Beginnings of the community
The first wave of Jewish emigration to Cork was in 1772 with the influx of a small community of Sephardic Jews from Portugal.
Relatively little is known about this first community. Although they didn’t have a synagogue, a burial ground was discovered at Kemp Street, to the back of the former community synagogue on number 10, South Terrace.
The community didn’t exceed about 40 in number, and disappeared through intermarriage with local Protestant families.
Written records from 1891 point to the emergence of a second Jewish community in Cork, following the assimilation of the previous Sephardic community.
This community, by contrast, were Ashkenazi, coming (mostly) from a town called Akmené in Lithuania (formerly, White Russia).
It is very unlikely that Cork, Ireland, was the intended destination of these Eastern European émigrés. They had fled persecution (pogroms) in a staunchly Catholic Country.
Many among their ranks were also very religious. That they would willingly come to another stronghold of Catholicism, such as Ireland, with no traditional ties to Judaism, seems mostly unlikely. Among various explanations proposed, it may have been the case that an unscrupulous ship-captain advised the Jews to disembark and row to America to save money.
Possibly they confused ‘Cork’ for New York (the Jews spoke only Yiddish, and the words are – slightly – cognate). From Cobh (then Queenstown), where they disembarked, the Jews made their way into Cork City, and specifically settled in an area known as Hibernian Buildings, in the City Centre, soon to be known as ‘Jewtown’ by the locals.
This initial crop of Jews worked mostly as peddlers, selling door-to-door. They were known, amongst each other, as the vicklemen (vickle means weekly in Yiddish, and their door-to-door rounds took roughly a week). They would travel around Cork City and its hinterland knocking on doors and selling various things to the local Catholic farming community.
The community reached its peak in the early 20th Century. Family of the first arrivals soon followed when they found out that Cork, and Ireland in general, was tolerant, even friendly, towards the Jews. The community first prayed in a small room in Eastville before renting a room in Marlboro Street, and finally building the former community synagogue at 10, South Terrace.
A Jewish cemetery – Beit Olam in Hebrew – was acquired at Curraghkippane, on the outskirts of the cities, and some Jewish victims of the Lusitania disaster (a ship that sank in 1912 off the Old Head of Kinsale, Cork) are buried there.
At its peak of about 450-500 congregants, the community was very active.
Before the decline in numbers, there were two football clubs, a table tennis clubs, a debating club, a branch of the Bnei Akiva, as well as, of course, an officiating ‘Reverend’, a butcher, a doctor and a Chevre Kedushsa (burial society).
By 1939 the community had reached its peak. The sons and the grandsons of the peddlers and vicklemen had qualified as professionals in University College Cork and wanted to leave for a place with greater Jewish life and professional opportunities.
Because of the decline in numbers during the period before the synagogue’s closure, services were conducted every fourth Friday night, and during the High Holidays. Even during the High Holidays, ‘extras’, in the form of Chabad-Lubavitch trainee Rabbis, had to be ‘imported’ from the U.K. to make a Jewish religious quorum (a ‘minyan’).
Closure of the synagoguge
Due to the aforementioned decline in numbers, the synagogue was closed after the holding of a final sabbath and de-consecration service.
The former Cork synagogue on South Terrace and the Jewish congregation have been featured in a number of online articles and short films (such as this segment from RTÉ Nationwide) some or all of which may be of interest if you are looking to know more about Jewish life in Cork.