Russian and Eastern European history is littered with tragic accounts of pogroms -- episodes of murderous destruction and violence perpetrated against Jewish men, women and children that were usually encouraged, even organized, by local authorities.
In the 19th century of Tsarist Russia, such outbreaks sprouted periodically, resulting in thousands of destroyed homes and properties, ostensibly to force Jews into converting to Orthodox Christianity. Pogrom and riots erupted in Odessa in 1821 and 1859, followed by a wave of at least 200 planned attacks in the early 1880s across the western regions of the Russian Empire, prompting the mass emigration of Jews, principally to the U.S. and Britain.
Blamed for the murder of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, Jews subsequently endured a massive bloodletting incited not only by anti-Semitism and fears of perceived Jewish political radicalism, but sometimes by more mercenary considerations – i.e., seeking to avoid debts to Jewish businessmen and moneylenders.
The new tsar, Alexander III, issued tougher laws against the Jews in the following years, while pogroms continued unabated, reaching a fever pitch between 1903 and 1906 -- in one attack alone in Odessa, between 2,000 and 2,500 Jews were killed.
In many of these atrocities, Tsarist secret police and military officers were directly responsible. Another round of pogroms coincident with the end of World War I and the chaos of the Russian Revolution sparked another wave of killings of Jews in the crumbling empire.
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However, overshadowed by the bloody anti-Jewish carnage in Russia and Ukraine, another lesser-known “pogrom” of sorts erupted in 1904 in a country 1,700 miles west of Moscow with very little Jewish presence – Ireland.
In the city of Limerick, on the River Shannon in the west of Ireland, an organized boycott against the small Jewish population prompted an exodus.
With virtually no Jews in Limerick in the mid-19th century, a small community of mostly Lithuanian Jews emerged by 1900, centering on the retail trade – numbering some 150 by that point, these Jews even constructed a synagogue and their own cemetery.
According to a report in the Irish Echo, in the whole of Ireland at the time there were only about 3,000 Jews, compared with 150,000 in England and more than 1 million in the U.S.
But in early 1904, a local Catholic priest named Father John Creagh of the Redemptorist order (whose views were not sanctioned by the Catholic Church) delivered a virulent sermon condemning the city’s Jews for their rejection of Jesus Christ and apparent dishonest business practices -- urging his flock to boycott their businesses.
Creagh also linked the Jews with the ancient crime of “blood libel.”
“Nowadays they dare not kidnap and slay Christian children, but they will not hesitate to expose them to a longer and even more cruel martyrdom, by taking their clothes off their backs and the bite out of their mouths,” he thundered.
“They came to our land to fasten themselves like leeches and to draw our blood when they have been forced away from other countries.”
From the pulpit, Creagh further declared: “The Jews came to Limerick apparently the most miserable tribe imaginable, with want on their faces, and now they have enriched themselves and can boast a very considerable house property in the city. Their rags have been exchanged for silk. … How do the Jews manage to make their money? Some of you may know their methods better than I do, but it is still my duty to expose these methods. They go about as peddlers from door to door, pretending to offer articles at very cheap prices, but in reality charging several times more than in the shops. … They forced themselves and their goods upon the people and the people are blind to their tricks.”
Creagh’s appeal to the economic misery suffered by the people of Limerick struck a chord. Given their relative affluence, the Jews were gravely resented by their Limerick neighbors, most of whom lived in wretched poverty.
Creagh’s fiery rhetoric incited violence against Jewish homes and property, forcing dozens to flee.
Newspapers like the Limerick Leader and the Irish Independent supported the boycott, as did Arthur Griffith, the future founder of the nationalist Republican Sinn Fein party.
An editorial in the Leader said: “Ireland is, at present, being drained of its Gaelic population by emigration and Jewish colonists are trooping in to fill up the places of emigrants, and to turn Ireland into a filthy Ghetto.”
The deeply anti-Semitic Griffith had long assailed the Jews as one of the “greatest evils” of modern times.
The economic boycott lasted for two years – although no Jews were killed in Limerick, their livelihoods were destroyed, leading most or all to depart for other parts of Ireland, especially Cork, or to Britain and the U.S.
The Jews were largely welcomed in Cork (indeed, one of their descendants, Gerald Goldberg, even became the city’s mayor in the 1970s).
As for Father Creagh, he was condemned by his superiors in the church and ultimately moved to Australia, eventually dying in New Zealand in 1947.
Kevin Haddick Flynn wrote on HistoryIreland.com that Creagh earned the wrath of two prominent Irishmen in 1904 for his scurrilous attacks on the Jews: Michael Davitt, the famous labor leader, and John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party.
“I protest as an Irishman and as a Catholic against the barbarous malignancy of anti-Semitism which is being introduced into Ireland under the pretended regard for the welfare of the Irish people,” Davitt said.
The Jews, always small in number, have generally led peaceful lives in Ireland ever since the ugly 1904 episode.
Some have questioned if the Limerick affair even amounted to something as serious as a “pogrom.”
In November 2010, Boaz Modai, the Israeli ambassador to Ireland, told reporters at a Jewish cemetery in Castleroy (near Limerick): "I think it is a bit over-portrayed, meaning that, usually if you look up the word pogrom it is used in relation to slaughter and being killed. This is what happened in many other places in Europe, but this is not what happened here. There was a kind of a boycott against Jewish merchandise for a while, but that's not a pogrom. That's something that is, unfortunately, a bad mark for the history of this city, but I don't think it is something anyone should pay more attention to than it deserves."
Indeed, a longtime Limerick native of Jewish descent, Stuart Clein, agreed with Modai.
Clein told the Limerick Leader (the same paper that once endorsed Creagh’s boycott): "I spent months researching it and there was not an injury other than a young lad threw a stone at a rabbi. That was it. There was nobody hurt. There was a boycott of the Jewish dealers. This is how Father Creagh came into it.”
However, as late as 1970, the mayor of Limerick still defended the boycott. In a speech, Stephen Coughlan declared: “I remember the problem of the Jews in Limerick. Father Creagh in his courageous way declared war on the Jews. ... The Jews at that time, who are gone now, were extortionists; he had the backing of everybody in the City of Limerick. … He had set the match to light the fire against the Jewish extortionists."