Vol. 9 No. 3 2011
How many Jewish families live in Lurgan today? The answer, according to Belfast’s Rabbi Menachem Brackman, is none. However, at one time Lurgan had a significant Jewish community. While there had been a small Jewish population in Ireland going back as far as the 13th century it was not until towards the latter end of the 19th century that numbers began to increase to any great extent.
According to the 1881 Census there were approximately 260 Jews in Ireland; ten years later in 1891 their number had increased to approximately 1,800. A steeper rise in numbers began shortly after that with the passing of anti-Semitic laws in Russia in May 1882, following the assassination of Tsar Alexander the Second in 1881. These laws imposed great and cruel restrictions on members of the Jewish faith.
Lurgan’s Jewish community was Ashkenazi, meaning that they came from Eastern Europe, rather than Sephardi who originated on the Iberian Peninsula.
Between 1882 and 1914 almost two million Jews fled such places as Latvia, Poland, Germany, Lithuania and Russia where harsh and cruel activities forced families to flee westward from their native homelands to try and find a better and more peaceful life elsewhere.
The journey westward was both dangerous and difficult when one considers the type of terrain and the distances these unfortunate people had to travel. Many of the first families to arrive were duped by unscrupulous criminals into believing that when they arrived in Britain or Ireland they were actually in America; they were simply defrauded and left to their own devices in a strange land.
In 1900 the total number of Jews living in Ireland was approximately 3,600. Of these 44 lived in County Armagh, of whom all but 4 lived in Lurgan; of these 40, half had been born in Russia, but by that date 16 children had also been born in Lurgan, the eldest being 14-year-old Lily Lazarus.
While the numbers may not seem great, Lurgan had in fact the eighth largest Jewish community in Ireland after Dublin, which had over 2,000 individuals living mainly in the Clanbrassil Street and South Circular Road areas of the city, sometimes known as “Little Jerusalem”. In later years, as families moved up the social ladder, a number moved to the suburbs of Rathgar, Rathmines and Terenure. Belfast had 670 individuals living mainly in the Carlisle Circus/Antrim Road areas of north Belfast. Cork had 430 and Limerick 150 with three other counties (Derry, Down, Louth) totalling 160 individuals between them.
As a result of a further pogrom in Russia in 1905 the total number of Jews living in Ireland in 1910 had risen by over one third to 4,940 and Lurgan had by then the fifth largest community with 71 individuals, with a further 5 living elsewhere in Co. Armagh. As in 1901 the other four main centres of population were still Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Limerick.
It was Joseph Herbert (original name Herzberg) from Latvia and his wife Fanny Rubin from Lithuania, who arrived in Lurgan in 1891 after their marriage in Dublin in 1889, who are thought to have been responsible for the establishment of the town’s Jewish community. Once Joseph had established himself it is probable that he encouraged other co-religionist countrymen to follow. Just as today when overseas communities first arrive, they tend to live in close proximity to each other for mutual support, so it was with Lurgan at the turn of the 19th century.
In 1900 all the members of the Lurgan Jewish community, apart from Nathan Lazarus and his wife Esther, their four children and their servant Leon Jackson, who lived in Silverwood, lived in the three adjoining streets: North St. (3 houses), Ulster St. (2 houses) and William St. (2 houses).
A few years after Joseph Herbert had established his household furnishing business he had a number of boarders staying with him; these boarders were employed as travellers and salesmen and were engaged by him in order to increase his trade. They sold door-to-door on a weekly instalment basis. Some more creative pedlars also moved into money lending.
By 1910, while the number of the community had almost doubled from 40 to 72, the residential situation had hardly changed. The Lazarus family had moved into town from Silverwood to 6 Wellington St. and one other family, the Isaacsons, had moved from Belfast to Albert Street, both streets very close to the streets where the other members of the established community already lived. Two single men, Abraham Gorfunkle and Isaac Matthews, lived in Edward St. and Union St. respectively as boarders.
Joseph Herbert appears to have been the most forward-looking member of his community: not only did he establish his own home furnishings business at 16 North Street, he also established a shul or school at number 18 for the Jewish children.
