Cork’s Jewish Community–Small in Size, Grand in Spirit

By Marlena Thompson


When I arrived at the central bus station in Cork, Ireland, last summer, I climbed into the first of a line of waiting cabs, and gave the driver my destination. Hearing my American accent, the driver inquired, “Is this your first time in Ireland, then?” I replied I was no stranger to the Emerald Isle, and had in fact visited Ireland three times during the past year. “But,” I added, “this is my first time in Cork.”

“Ah,” he replied, looking at me in the rear view mirror so I could catch the glimmer in his eye, “So this is your first time in Ireland.”

I smiled, ascribing the remark to a particular brand of Irish humor of which I will never tire–and perhaps also to a wee bit of regional chauvinism. But after wandering around the city and noting not only its loveliness but also the exceptional friendliness of its people, I was inclined to admit that Cork, the second largest city in the Republic after Dublin, was different from any place in Ireland I’d yet visited.

Cork is sometimes called the “Venice of Ireland,” which becomes understandable when one notes the various branches of the River Lee that flow into Cork Harbor, and the footbridges that bedeck the city. With its eighteenth century churches, commemorative monuments, Opera House, and assortment of galleries, bookshops, and bistros, Cork offers visitors a glimpse of its past, as well as an array of cultural and casual forms of entertainment.

But, although I would later delight in some of Cork’s many attractions, including fine folk pubs featuring excellent brews and traditional Irish music, I had come to this pleasing city with a specific purpose. While exploring the Jewish community in Dublin, I’d inquired about the Jews living in Cork, and was told the community was defunct. But after learning the synagogue in Cork was still holding services, I knew Cork’s Jewish community must have some life to it yet. I decided to come to Cork and find out for myself.

Fred Rosehill, the chairman of Trustees of Cork Hebrew Congregation, and the informal spokesperson for the Jewish community, past and present, very generously took time from his busy schedule to serve as my guide. After collecting me at my hotel, we drove to the Jewish cemetery. Along the way, Fred filled me in on some of the history of Cork’s Jewish community, as well as a bit of his own background. Though he was born in Cork, his father’s family came to Ireland from Lithuania. Most of Ireland’s present Jewish community dates from the late 19th century, when Jews from Lithuania fleeing pogroms arrived in Dublin, Belfast, Limerick and Cork. The community in Cork, always smaller than the ones in Dublin and Belfast, swelled to almost 500 souls in the early decades of the last century. But the population has since dwindled. Now, in a population of approximately 135,000, there are about twenty to thirty Jews, most of them intermarried, like myself.

Although the community is so small it must “import” a group of Lubavitch “boys” (as Fred calls them) from London to conduct Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, it held a large communal Passover seder (ritual meal) this past year. Among the sixty-three attendees were American Jews, many of them intermarried, working for nearby Motorola, and others who found themselves in Ireland during Passover with no place to go. In Cork, all were made welcome.

When we arrived at the Jewish cemetery situated on a hillside above the city, a faulty lock prevented us from entering. As I peeked through the gates, trying to catch a glimpse of the graves, Fred said: “It’s only about a quarter filled. Maybe less.” When I asked why, he smiled and replied, “It was intended for a much larger community.” The cemetery is, however, still in use.

Our next stop was the home of Dr. Gerald Goldberg, another member of one of the Jewish community’s founding families. I admit I was thrilled at the prospect of meeting him, not only because he had once been the Lord Mayor of Cork, but because I knew of his reputation as a patron of the Irish arts.

After describing how his father Louis had come to Ireland from Lithuania and had settled in Cork after having been injured in what is usually referred to as the Limerick pogrom (although no one was killed) that took place in 1904, Dr. Goldberg showed me his spectacular library. As a former antiquarian bookseller, I appreciated the inclusiveness of such a collection. Dr. Goldberg said he would bequeath his collection of Judaica to Cork University College–subject to the College’s inauguration of a Jewish faculty.

As Fred and I were departing, Dr. Goldberg informed us he was about to attend a lecture on James Joyce, creator of Ireland’s most famous Jew–Leopold Bloom–the hero of Joyce’s Ulysses. (Of course, Bloom would have been denied Jewish status by traditional Jews, since he was “born to a Christian mother and twice baptized.”) Interestingly, James Joyce’s father, John Stanislaus Joyce, was a native of Cork, and his home was situated near the Goldberg family home in the area where most Jews resided, called “Jewtown.”

Our next stop was a lovely green, called Shalom Park, which opened in 1989 and is situated in the Jewtown area. Fred explained how the park received its highly unusual name: “An influential businessman whose father grew up in Jewtown persuaded the city fathers to name the park Shalom‚ to honor his father’s personal relationship with the Jews in the area.”

We finally arrived at Cork Hebrew Congregation, which has been at 10 South Terrace for the past 110 years. It is a simple synagogue, externally and within. It boasts neither ornate chandeliers nor fancy stained glass windows. And yet, for all its lack of embellishment, Cork Hebrew Congregation has managed to touch the lives of many, including people living thousands of miles away. Fred relayed the story of a businessman from Canada who requested that his granddaughter be allowed to hold her Bat Mitzvah ceremony in Cork. The Canadian told Fred that his son-in-law was Irish Catholic but felt strong ties to Judaism. The businessman thought a ceremony in a synagogue in Cork would have special significance for the family. Although Cork Hebrew Congregation is technically Orthodox, Fred allowed the Canadian businessman and his family to make use of the synagogue and helped to make all the necessary arrangements. The family never forgot the kindness and hospitality, and returned to Cork many times.

As we left the synagogue, Fred pointed to a nearby footbridge, and explained that although its official name is the Trinity Bridge, everyone refers to it as the “Passover” Bridge because of its proximity to the synagogue. Fittingly, Gerald Goldberg opened the bridge in 1977, during his tenure as Lord Mayor.

I had come to Cork’s Jewish community to discover whether it was dead or alive. The answer I found is complex. In numbers, the community might well require life support. But in essence, it manages to exude a brand of energy far beyond its diminished numbers–which is why it attracts strangers from all over the world.

I am one former stranger who was utterly captivated by the charm of the place and who hopes very much to return.


About Marlena Thompson

Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost 25 years before her husband died in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at