De-industrialization, heritage, and the recession: Waterford, 2009-2014

Reading Alex Niven’s  Folk Opposition this week, I was engaged particularly by the passages that looked at what Nivens titled ‘Oppositional geography’ where he discusses in the book the remaking of the Newcastle/Gateshead docklands during the years of New Labour and the building of new bridges like The Millenium, Newcastle’s sixth bridge, The Baltic art gallery, and the concert venue, The Sage. All of it, after the positivity of the early Blairite years passed, the recession hit, Newcastle in Niven’s view, ended up with little more than a “cosmetic growth” bereft of a meaningful “social or economic infrastructure”, something which “which was certainly not one of the legacies of cultural regeneration”.[1] This struck a particular chord with me when thinking of Waterford and its fortunes since the beginning of the recession. My knowledge of Waterford history has grown thanks to my PhD research, in the very period when Waterford seems to have very little else to look to for comfort. It’s hurlers haven’t delivered on so much promise, its football club is low down in the League of Ireland First Division, each sport in the city left harking back to what was and what might have been. Like Newcastle, and plenty of other parts of England and the rest of Britain, Waterford is a city whose identity has had to shift as manufacturing (and shipping before it) declined.

With the exception of a handful of projects, the city centre in Waterford was until the recession relatively untouched during the Tiger. Among the changes to the city’s landscape – its physical but also social and cultural geography – was the fairly nebulous concept of the “John Street Village”, that saw most of the city’s nightlife being squashed into one unmanageable area that deprived the rest of the city centre of passing footfall once the shops closed, and the pedestrianisation of what became John Roberts Square. Another contentious development in the early 1990s was that of City Square, built on Arundel Square and which while incorporating some of the city walls found during the development of the shopping centre, still more could have been done to excavate the area. John Roberts Square were both reasonably successful ventures excepting the lack of licensed premises in that part of the city thanks to the afformentioned village, which amounted to little more than a poor mans attempt at Temple Bar minus the culture. Other changes included the building of the Millenium Plaza, which has been quite successful especially on those occasions when Waterford has been host to the Tall Ships Festival, once prior to the recession and once since. Not unlike what Nivens had to say of England’s north-east, many of these changes to the city during the Tiger merely papered over the cracks off the effects of de-industrialization and regional neglect, the true effects of which did not begin to be felt until 2009.

Back in 2009, the first and most visible sign that the recession had come to Waterford was the closing up of the Waterford Crystal factory. I remember the day distinctly: it was late in January and I had just got off the bus from Cork, it was an aptly grim day, and my mother told me that the factory was to close and that the workers had locked themselves in when security came to shut the doors to begin the process of receivership. It was the first sit-in, an occupation of a workplace, that I had ever seen, and was to set a precedent for the coming years in Ireland, and in Waterford.

As well as the site of the factory, this huge tranche of land directly across my street was also home to the Waterford Crystal visitor centre. All through my childhood and especially in summer, coach upon coach with visitors from near and far (it was a perennial lazy school tour/day-out choice too, I remember three such visits!) could be seen entering the factory and the visitor centre to take the tours. Now all of that would stop. In the past number of months, work was begun to demolish the plant for a new redevelopment of the site. In the same period, a major transformation of a moribund part of Waterford began, and the new House of Waterford Crystal, a brand new visitor centre and showroom was opened in the old ESB building on the quay. This same area, now the Viking Triangle [2], being based around a section of the original Viking settlement of the city and centering in particular on Reginald’s Tower, the Bishop’s Palace and the new Chorister’s Hall, each in turn telling a different aspect of the city’s history, inviting you to enjoy 1000 years of history in 1000 footsteps. I should state that each of the three museums are wonderful and display brilliantly many aspects of the city’s history – from our Viking beginnings through our ecclesiastical history when Waterford was described by some as Parva Roma (little Rome) through our Georgian history and on to the history of the city in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from pig-buyer’s strikes to the Royal Showband. These are all wonderful and important additions to the cultural and the social life of the city. Yet, the clash between heritage and history, the contradictions that are wrapped up in a city which anyone will tell you is economically on its knees and can turn only to its past for answers, is striking.


Demolition of Waterford Crystal begins. Source:

In recent times, Waterford has seen yet more sit-ins and actions from workers in Europrice, The Park Inn, and as part of the campaign run nationally by Elvery’s to retain their jobs. Job losses have been felt in TalkTalk and Honeywell and plenty of other places as well. Work is scarce in Waterford, and each time I’m home, and a little more of the Glass factory is knocked down, and the site cleared, it acts as a reminder that for all the regeneration around The Mall and the Viking Triangle, heritage – so important, and so vital to any city that has as proud a one as Waterford – can not alone save a city. Waterford Crystal may well indeed have had a “unique place in industrial history for its blending of mass production and high art” but today it is both a part of Waterford’s growing heritage industry and a pile of rubble across my street.[3] Important though it is to understand and celebrate that history and heritage, it is worth taking note of Niven’s conclusions about the north-east of England, and to ensure that the strides made by the new developments in the city celebrating its past, don’t become mere window dressing over a deeper problem.