In 1900 none of the male members of the various families had a professional qualification; most were simply pedlars, travellers or drapers. The lack of a proper education was probably due to restrictions imposed on them in their homelands. While the census records show that many could read and write English there must be a certain doubt in this claim, considering the fact that many had only arrived in Ireland in the recent past and probably had only a rudimentary education. Joseph Herbert’s shul would of course have increased the ability of the new immigrants to learn. The shul eventually closed in the 1920s, probably due to a fall-off of numbers with families moving elsewhere.
Once firmly established the Jewish community in Ireland put an enormous emphasis on education, achieving superb academic successes in numbers well in excess of their percentage of the overall population. Many Jews surpassed the native Irish through education and rose to the very top of their professions in the law, medicine, dentistry, the arts and business and other forms of commerce.
Joseph Herbert died at 18 North St. Lurgan on 17th November 1925; his wife Fanny lived for another thirty years and died on 11th April 1954 at Mount Eden Park, Belfast. Both are buried in the specially-created Jewish section of Belfast City Cemetery.
Abraham Herbert was the last member of the Jewish community in Northern Ireland to be buried in that Jewish section of Belfast City Cemetery in 1964; what few burials there are now take place in Carnmoney Cemetery, Newtownabbey.
The shop at 16 North St. was taken over by Joseph’s youngest son Abraham, known locally as Abe. On Abe’s death on 10th June 1964 the business continued under the management of Joseph’s grandson Alan, and the family continued to trade well into the late 20th century until the shop changed hands some years ago.
Apart from the Herbert family, which seems to have been the most business-like and successful, the only other business to remain in Lurgan for any great length of time was that of Isaac Matthews. A neighbour had brought Isaac, who was born in Latvia, to Ireland in 1890 when he was a nineteen-year-old teenager. Isaac’s business premises were at 49 and 51 Union St. where together with his sons Samuel and Benjamin (Benny), also known as “Picky”, he ran a drapery and footwear business, which Benny took over from his father in 1936; the business continued to trade right up until the 1960s. Today both Samuel and Benjamin are still alive, well into their 80s and living in Belfast.
In 1910 as in 1900 most of the male members of the various families were still pedlars and credit drapers; the only members of the community to have a different “profession” were Harry Cohen, a photographer, and Joel Meggett, a Russian-born Jewish schoolteacher. Harry and Joel lodged at 48 North St with Arron and Jenny Herbert and their three grown-up children. Arron died on 9th April 1916 and Jenny on 13th May 1929; like most other members of Lurgan’s Jewish community they were buried in Belfast City Cemetery.
Whether or not Joel Meggett was a fully qualified schoolteacher is probably open to question; however he did teach in Joseph Herbert’s shul. Another teacher in the shul was Sarah Hammel, wife of Joseph Hammel. Joseph was born in Poland and lived in William St. before the family moved to Belfast where Joseph died on 17th November 1925.
Post partition, as Lurgan had the largest Jewish community outside Belfast, it often became the centre for Jewish festivals, with people travelling from the smaller Jewish communities in the surrounding counties to join in the religious services and secular festivities.
From 1903 the Jewish community had worshipped in Joseph and Sarah Hammel’s house in William Street before moving to 49 North Street, lived in by Annie Turdledorf. This place of worship was not a synagogue in the real sense of the word but was simply a house of prayer. It ceased to be used for prayer in the 1920s. Although not many Jews today practise their faith on a daily basis, those who lived in Lurgan would have been very orthodox in their religious observances.
Even though a nucleus of the Jewish community had been established, it would appear from the evidence available in the early 20th century and even right up to today that it was always somewhat transient, a fact confirmed by Rabbi Brackman. People who appeared on the 1901 County Armagh Census do not appear on the 1911 Census and vice-versa.
From a population of 40 individuals living in Lurgan in 1901, 20 do not re-appear on the Lurgan census of 1911; however in those ten years at least 18 children were born in Lurgan and a further 33 new individuals came to the town from other places, making a total Jewish population of 71.
There is also evidence that people living within the community moved house on a regular basis. For example, when Arron Herbert, who has been referred to earlier, died aged 63 on 9th April 1916, his address was given as 3 Wellington Street; five years earlier he had been living at 48 North Street.
Again in 1901, the Robinson family lived in North Street, and re-appear there at number 45 ten years later; in the interim when their daughter Ethel died aged 9 years on 2nd February 1908 their address was given as 14 Wellington Street.
