Emigrant Elegy

A Conversation with the poet Gerry Mc Donnell

Margarita Meklina

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Margarita Meklina: You are one of the very few writers who are touched by the plight of Irish Jewry. Your characters, from the “Mud Island Elegy,” a collection of elegiac poems, speak to readers from their graves. Nobody else except you went to the cemetery which is in Ballybough in Dublin, a poor area reclaimed from the sea, to‘listen’ to them and write down their stories in poetic monologues. How does it feel to be a Gentile trespassing into their world?

Gerry Mc Donnell:  I ‘trespassed’, as a child and as an adult. As children we used to dare one another to scale the wall and walk among the headstones until the caretaker would chase us out. The names on the headstones were worn but were still legible. I used to write down the names and dates on the old headstones in a little notebook. I was fascinated by the foreign names: Rosenthal; Benmohel; Isaacs. The numbers, 5618 cut in stone over the caretaker’s door, puzzled us. It became etched in my mind. There are usually a few things which are memorable from childhood. This date was one of them for me.

I visited the cemetery as an adult. The caretaker and his wife were both Christians. The caretaker liked the silence. His wife wouldn’t set foot among the headstones so he had to tend to the graves himself, weeding and trying to keep the headstones legible and upright; an onerous task. I visited them on a number of occasions and learned that the date was from the Jewish calendar. I imagine it was a strange occupation for a Christian, to tend to an old Jewish cemetery. I got the feeling that they were mocked in the Gentile community. Some headstones were missing, stolen by the local Christians and used as hearthstones in adjacent houses.

MM: Your literary output – as well as your poetry books – sometimes include historical references and research, which reminds me of a late German writer W.G.Sebald (personally, I think not only Sebald's "Austerlitz" but also his death was poetic; he died of a heart attack while driving, crashing his car, with his adult daughter by his side). As one literary critic said, in Sebald’s prose, words and images, fact and fiction comprise “new literary genre that is well suited to the representation of historical violence.” What do you feel about the poetic treatment of historical facts in your writing? How does fact and fiction of the Irish Jewry life co-exist in your imagination?

GMcD: In my writing about Irish Jews, fact and fiction commingle. Apart from anti-Semitic remarks like ‘the auld Jew man’ I knew nothing of Irish Jewry. I grew up in Ballybough, which was once the Soho of Dublin. It was the area where the new immigrants were housed outside the city boundaries. That date over the caretaker’s door stayed with me and set me on a course to find out more about the Jews of Dublin. For my research, as a university student, I found entries in the Jewish Registry of Deaths such as - a young woman who “Died of Insanity”. A little boy, “Burnt to death by neglect of servant”. I found my notebook too which was musty at this stage. Having asthma I couldn’t hold it close to my face to read it. My wife read it to me, my decades-old entries.

These were the facts of how the Jews died which shed light on how they lived. I was inspired by the book Spoon River Anthology by the American poet Edgar Lee Masters and the radio play Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. This genre brought me closer to the Jews, letting them speak. The late Gerald Davis, himself an Irish Jew and an artist, who used to play the role of Leopold Bloom on Bloomsday, has written in the foreword to my book that I have done what only a poet can do, I have brought the dead alive. If that’s the case, it has been a privilege!

MM: Referring to the previous question which alludes to “historical violence.” As we know, Sebald wrote about the Holocaust and there was a lot of violence against Jews in numerous countries including Ukraine, Russia, Moldova and others. What did Jews find in Ireland? Was there any violence against them? Were they able to pursue their traditional, musical heritage while also happy to enjoy Irish music and song?

GMcD There were no pogroms against the Jews in Ireland. However, there was a boycott in Limerick which was instigated by a priest and lasted two years seriously undermining Jewish business there. They were denounced from the pulpit. Fr. Creagh preached that they would kidnap and slay Christian children in order to use their blood as part their religious rituals during Jewish holidays. The Church hierarchy removed the racist priest probably to another parish and there wasn’t another similar incident. Joyce said that there was no hostility towards the Jews but there was contempt, contempt people always show for the unknown. Mr Deasy, in Ulysses, delights in saying that there wasn’t any violence towards the Jews in Ireland because we never let them in in the first place. He walks away tittering at his anti-Semitic joke.

However, this is not true. In the late 1800’s there was a thriving community of Jews in Dublin. The Jews were hard working and bettered themselves. They gradually had their successes; in the fields of politics, medicine and business. Some were musicians and brought the music of their countries with them. There’s not much talk about drunkenness. There was the ridiculed Moishe Herzog needing to slip out for a drink from synagogue during High Festival services. He is one of the many real life Jews that feature in Ulysses.