[1] Alex Niven, Folk Opposition, Alresford: Zero Books, p.44

[2] See the report on the Viking Triangle here:

3] Brian F. Havel, Maestro of Crystal: The Story of Miroslav Havel and His Role in Waterford Crystal, Dublin: Currach Press 2005, p.270. See also Eleanor Flegg, “Tradition in Transition”, Irish Arts Review, Spring 2014:


Filed under Czechoslovakia, Employment, Irish History, Twentieth Century, Unemployment

Prague: Silence, History and the Magical City

Before I ever started visiting Prague with regularity, the city was increasingly on my radar thanks to the writing of Tony Judt. I began reading Tony Judt when one of my sisters bought me his monumental Postwar for Christmas a number of years ago and through friends I discovered more of Judt’s work just as his illness seemed to have finally conquered him. His final few works which include The Memory ChaletIll Fares The Land and his conversation with Timothy Snyder, Thinking The Twentieth Century, all give special mention to the Czech Republic and to Prague and to the famed Prague Spring of 1968. Since I began reading this work, a change in personal circumstances has meant that I now visit Prague on a regular basis and over the course of my accumulated visits, I have learned incrementally more and more about the city, about the Czech lands and their history. I have toyed with the idea of writing something about this oft-written-about city previously for The Dustbin, but for the first time, and following my most recent visit, I feel I finally have something to offer up, something like a coherent thought about the place…


“It is as if we conjure the dead and they speak only

Through our own damned trumpets, through our damned medium:”[1]


These lines of Jack Spicer’s from his poem Imaginary Elegies sum up for me the job of the historian, and the care we need to take when we conjure the dead through our damned medium: our damned medium being history. A poetic expression of EP Thompson’s famed rallying call to rescue people from the condescension of posterity, it also acknowledges that when historian’s conjure up the dead, in whatever fashion, they make noise again where there has since been silence.

Like many European capitals, the sheer wealth and depth of the history that courses through the streets of Prague can be overwhelming for the visitor – from the remarkable architectural heritage to be found at places like Vysehrad, St. Vitus’ Cathedral, the Charles Bridge and the Waldstein Palace to the seemingly endless public statuary that reminds one constantly through works that are sometimes simple and other times monumental in every sense, of the long deep history which the streets of the city have had to bear from Hussite Revolution to Fascist invasion and much more besides. In that respect, Prague can like so many great cities, seem to be drowning in its own history and the competition moreover of each of these different facets of the city’s history to interest and intrigue the thousands upon thousands of tourists wending their way through Old Town past the sellers of knick-knacks and tack. But as with all cityscapes which are teeming with the weight of so much history, pulling you in different directions and through centuries as you turn from one street to the next, crossing one set of tram tracks at the end of a square to turn on to another, there is also the presence of how silent those pasts can actually be, despite this noisome melange.

What turned my mind to the notion of silence was a number of exhibitions I viewed on my most recent trip to Prague. At the DOX, the contemporary art gallery, there were three particular exhibits that upon reflection had something vital to say about history and silence. The three exhibitions of which I am thinking are the poster as propaganda, 1914-2014, an exhibit of various samizdat publications and finally an exhibition of the Chinese photographer Liu Xia. Reflecting on all three of these exhibitions as I saw them together under the one roof, the theme of silence (especially imposed silence), especially strong in Liu Xia’s work, struck me as equally important to the other two exhibits as well.

The enforced silence of Liu Xia, under house arrest since her husband won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, is a silence that must no doubt resonate deeply and strongly in Prague, a city where silence under the Nazi and Communist regimes was a part of everyday life. With every visit to the city, you become more and more acutely aware of all that has passed on its streets and squares. The different exhibitions that I saw at the DOX each taught me something important about how to understand the history of the Czech Republic and its capital.

The first exhibition on the poster as propaganda tool was a fascinating sweeping history of the twentieth century in central Europe first but gradually widened out to consider other global struggles and revolutions, the onset of globalization, the war on terror and the recent crisis of late capitalism. What struck me as particularly interesting was the periodization of the exhibition. Periodization is a vexed issue at the best of times for historians but the lay out of this exhibition was particularly interesting in terms of the periodization that was employed. Some standard periods were employed such as 1918-1939, but it was towards the post Second World War era that things got interesting in this regard. There was no periodization from 1945-1968, as one might have thought given the shift that was caused by the Prague Spring and its aftermath, or from 1968 to 1989 and the Velvet Revolution – instead the exhibition went with the far broader brush stroke of 1945-1989. Perhaps this was to indicate the wider battle between both sides in the Cold War. Yet, for the Czech people that broader period is probably best understood in terms of the Soviet takeover in 1948 until the Prague Spring in 1968 and from the subsequent “normalization” period that followed until the emergence of Charter 77 and then the Velvet Revolution. The silencing of these two distinctive periods in Czech history meant that the exhibition was to be understood by those who saw it in this much grander narrative, but robbed the viewer of the nuance that a more atomized periodization would have provided.[2]

One of the more striking posters displayed was a Czech poster imploring people not to forget Lidice, a town carpet bombed out of existence by the Nazis in retribution for the assassination of Reinhard Heidrich. Film footage of the town’s destruction was powerful but so too is the knowledge that all official records of the town were destroyed by the Nazis in an attempt to eradicate, to silence, this place out of history. This was a violent kind of censorship, an important theme that carried over elsewhere in the gallery and in particular in the exhibition of Liu Xia’s photography.