The Jewish population on the island of Ireland reached a peak of just over 5,500 between the late 1940s and early 1950s, but it has been steadily declining since then. At present there are approximately 80 practising Jews still in Belfast with about another 400 who have declared themselves as Jewish on the latest census return. A similar situation exists in Dublin where the number practising is approximately 150 with a further 1,650 declaring themselves to be Jewish. Many of the members are either middle-aged or old and it seems certain that the decline in numbers will continue. Dublin and Belfast are now the only centres for the community, and each city still has a synagogue.
The rapid decrease in numbers was due mainly to emigration and to a lesser extent inter-marriage; however with the arrival of the now infamous Celtic Tiger numbers began to increase slightly as people once more came from Eastern Europe in search of a better life. Other highly-qualified people also came from such places as South Africa and America and even Israel to take up well-paid professional jobs, but numbers arriving were small and had little real effect on a fast-declining population.
It would appear that the Jewish community kept itself fairly well to itself apart from engaging in trade with the townsfolk. However there was at least one exception, when Robert Levein (also Levin), one of three young Russian boarders staying at 79 Ulster Street, married Lizzie Rodgers, his landlady’s daughter, in 1905. While there is no record of the marriage in St. Peter’s Church, Lurgan, Census returns indicate that Robert had by 1911 become a Catholic; this would have been most unusual for that time.
The Jewish population in Ireland did at times suffer some religious intolerance, particularly in Limerick in 1904. They were also excluded from some sporting organisations and had on occasions to resort to forming their own clubs; however they were also shown great kindness and generosity by others including State, Church and Civic Authorities. This open-mindedness was reciprocated on many occasions by charitable acts when donations were made by the Jewish community to non-Jewish organisations and charities.
The North of Ireland, and Lurgan in particular, was free of any anti-Semitic attitudes; in fact Joseph Herbert was so well thought of that he was a Poor Law Guardian for many years and topped the poll in the local council elections of 1913.
The Irish Jewish community has produced many notable individuals in trade, commerce, the professions and politics. Sir Otto Jaffe was twice elected Unionist Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1899 and 1904. Robert Briscoe was twice elected Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1956 and 1961. Robert had been active during the Irish War of Independence and later became a Fianna Fail T.D., holding his seat from 1927 until 1967; his son Ben, also a T.D., was also Dublin Lord Mayor in 1988. Gerald Goldberg, a renowned solicitor and historian, whose family had been forced to leave Limerick in 1904, was elected Lord Mayor of Cork in 1977. Chaim Herzog, who became President of Israel from 1983 to 1993, was born in Clifton Park Avenue, Belfast in 1918, to Yitzhak and Sarah Herzog; his Polish-born father was Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1926 until 1936, and the family emigrated to what was then Palestine in 1937.
It is thought that only one Irish-born Jew died in the Holocaust; however it can be presumed that many of the Lurgan Jewish community lost friends and perhaps even relatives in the Holocaust. At the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942 S.S. Leader Reinhard Hedrich had drawn up plans to exterminate at least 4,000 of Ireland’s Jews should the opportunity have arisen; fortunately it did not.
One of those who stood against the Nazi regime was Leopold Herbert, a son of Abraham and Edith Herbert who had lived at 53 North Street. Leopold was born in Lurgan but by the outbreak of the Second World War the family had moved to Clifton Park Avenue, Belfast, where his mother died on 26th September 1937 although his father lived until 14th January 1959; again both were buried in Belfast City Cemetery.
A Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Leopold was 31 years old when he was killed in action on Sicily on 27th July 1943. Leopold had qualified as a doctor at Queen’s University and was Secretary of the Belfast Board of Hebrew Guardians. He was awarded a posthumous Military Cross for his actions in Sicily; regrettably, like so many others who were killed, he has no known grave, however his name is listed among the dead on Lurgan’s War Memorial.
The years up to the early 1920s were the high-water mark for the Jewish community in Lurgan; after that numbers decreased rapidly and the community simply faded away to other centres, mainly Belfast, Dublin, Manchester and London. From these cities families moved still further afield to places such as America, Canada, Australia, South Africa and of course Israel; and so it was that an interesting era in Lurgan’s social and religious history came to an end.
This is neither the full or complete history of the Jewish Community in Lurgan. It is simply a snap-shot in time of their contribution to the town in the early years of the 20th century.
If anyone has photographs, stories or memories of the Jewish Community in Lurgan I would be delighted to see or hear them. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org