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When Irish Eyes Smiled on the Country’s ‘Secret Jews’
“The Spanish Inquisition sought to punish Jews who had converted to Christianity but were not really ‘sincere’ in their conversions. The Christians began to call converted Jews ‘New Christians’ to distinguish them from the ‘Old Christians’ i.e. themselves. Derogatorily, Jewish converts to Christianity were called conversos meaning ‘converts’, or worse yet, marranos, meaning ‘pigs’.
“Until this day, there exist Christian communities with clear Jewish roots dating back to this time. There are people in the United States as well as in South and Central America, who are descended from Spanish or Portuguese settlers, and who have strange customs they cannot explain. For example, even though they are Catholics, on Friday night they go down to the cellar to light candles. They don’t know the origins of the custom, but they do it. These people are clearly descended from Jews who pretended to be Christians and yet were practicing Jewish rituals in secret.”
Rabbi Ken Spiro, senior lecturer and researcher for Aish HaTorah, Jerusalem
Communities and families of secret Jews have lived throughout the world, in North and South America, in Asia, in Africa and in Europe—even in remote parts of Spain and Portugal. Their descendents—some aware of their Jewish ancestry, others not—can be found in virtually every corner of the earth including, it seems, the Emerald Isle. That was the surprising revelation that emerged recently at an international conference, “The Secret Jews of Ireland”, held at Netanya Academic College. The conference, jointly sponsored by the International Institute for Secret Jews (Anusim) Studies and Casa Shalom Institute for Marrano-Anusim Studies, enthralled a large audience with a state-of-the-art overview of this fascinating but little known subject.
The hazy story of Ireland’s crypto-Jews becomes somewhat clearer when understood within the larger context of Jewish history. Although never comprising a large community, Jews have been finding their way to Ireland and settling there for a very long time. The first historical record of Jews on the island dates from the year 1079 when, according to the Annals of Inisfallen, five Jews “came from over the sea” with gifts for Tairdelbach, King of Munster and grandson of Brian Boru, the previous High King of Ireland. Historians believe that these visitors were likely to have been merchants from Normandy. Whoever they were and from wherever they may have come, these Jews apparently did not sojourn in Ireland for very long. TheAnnals record that after coming from over the sea and presenting their gifts to the king, “they were sent back again over the sea”. Nearly 100 years later, English accounts mention a certain “Josce Jew of Gloucester” as having financed an expedition from England to Ireland in defiance of a prohibition by King Henry II who forbade the expedition and later fined “Josce” 100 shillings for bankrolling it.
A genuine community appears to have been up and running by 1232 when King Henry III granted Peter de Rivall the office of Treasurer and Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer, supervisor of the king’s coasts and ports, as well as custodian of the “King’s Jews” in Ireland. The grant stipulated that henceforth all Jews in Ireland would be responsible to de Rivall as their “keeper in all things touching the king”. While no direct evidence is known to exist, historians believe that when the Jews were expelled from England in 1290, they probably had to leave Ireland as well.
Jewish people were back in numbers, however, at the end of the 15th century, after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, and then from Portugal in 1496. They landed, by and large, on Ireland’s southern coast. As the Inquisition arose to root out and punish Jewish converts to Christianity deemed insincere in their new faith, the story of Ireland’s secret Jews began.
According to Gloria Mound, director of Casa Shalom and principal speaker at the conference, Ireland seems to have offered a relatively convenient refuge for persecuted Marranos fleeing the Inquisition. “As one looks at the geographical location of the country and takes into account the Jewish persecutions in Spain and Portugal, it can easily be seen that there must have been times when the Irish shores held easier escape possibilities than elsewhere. We know by the family names that the first Irish synagogues were formed by Sephardim. Other secret Jews arrived later," Mound says, "disguised as Huguenots—French Protestants—another persecuted minority fleeing from Catholic France." She notes the graves of two members of the Labato family, known Jews and purveyors to the army of King William of Orange, in the small recently restored Huguenot cemetery in Cork.
In addition, Mound says, “It’s almost certain that when the Spanish Armada foundered on the west coast of Ireland in 1588, there were Marranos amongst the crews who managed to save themselves, and they sent for their families. And possibly it is from that time that you get Jewish-sounding names like Donlevy, Castle, Castillio, Medina, Saunders and Levi. Amazingly, there always seems to have been somebody who kept the family histories.”