The photographs being exhibited were disturbing in their sense of claustrophobia, but perhaps the most disturbing element of the entire exhibit was the room containing the last filmed footage of Liu Xia since she was under house arrest. In this video too, silence was a powerful thing. The video was taken by two friends of the photographer who made a daring, and successful, attempt to enter the photographers home, they breathlessly rush to the top of the stairs and then as viewers we see Liu Xia whisper, quite silently, messages into one of her two friends ears before both decide it would be better and safer to leave of their own volition. This coupled with the photographs give extra meaning to the exhibitions title “The Silent Strength of Liu Xia”.[3] In the video we see the silence of secrecy between friends, another important theme in recent Czech history and something which informed the movement that produced the various samizdat publications that were the life’s blood of many artists and writers who were not a part of the official culture of normalization – writers like Bohumil Hrabal or Vaclav Havel. The particular samizdat publication which was the focus of the DOX exhibit was Pražská imaginace (Prague imagination). [4]

Here again in the samizdat publication we see a kind of silence that was brought on by the effects of normalization – the retreat from public life into the private world and what Tony Judt has described as “pro forma political conformism”.[5] It was in this private rather than public world that samizdat publications circulated. The weird state of difference between one’s public face and private opinion has recently been examined by Paulina Bren who asked “what then was ‘normal’ about normalization? That nothing, and yet everything, was normal was hinted at by ordinary citizens’ own adoption of the term…”[6] In such a world, and again as Bren notes, in a world where whats passes for normal is a state in which there is nothing happening, then the silent, covert writing, publication and reading of samizdat work becomes an important whisper in an otherwise silent society. It was in precisely this context which Czech action art emerged. As Pavlina Morganova has recently written of early Czech action art, its function was as “a public performance and an attempt to penetrate the routine lives of other people.”[7] In other words, an attempt to break the silence, the stillness, imposed by communism and particularly its normalized form after 1968.

Vladimír Havlík, Experimental Flower, 1981. Source:

Vladimír Havlík, Experimental Flower, 1981. Source:

So in the magical city of Kakfa, the Golem, of Kepler, there were disruptions of the everyday with the hanging of empty frames on streets to create fleeting images, cobblestones were replaced by flowers, and Czech artists interrupted the silence of normalization by actions and activity that was often collective. Magic was returned in fleeting moments that only some may have seen, and they may have been amused, bemused, or cheered by these noisy moments that have left no physical traces today, but whose power is not silent, or silenced. Such are the moments that make history.


[1] Jack Spicer, “Imaginary Elegies, I-IV”, in Allen, Donald M., The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, Berkely: Univesity of California Press [1999 edn.], p.143

[2] Jaroslav Anděl (curator),“The Poster in the Clash of Ideologies, 1914-2014”, DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague, 14 February-19 May 2014.

[3] Liu Xia, “The Silent Strength of Liu Xia” (exhibition), DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague. Exhibition runs from 28 February-9 June 2014.

[4]Jiří Hůla (curator), “Pražská imaginace, 1985-2005”, DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague. Exhibition officially ran from 6 March-20 April 2014.

[5] Judt, Tony and Snyder, Timothy, Thinking the Twentieth Century, London: Wiliam Heinemann 2012, p.234

[6] Bren, Paulina, The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press 2010, p.3

[7] Morganova, Pavlina, Czech Action Art: Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art Behind the Iron Curtain, Prague: Karolinum Press 2014, p.49


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Robert Mallet: A Dubliner in Basilicata

My recently-completed PhD thesis focused on the Italian city of Matera which is located in the remote and relatively unknown region of Basilicata. During a field trip to Matera back in 2011, a local academic informed me that another Irish person had previously studied this sparsely populated and mountainous part of southern Italy. In February 1858 Robert Mallet, a civil engineer from Dublin, spent a week documenting the earthquake which had devastated parts of Campania and Basilicata (then part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies which encompassed the southern half of mainland Italy as well as Sicily) on 16 December 1857 and resulted in the loss of an estimated 11,000 lives. This fragment of information piqued my interest and I decided to find out more about Mallet and the research that he had carried out in southern Italy.


Robert Mallet (1810–1881)

Robert Mallet (1810–1881)


Robert Mallet is widely considered the father of seismology. He was born in Capel Street on 3 June 1810. His father was the proprietor of the Victory Foundry which worked on many of the major structural projects carried out in Ireland during the first half of the nineteenth century, including bridges, railways, and even the iron gates of Trinity College. Mallet studied chemistry and engineering at Trinity and was made a member of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) at the age of 22. In the mid-1840s he gave a number of papers on earthquakes at the RIA in which he applied his knowledge of physics and mechanics to gauge how energy moved through sand and rock. To augment this theoretical work, Mallet carried out a series of controlled underground explosions on Killiney Beach and Dalkey Island in an attempt to measure the impact of shock waves. The results of this research were collected in a series of reports produced in the early 1850s in which Mallet coined the terms seismology and epicentre.[1]

The lack of seismic activity in Ireland and Britain, however, restricted Mallet’s ability to develop his theories further. The 1857 earthquake in southern Italy provided him with the perfect opportunity to carry out field work into the potentially devastating effects of shockwaves. The Times first reported details of the Naples earthquake on 24 December 1857 and soon after Mallet began planning his research trip to survey the damage that had been caused. By the first week of January 1858 he had secured research funding from the Geological Society of London as well as Dublin’s Royal Geological Society. Mallet left London on 27 January and travelled to Naples via Paris and Marseille. Thanks to reference letters from the British Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Royal Society, Mallet was granted permission to travel to Basilicata and procured a number of assistants to aid his research, including an interpreter who spoke the region’s various local dialects. Mallet spent just over one week travelling 500 kilometres by mule to a number of the hilltop towns that had been devastated by the earthquake, many of which were 1,500 metres above sea level. He returned to Naples on 24 February before travelling to Rome in March 1858 and then on to London a month after that.