Joyce, while talking to Frank Budgen, said that they were better husbands than we are, better fathers and better sons. Joyce met Frank Budgen, the English painter and writer who had gone to Paris to study painting. He and Joyce had many intense conversations on the subject of aesthetics. He was a guest of honour at the first James Joyce Symposium in Dublin in 1967.

MM:There is a scholarly article about Sebald’s novel “Emigrants” where emigrants are called “the best witnesses.” The highly acclaimed novel deals with four German emigrants who emigrated to different countries including USA and England.

Wikipedia says, “The Emigrants is largely concerned with memory, trauma, and feelings of foreignness. For example, Dr. Selwyn dwells on the story of a man he met in Switzerland in the time immediately prior to World War I, and explains how he felt a deeper companionship with this man than he ever did his wife. He also divulges how his family emigrated from Lithuania as a young boy, and tries to get the narrator to reveal how he feels being an emigrant from Germany living in England. In acknowledgement of this motif, Lisa Cohen of the Boston Review points out that The Emigrants' section-title characters "suffer from memory and from the compulsion to obliterate it; from a mourning and melancholia so deep that it is almost unnameable; from the knowledge that he has survived while those he loved have not; from problems distinguishing dream and reality; from a profound sense of displacement."

What do you think about this statement,“emigrant as a witness”? Similarly to Irish Jews experiencing feelings of foreignness after coming to Ireland from Lithuania and other countries, do you feel foreignness when developing poetic themes on such foreign topic in Irish literature as Jewish diaspora?

GMcD: I often wonder why I feel compelled to write about the Jewish community in Ireland. I am not sure why. Maybe it is the foreignness that attracts me. I have always felt like an outsider in my own community. The observer rather than the partaker! It is a lonely place at the crossroads, not sure what road to take. As an outsider I identify with those who fail or choose not to integrate.

The emigrant can be the best witness. He has no fixed idea of how he will live and work. Life is lived with a great intensity. Without certainty! Imagine the ghetto in Chancery Lane in Dublin where they were housed with Italian organ grinders and  makers of statues of saints for the Catholic Church. They must have felt a crushing homesickness!  But they strived. They were eager witnesses by their occupations as pedlars eager to find a way out of the ghetto. They must have witnessed the extreme poverty of the tenements in Dublin, the worst slums in Europe at that time. 

MM:I like this quote, “suffer from a mourning and melancholia so deep that it is almost unnameable.” Does studying about Irish Jews bring this melancholia in you, or is it because of this inner melancholia that you got interested in Irish Jewry? I remember you telling me about living near the old Jewish cemetery when you were a boy. In your “Mud Island Elegy”, Jews tell their stories from their graves. Some of them came to Ireland only to meet their death, starving and malnourished on ships, finding disaster instead of love, embracing the cold and rejection instead of finding loved ones and happiness Why did it move you? I see that you didn’t put a dark humour spin on your poems in “Mud Island Elegy,” even though you often do it in your flash fiction pieces about your alter-ego Martin…

GMcD: I think it was a meeting of melancholics. I lean towards the romantic poets like the Irish poet James Clarence Mangan and Wordsworth and Coleridge who looked to nature and the majestic landscape to express a longing in a world of ivy clad ruins. I am always attracted to the outsider. The 19th century Irish Jews were outsiders and, as Joyce said, only a Jew would do in his novel Ulysses. The Jews at the turn of the 19th century were outsiders and were shown contempt, not outright hostility, with the exception of the pogrom in Limerick. They were met with contempt and rumour which people always show for the unknown. The following street rhymes which the Jew and Christian children used to taunt each other demonstrate this in caricature:

Two shillies, two shillies, the Jew did cry,/ for a fine pair of blankets from me you did buy;/  do you think me von idjit/ or von bloomin’ fool,/ If I don’t get my shillie I must have my vool.

Two pennies, two pennies, the Christian did shout, / For a bottle of porter or Guinness’s stout;/ My wife’s got no shawl and my kids have no shoes,/ But I must have my money, I must have my booze.

Returning to the Jewish cemetery in Ballybough in Dublin, it is fair to say that early immigrant Jews are buried there; those who lived with the homesickness, the contempt. There are well over a hundred graves there. Many became pedlars of silks and tablecloths. They hawked their wares around the back streets of Dublin. They were known as ‘weekly’ or ‘shilling a week’ men. Poor people bought their goods on the basis of a shilling a week. It is said that they were more honest and kinder than the ‘Christian’ money lenders. The Jewish community prospered and moved on from Ballybough to the south side of the city, leaving the cemetery behind them. It was opened once more in the 20th century at the request of a Jew wanting to be buried there beside ancestors.

