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Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce: A Socioeconomic History (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 1, Fall 2007
pp. 151-154 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0048

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Cormac Ó Gráda is a distinguished Irish economist and social historian whose past work has repeatedly, if intermittently, seemed relevant to the study of Joyce. As if conscious that Joyce scholars have recently started referring to him, in this absorbing account of Ireland's Jewish communities as they existed during Joyce's lifetime, he starts to edge closer to the Joyceans. His discourse will not be to everyone's taste: too much demographic analysis, too many tables and graphs. Nonetheless, the book is important. Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce not only substantially adds to extant accounts of twentieth-century Irish Jewry (Louis Hyman, Dermot Keogh)1 but corrects and, finally, definitively supersedes them. It is hard to imagine that a more scrupulously researched and accurate work on the subject will ever be possible. In one respect, at least, it gives us most, if not all, of the materials we need for assessing Joyce's representation of Irish Jews.

Part of what Ó Gráda tells us may come as a surprise. Jewish Dublin hardly existed before 1866 and, in comparison with the Jewish communities in other British cities, was always proportionally small. Before the 1870s, most Irish people knew nothing about real Jews. The "blow-ins," however, who started arriving in the 1870s were Ireland's largest group of non-British immigrants since the Huguenots two centuries before them (10). They were mainly Litvaks (from Lithuania), who had good reasons for fleeing the Tsarist empire. In the 1880s, these included pogroms or the threat of them. Ó Gráda plays down the significance of the pogroms, however, arguing that the immigrants were as likely to be driven by economic motives and a taste for comparative ease. Their reception was, perhaps inevitably, somewhat mixed, but they by no means encountered a solid wall of Catholic prejudice. Take the question of usury, for example. Ó Gráda convincingly demonstrates that Jewish moneylenders in Ireland were always in a minority relative to Christian ones and were quite likely to be treated rather genially, not least because they were seen as a comparatively soft touch (63). In any case, the Church was relaxing its strictures against usury from the later nineteenth century onwards, and the diatribes against usury were more likely to come from figures like George Russell (70-71). This incidentally sheds an interesting light, not only on Mr. Deasy's expressed anti-Semitism but on Stephen's "A.E.I.O.U." (U 9.213).

Ó Gráda is not an exegete. The title of his book notwithstanding, he seldom comments on Joyce's work, and his view of Joyce's literary treatment of Jews is straightforward: Joyce knew little or nothing about Irish Jews and imported a character deriving largely from his creator's experience of Triestine Jewry into a Dublin milieu. In terms of the general outline of Bloom's character and many of the literal details of his history, not least his provenance, this is undoubtedly the case. The familiar argument is right. As Ó Gráda says, it was clearly only in Trieste that Joyce got to know Jews personally (204-05). But in terms of the meaning Bloom had for Joyce, his symbolic status or historical, cultural, and political value, the relation between him and historical Dublin Jewry is surely by no means negligible. So much is clear from the evidence with which Ó Gráda so industriously supplies us, not least by everywhere comparing Dublin's Jews of the period with its Catholics.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Ó Gráda's tale is that it reveals Dublin's Jews to have provided a historical figure for middle-class prudence and modest middle-class ambition at a time when much of the Catholic middle class was depressed and in decline. From the start, Jews largely established themselves in lower-middle and middle-class neighborhoods. They were never tenement-dwellers, and Jewish laborers were a marginal presence on the scene. The Jews were typically "middle men" and believed in self-improvement and the value of education. Up to a point, they became assimilated: they increasingly "married out" and tended increasingly to forego strict observance of Jewish habits and norms. They also...

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