Mallet Basilicata

(Image from Ferrari and McConnell)


Mallet’s research was published in two volumes in 1862 under the title The Great Neapolitan earthquake of 1857: the first principles of observational seismology.[2] These reports included detailed maps and illustrations as well as a number monoscopic and stereoscopic photographs. Mallet’s work became an important reference for the study of seismic activity in the English-speaking world. His methods for examining seismic activity, however, were viewed as outdated by the 1880s after John Milne’s development of the horizontal pendulum seismograph. Although Mallet has been reappraised in recent years as a pioneer in the scientific study of earthquakes, the importance of his two volume report in terms of social and urban history has largely been overlooked. Alongside the detailed scientific analysis that Mallet provided in his 700-page report, are his descriptions of the towns that the 1857 earthquake had devastated, coupled with the testimonies of local officials and clergy that he consulted – albeit filtered through an upper-class Anglo-Irish lens.[3]

Mallet’s theories and calculations concerning the earthquake’s epicentre are interrupted at various points throughout the text with details of his journey across the mountain trails of Campania and Basilicata, the hospitality he received from local people, and evocative descriptions of the destruction that the 1857 earthquake caused. The most striking example of the latter point is Mallet’s account of the town of Polla in Campania:

Months of bombardment would not have produced the destruction, that the awful shudder of five seconds involved, when thirteen hundred houses fell together with deafening crash, and overwhelmed the two thousand of their sleeping inmates, and with clouds of suffocating dust, choked the cries of horror and anguish, that rose from the startled and often wounded survivors. In three different directions, conflagration soon added its terrors to the scene, and beamed up, a flickering and ominous light, into that dreadful night of cold and wailing, throughout the lingering hours of which, in helpless agony, they listened to the passionate entreaties for relief, the dying sobs, of relatives and friends entombed around them, and dreaded for them, more than for themselves, the recurrence of other shocks. The cold gray light of winter’s dawn, obscure with smoke and dust, revealed hundreds bruised or with broken limbs without a roof to shelter them, many without a garment to cover them. It required some hours’ familiarity with such scenes, before the mind assumed sufficient composure and capability of abstracting the attention, to pursue the immediate objects of my inquiry.[4]

In addition to the richness of detail that Mallet’s text offers, there are the photographs which he commissioned. Over 156 photos were taken by two French photographers, Alphonse Bernoud and Grellier, which are today housed in the Royal Society’s archive in London. One hundred and twenty of these photos are stereoscopic images, a technique which Bernoud pioneered, and 36 are monoscopic.[5] These visual texts are believed to be amongst the first photographic images of earthquake damage ever taken. More importantly they provide the earliest photographic record of the numerous towns in Campania and Basilicata that Mallet visited, many of which have since been rebuilt or suffered further destruction in subsequent earthquakes.



Pertosa [earthquake damage], 1857-1858

Robert Mallet’s report on the 1857 earthquake and the photographs that he commissioned provide a fragmentary snapshot of a part of southern Italy that would experience many further upheavals in the coming decades. Mallet travelled to the Italian peninsula at a time of social and political upheaval. The short-lived 1848 Revolutions had swept across western and central Europe ten years earlier and had seen a failed unification attempt in Italy. Just two years after Mallet’s journey to Basilicata, Giuseppe Garibaldi would lead the Expedition of the Thousand to wrestle Sicily from Bourbon control before the process of Italian unification was completed with the capture of Rome in 1870. After 1860, however, the towns in southern Italy that Robert Mallet had visited were once again the setting for death and destruction. The introduction of conscription, the loss of land rights, and economic hardship following Italian unification caused social unrest amongst the predominately rural population and resulted in the rise of brigandage. The Piedmontese Moderates who oversaw the establishment of the fledgling Italian state reacted to brigand violence and civil unrest with brutally repressive measures. Over two-fifths of the Italian army was deployed to southern Italy in a conflict which lasted over a decade and led to more deaths than the various Italian wars of unification.[6]


[1] For a biography of Mallet and a detailed account of his 1858 research trip to Italy see Graziano Ferrari and Anita McConnell, ‘Robert Mallet and the ‘Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, January 2005 vol. 59 no. 1, pp. 45-64.

[2] Facsimile copies of Mallet’s book are available online:;

[3] Mallet’s sense of cultural and social superiority compared to the local residents that he interviewed comes to the fore when speaking to a Padre Mancini in the town of Pertosa in Campania: ‘He [Padre Mancini] was a man of much more that the average information and intelligence of his class, but conversed in no modern language except Italian, which was strongly provincial, and I found it difficult to follow him.’ Robert Mallet, The Great Neapolitan earthquake of 1857: the first principles of observational seismology. Volume I, Chapman and Hall, London, 1862, p. 274.

[4] Mallet, pp. 292-293

[5] Ferrari and McConnell, pp. 58-60

[6] John Dickie, ‘A World at War: the Italian Army and Brigandage 1860-1870’, History Workshop, No. 33 (Spring, 1992), pp. 1-24

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Filed under Irish History, Italian History, Nineteenth Century, Social History

Call for Papers: Sport History Ireland 10th Annual Conference.

Here on the Dustbin, I have been responsible for a substantial amount of sport history appearing on the blog since we began. So it is with great pleasure that I post today to bring  to your attention a major milestone in the historical study of sport in Ireland.