It is a small sacred place; a cemetery which holds the remains of old Jewish immigrants, with affection. You are right in saying that I didn’t put a dark humour spin on the poems. I didn’t want to indulge in unfair criticism - a past- time of the embittered. It’s only a bit of slagging they say. But it is designed to drag a person down, drag a whole race down, to their level.

MM:You wrote a monographic research about Jewish influences in “Ulysses.” In the process of researching the topic, did you find out something about Jews and Joyce that nobody else discovered yet?

GMcD: I would say that every nook and cranny relating to Ulysses has been investigated by Joycean scholars. It would seem unlikely that I would come up with anything new. I went back over the research I undertook in writing my book Mud Island Elegy, in which Jews buried in the cemetery at Ballybough ‘speak’ from beyond the grave. I remember noting my surprise at not finding any Blooms in the Registry of Deaths.

The Jewish immigrants first settled in the area of Phillipsbough Avenue and Annadale Avenue on either side of the Ballybough cemetery. It is surprising that Joyce doesn’t refer to the cemetery which he must have passed by on a daily basis when the family was living in that area at that time. Being a thorough researcher, one can imagine him knocking on the door of the caretaker’s house wishing to see at first hand the still legible inscriptions on the headstones at that time. Over a hundred years later I knocked on the same door with a journalist and photographer. I had been given permission by the caretaker to view this hallowed place and write an article on it. This new caretaker was a country man living there with his wife who was out shopping at the time. I read the weather worn inscriptions again. Some of the headstones were falling over and sideways and some were missing.

Joyce would no doubt have noted the missing headstones and maybe he had the thought that a Bloom or Blum might have been buried there. The absence of headstones with Bloom's name would have been a further indication that Blooms were outside the Jewish community, perhaps physically removed by locals who stole the tombstones. So, the fact that there are no Blooms in the Ballybough cemetery is at least a point of interest.

MM: Besides “Mud Island Elegy,” you wrote “Song of Solomon,” a play about a soldier coming back from the war in Israel and looking for his lost love. You keep returning to the Irish Jews topic very obsessively. Apparently, you feel that you didn’t say enough yet about the topic and the topic continues to fascinate you. When do you think your treatment of the Irish Jewry will be complete? When will you say to yourself, “I believe I said all I already could about Irish Jews.” When do you think this will happen?

GMcD: I don’t think there is a definitive answer to that question. The creative process is ongoing at a subconscious level. You mention my play Song of Solomon as an example of my enduring interest in Irish Jewry. One Jew and two Gentiles find reconciliation and redemption at a bench on a canal bank. My selection of poetry and prose, I Heard an Irish Jew, published in 2015 by Lapwing Publications illustrates my enduring fascination with Irish Jewry. Inspiration comes from strange places or strange people. In my case it came from the Jewish date over a caretaker’s house at an old Jewish cemetery. Just now I remember a radio play I wrote called More Than Strangers about a Jew and Gentile on the canal bank which was broadcast on RTE Radio in the nineties. I developed this play into the already mentioned stage play Song of Solomon.

Gerald Davis advised me to be done with the Irish Jewish story now. I don’t know why he said that but other work needed to be done. I wrote two monographs, one called Lost and Found, about a homeless Jew living in the Phoenix Park in Dublin and the other called Jewish influences in Ulysses.

I feel that a performance of my stage play Song of Solomon would be very satisfying and would mark a departure from the Irish Jewish community as a source of inspiration.

MM: You wrote a monologue of a homeless man. This is another topic that apparently attracts you – talking about disenfranchised people, unbalanced people, people who do not fit. Do you think you got interested in Irish Jews because they “didn’t fit” either?

GMcD: Yes, looking at my work I can see patterns. In Lost and Found, Mono, on the 15th of Tishri, has no tent to serve as tabernacle. He finds shelter in a tent with a homeless man called Michael. The man has a little pile of books including a Bible. They drink tea and talk about religion, repentance, forgiveness. In my monologue called Homeless, a man is living beside a bench in a public park. Again there is a tent and ultimately an attempt to fit back into the city below. In my play Song of Solomon there is again a homeless man and a Jew. They are both retired soldiers wounded by war. Joe suffers from post- traumatic stress disorder. Sam, living in Israel, is heart-broken and tries to find his first love in Dublin, thinking he could find love again.

Writing now, I realise that ghosts feature in all of my plays. In Song of Solomon the two men wait for the ghost of their love to appear. In Making it Home, a father and son play, the son is visited by the ghost of his father the day after the funeral. In Whose Veins Ran Lightning, a play about the Irish poet James Clarence Mangan, his muse takes the part of a ghost.

All of the characters in my plays are outsiders and are damaged in one way or another. While I was writing Mud Island Elegy I was aware that I was an interloper in the Jewish world. I am an outsider writing about outsiders.