Can a Jew Be Irish? by Brighid O’Sullivan

When we think of the Irish people, we can’t help but think of Catholics and Protestants.  But Judaism? I certainly didn’t think of a Jew as being Irish until recently and its cleared up a huge misconception in my own personal ancestry which had always confused me.  It confused my father as well. I’ll tell you why.

The name I was born with is Kaplan, my father’s name, naturally. My father was fiercely proud of his Irish heritage. His grandparents were both straight from County Kerry, Ireland with the names Sullivan and Geoghegan. But was the Kaplan name Irish? He explained to me the Irish pronunciation with the little mark over the second ‘a’ and swore up and down to everyone Kaplan was an Irish name. My mother said it was Polish. When I looked it up I found that in German it means monk. When my father would introduce himself people would say to him, “Oh, you’re Jewish huh?” That remark would  burn his britches since we were also very Catholic.

Then I learned that 19th and 20th century Dublin had an influx of Jews who escaped anti-Jew Russian pogroms in Poland, It started to make sense. I also had a great uncle who was Russian.

Judaism is not  foreign to Ireland although they didn’t always reside in the greatest numbers in the census. The Annals of Innis, 11th century,  mention Jewish traders, and there is  evidence that Strongbow’s Norman invasion of Ireland 1169 was financed by Jews. Several mayors have been Jewish, including most recently., Lord Mayor of Dublin, Ben Briscoe who is working on reviving a Jewish museum in Dublin.  Irish American magazine, (Aug/Sept. 12 issue)See article ‘In Dublin’s Little Jerusalem’. And get this! Some of Ireland’s road signs will soon be in Polish. According to the 2011 census, there are more than 120,000 Polish citizens who have moved to Ireland to live and work since the European Union of 2004

But why do we care where we came from? People define themselves, in part, by their lineage. It’s why so many people delve into their genealogies and travel thousands of miles to see where their grandparents were born. In my novel, The Sun Palace, a sixteen year old girl travels across 6th century Ireland to meet the father she never knew. My father never visited Ireland but I’m sure it would have been a dream come true if he had. Perhaps the dream lives in me as I will be traveling to Ireland soon for the second time. I wonder how many more Irish Americans have Jewish roots? For more Irish history tidbits go to the Home page to subscribe.

Christ Cathedral, Dublin

3 thoughts on “Can a Jew Be Irish? by Brighid O’Sullivan

  1. I realize that I am replying to a very old post, but I can’t resist adding my own two cents. I, too, had the last name of Kaplon — a variant spelling of your Kaplan. Believe me, most people thought I was Jewish, too, since the only other people with that last name that I encountered, aside from immediate family, spelled it Kaplan and were Jewish. However, there are Catholic Kaplons in Poland as I found in my preliminary research and I would venture to guess that there are Catholics with the “an” spelling as well. It is entirely possible that your Polish heritage has always been Catholic.

  2. Feb.25, 2015
    Interesting website!
    Your Kaplan Dad would have had a Kaplan Dad; did you not know your
    Kaplan grandparents? Surely they would have known of their Jewish history. Jewish identity is a racial/ethnic identity; so being Catholic or Protestant, or Buddhist etc.is not unusual and often may serve primarily as camouflage. It seems to me likely that 19th and 20th century Jews migrating to Ireland would have some capital and would engage in trade, money lending, or perhaps open a brewery.There is a book with an academic aspect published in the US approx. 2003 titled: WHEN SCOTLAND WAS JEWISH. It was written by two people from the southern Appalachia whose families and others in their area they knew
    had been in America for at least five generations and the lore was they
    had come from Scotland. So the authors went to Scotland to research and
    concluded Scotland was ruled by crypto-Jews for a period of time after the
    Jews were evicted from England in 1290 or so, and Scotland under Judaic
    [ostensibly Catholic] rule flourished with trade with northern coastal
    Europe and as far as the Mediterranean. I don’t know how they came to
    America, I did not read the book but just heard an interview with an author
    and read about the book.
    I doubt if they were aligned with the Highlander Scots who were crushed
    by the English in the 18th century and many sent overseas as indentured
    slaves.
    That is a digression, but the point is much of Jewish history is not generally
    known and what is known is often inaccurately represented; usually as
    victims of irrational Gentile madness.
    Often Jews change their surnames when they relocate to better blend in
    with the host society; for example Ashley Montagu or Leon Trotsky [and I would add Josef Stalin]; so for Dad’s family to have kept the Kaplan name yet
    your Jewish family history be suppressed within the family is surprising. Perhaps one of the most salient aspects of Jewish identity is superiority over non-Jews; this is so deeply ingrained, I believe, that it is and would be difficult to discard.
    In the Talmudic religion, which has formed modern Jewish culture, non-Jews are not humans even though they may resemble Jews; and if non-Jews have any soul it is the same kind of soul that a horse or cow would have. [This kind of thing is why Talmuds are not readily available in libraries or elsewhere for casual public perusal.]
    It might be worthwhile to find a late 19th c. or early 20th c. version of a Jewish Encyclopedia covering Poland and Russia, online, to see what was going on vis a vis the Jews and the Poles to learn about the milieu from which your ancestor
    escaped to Ireland.

    • James, thank you for visiting my blog. You certainly know a lot about Judaism. Sadly, that part of the Kaplan history was repressed, yes and my Kaplan grandfather died before I knew him. I am told he was also Irish but his parents may not have been and Poland and Russia came into the picture at some point in our relations. One day I will do a full genealogy report. People died so young generations past and children are not often interested in their history until they are grown. I have a very close friend who is Jewish. I was privileged enough to take care of a very special Jewish man, my friend’s father. This charming man experience antisemitism at its worst during WWII in German occupied Warsaw, Poland. He emigrated to the United States after the war and lived to be an old man. It was amazing to me that he did not retain that hate for what he went through and the German people, although he did have difficulty trusting some people. Who wouldn’t? He convinced himself I was Jewish too, used to call me his Jewish doctor even though he knew I was just a nurse. I still miss him very much.

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