On 20th September 2014, St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra will host the 10th Annual Conference of Sport History Ireland, the body set up to encourage and foster scholarly research into Ireland’s sporting past. The history of sport has emerged in Ireland in the ten intervening years as a vital and exciting aspect of much of the new social and cultural history that has emerged in the same period. The call for papers is now open, until the 20th June 2014.This is an event not to be missed. For further details, here’s the poster:Image

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Filed under British History, Historiography, Irish History, Nineteenth Century, Social History, Sports History, Twentieth Century

Understanding Irish America

'St Patrick' in the 2009 Dublin parade

‘St Patrick’ in the 2009 Dublin parade (photograph by the author)

With the importation of American-style parades, sequined shamrocks, and green beer, St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland has come to seem more and more Irish-American. Meanwhile the mass exodus of politicians to the US and other parts of the world for March 17th continues as they court the now-powerful descendents of Irish emigrants. Buried under a landslide of books for my PhD and assailed by news articles and ads on the upcoming holiday, I have realized that few critically question these developments or our assumptions about them – if we say St. Patrick’s Day is Irish-American, then what is Irish America really? Viewed historically this presents less of a problem: successive waves of Irish immigrants settled largely in urban areas where they worked and lived with other Irish people, participated in Irish cultural events, went to the local Catholic Church where there was often an Irish priest, and wrote letters to relatives in Ireland and across the globe. But what about today? Historians speak about ethnic groups in an amorphous sense but few engage with the more ambiguous markers of ethnic identity in the present or only seem to notice those who actively participate in maintenance of that identity, those who take Irish dancing or language classes or, in the case of The Gathering last year, those with enough money to make the trip across the Atlantic to the ‘old country’. What about the rest?

Whatever it is, there is no doubt that Irish America is rooted in history, particularly the Famine of 1845-9. Social anthropologist Reginald Byron’s book, misleadingly titled Irish America (it’s about Albany, New York), attempts to link that history to contemporary identity. While putting the Famine at the centre of the Irish American experience places Byron in good company, his account of Irish history and the history of the Irish in America largely ends with the mid-nineteenth century and he is vague about how many of his informants might actually be descended from famine-era immigrants as opposed to earlier or later generations. After all, while approximately 1 million people left Ireland in the famine decade, emigration had begun before then and 3.5 million left between 1855 and 1921 and in all cases a large proportion ended up in the United States, though sometimes by more circuitous routes. The danger of focusing so intensely on the Famine as to give it a mythic quality is that doing so can ‘obscure the diversity of Irish migration and its changing character over time’.[1] Byron’s repeated emphasis on the ‘famine generation’ belies his otherwise patent goal to ‘dispose’ of ‘pervasive myth’.[2] Irish America was never one homogenous entity, never solely the victims of starvation and oppression; that in itself is a myth. It was and is more akin to a historically grounded, continually negotiated, and multi-faceted idea, aspects of which individuals might choose to accept or reject.[3]

When we say an idea or ethnic identity is rooted in history or a sense of the past, what does that mean exactly? Whose history? What history and where? Byron focused his questions on two areas: Irish history and family history, but found his informants’ knowledge of both lacking when he asked them to name major events in Irish history and why their ancestors left. He concludes, ‘for the great majority of our informants, the links with the past had been broken, and no family traditions of Irish history or stories of the circumstances of their ancestors’ emigration have been passed down to the present generations.’[4] Is it really so surprising that people in the 1990s (when he carried out his research) do not know the exact reasons their ancestors left Ireland a hundred-plus years ago? How many people do know their full family history back five or more generations? Byron seems interested in these ‘links with the past’ only when they pertain to Ireland – why not the experience of the Irish in America?[5] By asking about Irish history and reasons for leaving Ireland he seems to query the authenticity of Irish America in calling itself Irish at all, as opposed to examining what it is in and of itself. Irish immigrants and their descendents worked as everything from miners to mayors, domestic servants to democratic senators, but in the process they often faced discrimination, company exploitation, and poor housing, all of which have shaped the historical narrative.

For me, the more interesting questions are related to why individuals today want to have an ethnic identity and how and why those of mixed ancestry end up emphasizing one branch of the family over another.[6] What does it mean to be Irish-American or ‘of Irish extraction’ today? How does drinking green beer have anything to do with it? Is being ‘ethnic’ in America anything more than a fad, a by-product of embracing multiculturalism? The commonly quoted statistic is that roughly 40 million Americans write ‘Irish’ in the ethnic section of the census form, but what this means may differ between individuals. For some, it may simply be a fact of ancestry. For others, it surfaces in the form of participation in St Patrick’s Day celebrations or a holiday in Ireland. For others, it may be more a part of everyday life.[7] When Humans of New York published this photo and caption, the comments zeroed in on questioning the man’s Irishness, not the central lesson of tolerance.[8] Both Ireland and Irish America may have a lot to learn about each other and about the value of accepting diversity in what it means to be Irish.

[1] Kevin Kenny, Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013), p.29.

[2] Reginald Byron, Irish America (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999), p.54.

[3] Kathleen Neils Conzen, et al., ‘The Invention of Ethnicity in the United States’, in Jon Gjerde (ed.), Major Problems in American Immigration and Ethnic History (Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, 1998), pp.22-9.

[4] Byron, Irish America, p.82.

[5] This is despite the fact that he realizes, ‘by and large, our informants’ recollections of their family histories do not extend back to Ireland, but begin only in America’ (emphasis added). Bryon, Irish America, p.80.

[6] For a more thorough assessment of these issues see: Mary Waters, Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America (University of California Press, 1990).

[7] Christine Legrand examines the implications of ‘being of Irish extraction’ and argues that it is ‘a matter of personal choice’ influenced by family and the feeling of shared history or values. ‘Nation, Migration, and Identities in Late Twentieth Century Ireland’, Narodna Umjetnost: Croatian Journal of Ethnology and Folklore Research, vol.42, no.1 (June 2005), p.51.

