat Shlomo Zalman nee Hodess, who had been born in Pikeln near Riga in 1871 or 1872. Their first child, Solly, was born in 1894, so the marriage likely took place a year earlier, when Jacob was 25 and Rina was 22 or 23. 

Jacob and Rina shortly after their marriage

Among the nine children born to this marriage was Louis Meyer Elliman, the LM from Detroit in Louis’s journal, whom Rina called Leipke  Meyer. (She called the other Louis Elliman ‘Leipke Meishe’s’, or Maurice’s Louis.) After Louis M moved to Detroit, she corresponded with him in Yiddish, which she described as ivra deutsch. Although she learned to speak (strongly accented) English, she never learned to write it, and signed her naturalization papers with an X. Louis did well in the US. He married twice, first to Minna and then to Mollie, who survived him, always remaining a dutiful son, who supported his mother throughout her widowhood. He was also extraordinarily generous towards all of his siblings, funding the weddings of each of his many nieces.

Louis M, Ethel, Benny Mann, Harry Jacobs, Annie, Jacob, Harry, Dora, Lila, Ada, Nettie and Rina
at 52 Lower Camden Street in Dublin, when Louis M visited in the 1930s

Jacob was a staunch supporter of traditional Judaism and an ardent Zionist. In 1901, he founded the Jewish National Fund’s first branch in Ireland, which developed into “a not insignificant branch of the worldwide JNF; from the late 1930s, its per capita contributions, its were higher than those made by communities in Leeds, Glasgow, and London,” according to author Gerald Golderg in A Tribute. Jacob chaired the JNF’s Dublin Commission from a few months after its founding until 1937, when he was named its Life President.

The opening of JNF’s first Bazaar in Ireland. On the steps of the Mansion House, Dublin: Jacob is in on the right-hand end of the back row. The top-hatted bearded man in centre-front is Rabbi Dr. Yitzhak HaLevi , Born in Poland in 1988, he was Ireland’s first Chief Rabbi ( 1921 to 1936) and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine and, after 1948, of Israel (1936 to 1959).
JNF fundraising bazaar, 1937
Jacob as Life President of JNF-Ireland (see his lapel ribbon) holding its Golden Book

In 1907, Jacob was a delegate to Eighth Zionist Congress held in The Hague, in the Netherlands.

The British delegation to the Eighth Zionist Congress at The Hague. Jacob is sixth from the right in second row from the front, wearing a top hat.

In 1916, Jacob thought to follow his son Louis M to the United States. There is a record of him, his wife Rina and eight children, aged 22 to three, arriving at Ellis Island. By 1919, however, they were back in Dublin, where Jacob opened a theatre furnishings, founding company, which made tip-up seats.  As well as supplying the Corinthian cinema on Dublin’s Dublin’s Eden Quay (which Maurice bought in 1932), he supplied the furnishings for the ladies’ gallery in the Walworth Road shul, which Maurice co-founded. A rift apparently developed between Jacob and Maurice, although when and why is unknown.  They lived near one another in Dublin, were part of the same Dublin Jewish community and were in related lines of business, but the two families weren’t close. 

Maurice and Jacob cross O’Connell Bridge. The General Post Office (GPO) is visible to the left, and Nelson’s Column in the centre

Jacob died intestate in 1941 aged 70.   His eight children agreed that Jacob’s widow, their mother Rina, s be his main beneficiary, and they abandoned all claim to the business, in return for becoming shareholders. The company continued under the joint (and inharmonious) direction of two of Jacob’s children, Joe and Solly. Public record information received on October 19, 1990, indicates that the company, registration no. IE010685, had been dissolved. The date of its dissolution isn’t given.

Molly, Maurice’s mother whom he brought to Dublin with his brother and two half-brothers, also opened a small business, making caps.

Ireland, for the most part, provided a benign environment for the Jewish refugees who reached its shores – during years that many Irish were leaving for Britain and the US to find work.  The Irish received the influx of emigrants with kindness and grace.  Serious anti-Jewish incidents were rare, with occasional hostility attributable more often to fear of the foreigner than antagonism to the Jew.

The major exception was in Limerick in January 1904, where a young Redemptionist priest named John Creagh used his pulpit to inspire beatings, intimidation and an economic boycott against the city’s 168 Jews. Refugees from the Tsar and wise in the ways of anti-Semites, most of the 168 fled to Cork in what became known as the Limerick Pogrom. Although no Jew was killed or seriously injured, Limerick’s Jewish community had fled the Cossacks, and the word ‘pogrom’ was on their lips when they found themselves under attack. City leaders condemned the violence, among them Michael Davitt, MP, who protested that: “The Jews have never done any injury to Ireland. Like our own race, they have endured a persecution, the records of which will forever remain a reproach to the ‘Christian’ nations of Europe.”

John Creagh, 1878 to 1947, was an Irish Redemptorist priest, best known for delivering an antisemitic diatribe in 1904 that incited riots against the small Jewish community in Limerick, and later for his missionary work in Kimberley, Australia.

Michael Davitt, 1846 to 1906, was an Irish republican activist for a variety of causes, especially Home Rule and land reform.

Ireland’s Jews, for their part, repaid their welcome with deep pride in the Irish roots they put down, and loyalty to Ireland.  The community learned to speak English, dress as Irishmen (in every surviving photograph of Maurice, he wears a three-piece suit, see LEFT) and join Ireland’s workforce.  Over the years, their achievement was totally disproportionate to their numbers.

Close to home, Maurice became a pioneer of cinema and a public figure;  Bernard Shillman, a barrister as well as author of The Jews of Ireland, specialised in workmen’s compensation, making it his lifetime work to secure compensation rights for workers who became ill, incapacitated or injured in accidents on-site.  Many of his cases are still used today in Eire’s law textbooks.  To mention a handful from among many other prominent Irish Jews:  Mervyn Taylor was leader of the Irish Labour Party, Robert and Ben Briscoe were both Lord Mayors of Dublin, Gerald Goldberg was Lord Mayor of Cork, and Alan Shatter was Minister for Justice and Equality and Minister of Defence.  

In Dublin’s Jewish homes, the immigrants left Eastern Europe behind them.  If parents who had arrived knowing scarcely a word of English continued addressing their children in Yiddish, the children increasingly answered them in Dublin-accented English. Parents took pride in the English literacy of their children, and a standard parental injunction was: “No Yiddish on the street!” Mothers spent their days cooking and sewing.  It was good to work, to think and to worry for the children.  It was their cherished hope that their children would lead better and easier lives than they did.

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