Thursday, 17 May 2018

The Jewish/Irish Experience

I have often been fascinated by the shared experience that seems to exist between the immigrant Jew and the immigrant Irish. Obviously, there is the whole “stranger in a strange land” adventure that continually draws our two ethnicities in two intertwined circles upon our arrival on the North American shores but at its roots, there always seemed to be a simpatico response. It was like we empathized with each other on a much deeper level. While we have been touring Ireland, some of that bond has revealed itself. Both of our peoples have been shaken to their cores by a cataclysmic event that robbed us of our safety, our sustenance, our family bonds, and even threatened our very existence. For us Jews, The Holocaust stands apart as a period in our history from which we will never fully recover. For the Irish, there is a similar feeling about the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s.

Everything about the famine is still woven into the fabric of how the Irish see themselves as a people; how they view the world beyond their shores; how they look to replenish their native-born children; how they maintain their culture and heritage; and how they are now looking to future with the modernization of their economic and social growth. This is a damaged people, but one with resilience and fortitude. They take pride in their survival and refuse to allow the world to forget the injustices heaped upon them during that period where over one million souls perished from starvation and millions more fled in search of something better and didn’t always find it.

In the capital city of Dublin, those reminders are everywhere. We toured the Jeannie Johnston immigrant ship, one of the first to set sail for The United States and Canada with hundreds aboard. The Emigrant museum across the street is a fully interactive and multi-media experience that takes the guest through each and every wave of Irish emigration to all parts of the globe. (Did you know that former Israeli President Chaim Herzog has a grandparent from Ireland or that former US President Barack Obama’s great-grandmother was Irish?) The ability to maintain Irish culture and heritage so far from home has been nothing short of astounding and the number of people across the world who can trace some Irish ancestry numbers in the tens of millions.

Perhaps the most poignant memorial we encountered here in Dublin is an art installation that is right down on the banks of the river Liffey. A series of seven bronze statues, each depicting a starving Irish emigre, is shown getting ready to board a vessel bound for…wait for it…Toronto. Entitled Famine and created by artist Rowan Gillespie, shows the seven desperate, hunched over, and with terrified vacant expressions. There is the realization that they must board this boat, but a knowledge of all that they are leaving behind. They know that they will probably never see their homes or families again. The really cool part of this work is that there is a corresponding gathering of bronze figures in Ireland Park at the foot of Bathurst and Queen’s Quay in Toronto. There are only five statues in Canada as the artist wanted to diminish the set to account for the thirty percent lost during the journeys. A woman sculpted in Dublin appears pregnant in Toronto as many women became pregnant on their voyages. From Mr. Gillespie himself.
“Possibly the most dominant feature of the site are the huge grain silos which seem to symbolize the abundance of food in Canada, in contrast to the situation in Ireland. So there would be another figure of a man (they were mainly men who make the journey) in humble prayer and gratitude as he looks in almost disbelief at these symbols of plenty.”
I honestly never knew that these sculptures existed and that they are located not ten minutes from my home in Toronto. I am so terribly excited to visit them when we return.
The Irish experience has touched me deeply during our visit her in Dublin. I think I understand our bounds a bit better.

1 comment:

  1. The Irish Jewish museum is great- Have been there a couple of times.
    I’m not sure what’s happened there in ireland but the north and south have decided to further define themselves by siding in the Israeli Palestinian struggle. The Protestants have taken to flying Israeli flags. The south (Eire proper), have flown the Palestinian flag over their House of Parliament, support BDS politically and most recently Dublin’s mayor has called for a boycott of Eurovision next year bc Netta is Israeli (Eurovision celebrates by having in capital city of winner. This year they only referred to her country as Israel- no city mentioned and a picture of a monitor was leaked which showed a cue to the host NOT to mention Israeli cities at all.). That Netta responded to this by shouting “Next year in Jerusalem!” was too much. A red flag to the BDS-holes. Dublin’s mayor just officially to call for the boycott. Many SinnFein and other “innocuous” sites have loads about palestinian struggle and “solidarity” of the struggle. It’s become binary and highly disappointing. It’s ironic too, as the Irish are as indigenous to the island as Jews are to Eretz israel- but they are seen now only as “imperialist colonizers and killers”. Saddened. The connection we had is no more.