[8] Sheila Langan, ‘A Black Irishman in New York Gets the Internet Buzzing’, Irish Central, 21 January 2014,


Filed under Irish History, Social History

Jewish Waterford, 1893-1940

Cormac Ó’Gráda’s book Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce, was a ground-breaking work for looking at religious and ethnic minorities in Ireland historically. I recently heard Ó’Gráda speaking as part of the UCC Historical Society’s History Week. Ó’Gráda spoke about the potential of the 1901 and 1911 census, especially in relation to the study of minorities in Irish life from that period. With that in mind, and following on from some tentative work which I had done for my PhD thesis, I’ve decided to sketch a portrait of Waterford’s Jewish community from the end of nineteenth century up to the beginning of the Second World War.

The Beginnings of the Jewish Community in Waterford

According to Louis Hyman, in his history of Irish Jewry up to 1910, ‘At the close of the seventeenth century, the Council of the Waterford Corporation encouraged the settlement of foreign merchants.’ One man who applied to trade freely in the city was Jacob Nunes who was given the freedom of the city to conduct trade in 1701.[1] Thus Nunes has a fair claim to being Waterford’s first Jewish settler. Again, Hyman notes that ‘individual Jews resided in Waterford in the eighteenth century, and some were there in 1805, one of them, surely Josias Jacob, registered with the Dublin Goldsmith’s Company in 1809. About the middle of the nineteenth century, the grandparents of the late Professor James Desmond Bernal settled in the town.’[2] According to the census of 1871, there was still only a solitary Jew in Waterford, however that was all about to change. With the introduction of what are popularly known as the May Laws, many Jews in Tsarist Russia made their way to Britain and Ireland. As Hyman notes, this movement of Jews from what was sometimes called Russian Poland, and Lithuania, had the effect ultimately of strengthening the communities of Jewish settlers in places other than in Dublin and Belfast.[3]

One of the earliest mentions of the new Jewish community in Waterford comes from 1893 with the death of Joseph Diamond at the age of 68, who lived on 8 Manor Street in the city centre, a street in Waterford that would in time form a central part of the Jewish community in the city.[4] Many of the Jews then settled in Waterford were Welsh, and were part of the Jewish community in Britain that were middle-class emigrants from Central Europe, what were known in Ireland as “English Jews”. The lives of these Jewish people were in stark contrast to those who would come to make up the bulk of Britain, Ireland, and Waterford’s Jewish communities in time, those fleeing pogroms and persecution in Russia.

Shortly after the death notice of Joseph Diamond, the Jewish Chronicle noted that a congregation had been established in the city, with Mr R Smullian as president, and so prayers were held for the  Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, for probably the first time in Waterford’s history.[5] A year later, the Jewish Chronicle again mentioned the new congregation noting that:

Mr and Mrs Goldring presented a Scroll of the Law to the newly-established congregation. In the evening they gave a party to which every Jewish resident of Waterford was invited. Mr M. Simon presided  and great satisfaction was expressed by the Chairman, Mr Hanasan[sic], President of the congregation, Mr R. Smullian, Mr Levy, Mr Diamond and others at the formation of the congregation.[6]

With the congregation up and running in Waterford city, the Jewish community there could do perform rites of their faith in their new home, rather than travelling to other cities in Ireland with synagogues. The development of the congregation breathed life into the city’s Jewish community and it wasn’t long before the city saw its first Jewish wedding, something which attracted a great deal of interest from Waterford people generally:

On Wednesday 14th inst the first Jewish wedding that has been solemnised in Waterford took place in the synagogue 88 the Manor. The couple were Miss Fanny Diamond and Mr Jack Lappin. The ceremony was performed by Rev J. E. Myers of Cork assisted by the local minister Rev Simon Aarons. The wedding created a great deal of interest  in Waterford and the synagogue was filled with Christians. Rev J. E. Myers  preached on Sabbath morning and also at a special service on Sunday evening, the latter attended by several Christians. Mr Goldring, President, and his wife have made handsome presents to the synagogue. Mr Robinson is Treasurer and Mr J. Levy is Hon Sec.[7]

The development of the community was of interest in particular to JE Myers, who ministered to the Cork congregation, and who visited Waterford on a number of occasions.[8] The community was growing in strength and in no time, there was a plan to open a Hebrew School in the city.[9] As the Jewish community grew and developed, children were born into families in Waterford, like the Sherowitz family. The progress of the community in Waterford was followed closely by the Jewish Chronicle, and many notices, no matter how small, relating to the city’s community, appeared throughout its pages. And so we know that some of the members of Waterford’s Jewish community got involved in politics, like Harris Sherowitz who sent a letter to John Redmond MP on the Aliens Act in 1905, signed by many, in the hopes that he would seek amendments to it. There was a significant difference between the size of the community in 1901 and by 1911. The interwar period was the peak of the Jewish community in Waterford, built as it was by the community that had developed and was captured in the census of 1911. Waterford’s Jewish community was at its most numerous in the city then: there were around 62 Jewish people in Waterford at that date. It was never bigger, before or since. While these numbers obviously pale in their significance when placed next to the Jewish communities of Dublin, Cork or Limerick, nevertheless the Jewish community in Waterford left their mark on the city. These maps show where Waterford’s Jewish community settled in the city (click images to enlarge them):

Fig. 1: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1901

Fig. 1: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1901

As you can see from Fig. 1 above, the very small community that existed in 1901, was centred in the main around John Street and Manor Street. This concentration would remain in 1911, as you can see from Fig.2, below:

Fig. 2: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1911

Fig. 2: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1911

To get the full effect, Fig.3 below shows both the 1901 and 1911 settlements overlaid on each other:

Fig.3: 1901 and 1911 Jewish Settlement in Waterford, overlaid on each other.