While England, Ireland’s ruler, periodically mistreated Jews—subjecting them to a bloody pogrom in 1190, expelling them in 1290, readmitting them later, but imposing numerous restrictions—Ireland remained tolerant and permitted its Jews to live and worship more or less openly as Jews. Not surprisingly, many secret Jews rejoined their co-religionists and became part of the local Jewish communities.
Others, however, did not. Says Mound, “It would seem that in the ensuing centuries, secret Jews often lived outwardly a Christian life, but in a number of places they went to rather isolated places and lived as clans, making little or no attempt to be part of the synagogue or a community.”
This desire to remain separate is reflected in a story related to Mound in a letter from the descendent of one such family whose records in Ireland go back to the year 1520. “When the clan came to Ireland, they would not let the Jews stay in cities overnight, so the clan became mobile, living in horse-drawn caravans, going from town to town, selling livestock, mostly horses. Later, the ban against Jews in cities was lifted, but by then the clan said, ‘No thanks.’ There was some intermarriage from outside after conversion, but generally the clan was very strict, and very clannish.” The family followed Sephardic customs, had little or no contact with the later-arriving Ashkenazi Jews, and mostly emigrated from Ireland during and after the potato famine of the 1840s.
Some families of secret Jews have remained secret to the present day, often only vaguely aware of, or even denying outright, their Jewish heritage and ancestry. Mound cites the history of one such family, furnished by an informant from the U.S. state of Colorado, who asks that his present surname remain secret. The family emigrated from Ireland to the United States through Ellis Island, settled, developed businesses and became prosperous. They also brought with them certain odd family traditions that later intrigued one member of the family enough to want to uncover the reason why no one was allowed to delve into the family’s past.
To all outward appearances they were Protestant Irish, though they never went to church except for funerals and weddings. They were not considered religious Christians, but Christians nevertheless. Yet their idiosyncratic traditions included elaborate family meals on Friday nights, with the lighting of candles and a prayer. They ate no pork or shellfish, avoided mixing meat and milk, and circumcised all male children.
Driven by curiosity, the family member decided to start by investigating the claim that the family was from among Ireland’s so-called “black Irish”. That was how the family explained their black hair color and the often appearing “hooked” nose. He was immediately told by his relatives that it was the family’s tradition not to discuss their life in Ireland or their ancestry. He was advised that it was important to focus on the present and not the past.
Unsatisfied, he traced the surnames in the family and discovered that his ancestors had come from Portugal and arrived in Ireland’s south coast in 1496. They had changed their Spanish surname to its Anglo-Irish equivalent. Thus Castillo became Castle, enabling the family to leave their Iberian background behind and hide the Jewish identity that had caused them to be stigmatized and persecuted by the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal.
The now rapt investigator discovered that the family had gradually left the south of Ireland, choosing to move north to the more Protestant areas of the island. They had apparently wanted to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the Catholics who had made their lives Hell in Spain and Portugal.
Having unequivocally determined that his and his family’s forebears had been secret Jews, the man had announced his discovery at a family gathering in New Jersey. His shocked relatives had summarily declared that he was crazy, warned family members to avoid him, and effectively expelled him from the family. He remains ostracized by them to this day.
Mound concluded her remarks at the conference on Ireland’s secret Jews by noting that much more research and investigation remains to be done, “as more and more young people, descendents of these secret Jewish families, desire to come and live here in Israel, and to finally, after many generations, come out of the closet. In addition, I think that many of the people in Ireland today who spout anti-Israel policies may well find that they themselves have Jewish connections to be proud of.”
Creator of ‘Little Women’ never wrote about her Jewish heritage
AS A YOUNGSTER, classic children’s story writer Louisa May Alcott was often told that her dark eyes and dark hair came from her Sephardic Jewish ancestry. Her mother, who had similar coloring, had gleaned this from her father, a Boston businessman whose Portugese Jewish ancestors had migrated to Sussex, England, in about 1500. The family remained in the UK for more than a century before becoming prosperous enough to afford to leave for America in the Great Migration. They settled in Massachusetts, and although Louisa eventually became famous for writing ‘Little Women’, she never put pen to paper about her Jewish heritage. Neither did she ever visit her ancestral homeland of Portugal. The bust of Louisa May Alcott (above) was cast in 1967 from an 1891 original by Frank Edwin Elwell.