Fig.3: 1901 and 1911 Jewish Settlement in Waterford, overlaid on each other.

These few streets then, encompassed Waterford’s Jewish community until the beginning of the Second World War.

The Figure of the ‘Jewman’ in Popular Imagination and Memory in Waterford

Once the community strengthened, and became a more visible presence in the city, centred as it was around John Street and Manor Street, the figure of the ‘Jewman’, in that peculiar Irish turn of phrase, was a figure of curiosity and later, folk memory. In Waterford a song was sung called ‘The Jewman’, and according to Dermot Power was popular at one time with workers in Denny’s Bacon curing factory back in the late 1920s and 1930s, when the community was at its height. If as Hyman’s history of the Jews in Ireland has it ‘they knew no trade but peddling’, a fact contested in Ó’Gráda’s work, then this aspect of Irish Jewry is well summed up in the opening verses of ‘The Jewman’:

 At the top of town, Anne Street, a lady does dwell,

Her name I won’t mention, I dare not tell,

One cold winter’s morning the Jewman did call,

And unslung his bag outside of the hall.

He knocked at the door with his usual grin,

Saying good morning, missus, is your husband within

Says she no he’s not I want nothing today,

Ah take something said the Jewman don’t send me away.[10]

In the song, the woman takes some blankets on the promise of payment the following week, and duly the following week no payment is forthcoming, so the Jewman makes a grab for his goods, is hit over the head with a can by the woman before both are brought before a court, the song finishing with the testimony of ‘a big red nosed Bobby’ and a suitably amdmonished Jewman:

Said the Jew oh your Worship my poor head is sore,

And I’ll never go look for me wool anymore.[11]

As Cormac Ó’Gráda notes of such songs, and this particular one seems to have existed in a variety of versions Dublin as well, were indicative of views among Irish people that were ‘more xenophobic than strictly Anti-Semitic.’ Indeed, he contends that ‘the outlook of most Irish people of all persuasions was blinkered, parochial, and prejudiced by today’s standards.’[12] Such was the power over the local imagination of this figure, the ‘Jewman’, that one of Waterford’s lanes, Kneeff’s Lane, was popularly known as ‘Jewman’s Lane’. Indeed, the popular folk memory of the ‘Jewman’ and ‘Jewman’s Lane’ were revisited in a recent documentary about the Barrack Street area in the heart of Waterford city (the relevant segment is from 36:00 to 38:45):

As we’ve seen, the first Jewish marriages and other occasions were of deep interest to many locals, and something of this interest first present in the 1890s remained in the 1930s, as when the Munster Express carried a small notice relating to the Jewish Day of Atonement in September 1931.[13] Members of Waterford’s Jewish community found themselves in court on occasion, and in a rare display of anti-Semitism, a local District Court judge told a member of the family that he should count himself lucky, given what was happening to his people in Hitler’s Germany, though many rushed to defend the judge saying his comments were not meant in such a way.[14] There was also this joke which appeared in the pages of the Munster Express:

Munster Express, June 26 1936

Munster Express, June 26 1936

Still, whether this properly reflects the relationship between the Jewish community and their hosts is difficult to ascertain for certain, perhaps like the figure of the ‘Jewman’ this was more parochial than anti-Semitic. One of the more unusual stories involving Ireland’s Jewish community and Waterford comes from the late 1930s as well. Frank Edwards, a member of the Communist Party of Ireland and rugby player with Waterford City RFC and teacher in Mount Sion, took a leave of absence from his teaching duties in the school to join the International Brigade  to fight fascism during the Spanish Civil War. Upon returning, Edwards was refused his old job and barred from teaching in any Catholic school. Rev. Herzog, the Chief Rabbi in Ireland, gave Edwards a job teaching in Zion Schools, recently established on Bloomfield Avenue in Dublin, where Edwards would work for the next thirty years.[15]

The legacy of Waterford’s Jewish Community

Ray Rivlin’s Jewish Ireland: A Social History, contains a chapter on sport and entertainment.[16] The chapter opens with the story of Maurice Woolfson, a Jewish Waterford man who led local club Evergreen, when they achieved great victory on the field in the 1930s. The Woolfson name is an important one in the early history of Waterford soccer. Isaac Woolfson, was in the 1930s, chairman of the Waterford and District Association Football League and a key figure in establishing the first Employer’s League in 1931, forerunner to the factory leagues. Like many of the figures explored in Anthony Clavane’s Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?, men like Isaac, Maurice and later ‘Duffy’ Woolfson, emigrant Jews from the poor edges of Russia, who were not of the middle-class “English Jew” origins of earlier Jews in Waterford, used sport, and soccer in particular as a means of integration and acceptance. Cormac Ó’Gráda, discussing the wide variety of sporting and other bodies established by Ireland’s Jewish community noted that success in the sporting arena ‘fostered communal pride’ but he also noted that it wasn’t long before many Irish Jews, and the membership of their sports clubs, moved beyond the community itself. [17]In 1938, with Maurice Woolfson as chairman, Evergreen won the FAI Minor Cup, beating Sligo United 2-1 in a game held at Kilcohan Park in the city. On his leaving for Dublin 1940, the loss was lamented by all involved in the club.

The Woolfson family dispersed from Waterford but returned in 1971 for the inauguration of the Maurice Woolfson Perpetual Challenge Trophy for the local Schoolboy League at half time during a League of Ireland game between Waterford and Finn Harps. However, as was noted by a journalist at the time, the contribution of the Woolfson family to Waterford soccer amounted to a lot more than just a silver trophy, ‘no matter how magnificent’.[18] The same might be said of the entire Jewish community, who breathed life into the streets on which they lived in Waterford, leaving a long lasting impression on the city and its people.

[1] Hyman, Louis, The Jews of Ireland: From Earliest Times to the year 1910, Shannon: Irish University Press 1972, p.22

[2] Hyman, The Jews of Ireland, p.79

[3] Hyman, The Jews of Ireland, p156 and 161

[4] Jewish Chronicle, 1 September 1893

[5] Jewish Chronicle, 22 September 1893

[6] Jewish Chronicle, 20 October 1894

[7] Jewish Chronicle, 23 November 1894

[8] Jewish Chronicle, 27 March; 17 July 1896

[9] Jewish Chronicle, 6 November 1896

[10] Power, Dermot, The Ballads and Songs of Waterford from 1487, Waterford: Munster Express 1992, pp.10-11

[11] Power, Ballads and Songs of Waterford, p.11

[12] Ó’Gráda, Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce: A Socio-economic history, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2006, p.180

[13] Munster Express, September 25 1931

[14] Munster Express, Septembr 27 1935

[15] Rivlin, Ray, Ireland: A Social History, Dublin: The History Press Ireland, 2011, p.110

[16] Rivlin, Ray, Jewish Ireland, pp.209-210

[17] Ó’Gráda, Jewish Ireland, pp.186-187

[18] Munster Express, April 23 1971

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Filed under Irish History, Memory, Nineteenth Century, Social History, Spanish Civil War, Sports History, Twentieth Century

My house in history, 1882-1945

For the past number of years, I have lived on Friar Street in Cork. The row of houses, according to a foundation stone near my door, were built in 1882. Inspired a little by the MyHomesPast project in Britain, I decided to take a look at the history of my particular house since it was first built. Using old street directories and the online censuses of 1901 and 1911, I found an interesting story of several different families.

One of the earliest mentions I can find of my current house comes from the Guy’s Cork Directory for 1893, which lists a man by the name of John Driscoll as the occupant, making him more than likely the first resident of the house. It is difficult to be sure just who John Driscoll was, since by 1901, he had moved, and in the immediate vicinity there were three John Driscolls living on James Square, St. Finbarr’s Terrace and Tower Street.


According to the 1901 census the family living in my house were the Pollocks. The head of the family, William, was then 40 years old. Originally from Newry, Co. Antrim, William was a book binder by trade and at that time he was one of about roughly forty or so  people plying their trade with the bookbinders in the city. He was a member of the Cork Typographical Society and later the Cork Trades Council.

His wife, Kate, who was nine years younger than her husband, was originally from London. They married some time in 1892.There were then four children in the family – one girl and three boys. Jane, the eldest of the children was then 6; William, the next child was 4, with the two younger boys, John and James, aged just 2 and 1 years old respectively. William’s religion was listed as being Church of Ireland, although his wife Kate was listed as being a Catholic. As a result, all four children were also being raised as Catholics, as was the custom then in Ireland.


Ten years later, there were new residents in the house.  This time, the residents were the Hawkes family. In 1901, the Hawkes had been the next door neighbours of the Pollock family. In 1901, Richard Hawke, an iron moulder, was forty-three, just three years older than his neighbour William Pollock. The changeover had taken place some time between 1901 and 1907, since according to the Guy’s Cork Directory for 1907, Richard Hawkes and his family had already made the move next door. Richard’s wife was Catherine, then 36 years old. They had two children, two daughters: Annie who was twelve and Gertrude who was just six, the same age as neighbouring Jane Pollock. Some time in the interim, tragedy struck the Hawkes family, and Catherine had passed away. Interestingly, in the new segment on Return Form ‘A’, where the details of the length of the marriage and the details of the children produced by the marriage could be entered, the figures seem to have been entered initially, only to have then been scratched over so as to be illegible.

Richard’s two daughters still lived with him and Annie, now 22, was apparently unemployed, although her younger sister Gertrude was working as a dress maker, while Richard (now apparently 56 – possibly to avail sooner of the new pension which had been introduced in 1908) was still working as an iron moulder.

The Pollock family had moved only a number of streets away, to a house on Mary Street. Intriguingly, William Pollock was now listed not as a member of the Church of Ireland, but rather as a Presbyterian. By 1911, their had been an addition to the Pollock family, four-year-old Gerard. The two eldest children, Jane and William, were working by then. Jane, 16, is listed as being a draper’s shop girl, while young William, just 14, was also apprenticed to a draper.

Future Years

Richard Hawkes was still living in the house on Friar Street in 1925, according to Guy’s Cork Directory for that year, and the house was valued at £6. His old neighbour, William Pollock, was also still living at his house in Mary Street, a house according to the same directory valued at some £19, although this house was in fact one house split into two, an early sign of its later life as a tenement building in the 1940s. By 1930, however the house on Friar Street was in the hands of one of Richard Hawkes’ daughters, since Guy’s Cork Directory for that year lists the occupant as Mrs. Hawkes, who was still residing in the house by 1945. As for the house in Mary Street, William was still listed as the principal occupant in 1930 although the house was in the hands of William’s daughter Jane by 1935, suggesting that like his old neighbour Richard, he too had passed away and a chapter of the history of my house on Friar Street had come to an end.


Filed under Irish History, Nineteenth Century, Social History, Twentieth Century