The Irish? We’re cut from the same cloth

'We’re both marginal to Europe and thrive on an edgy disposition. We both used violence to wrest national sovereignty from the Brits.'

December 14, 2020 11:36

Never having watched Saturday night television, I was untouched by news of Des O’Connor’s death but gob-smacked to learn that he was half-Jewish. Now which half would that be? The Burke’s peerage of our tribe has no surnames beginning with O-apostrophe and, while Connor might be a spin on the well-trodden Cohen-Coen-Callan-Cholmondley route into the real Burke’s, the late Des was too full of chutzpah to engage in subterfuge and liked to brag all over showbiz that he was the first O’Connor to have a barmitzvah. Made his Mum happy, it did.

There’s always something a bit special about hybrid Hebrews from the Emerald Isle. The actors Daniel Radcliffe and Daniel Day Lewis, for instance (the Daniel’s a bit of a giveaway) and the rock humanitarian Bob Geldof who once confessed that ‘I was a quarter Catholic, a quarter Protestant, a quarter Jewish and a quarter nothing — the nothing won.’ So no barmitzvah, then.

If you pause to think about it, and you may have nothing better to do in Tiers 2 and 3 over the coming weeks, there’s an awful lot we have in common, us and the Irish. We’re both marginal to Europe and thrive on an edgy disposition. We both used violence to wrest national sovereignty from the Brits. We tend to be a bit shorter in physique than the English lank and a lot quicker off the mark, and we’re both yoked to a demanding faith that, truth be told, gives us more pride than joy (rabbis who wish to dispute this may avail themselves of next week’s letters page).

On the other hand, there is much that divides us. Jews live on top of each other in suburban ghettos on the Ocado map while the Irish favour wide open spaces with a view of the sea. Jews eat, they drink. The Irish are poets, the Jews write plays. Jews who watched ‘Normal People’ couldn’t see what’s normal in young people having choreographed sex over 12 irresolute episodes without a kosher caterer hovering with hors d’oeuvres. I wonder what the Irish make of ‘Shtisl’.

You, see, just riffing on the subject makes us smile. We’re cut of similar cloth, us and the Irish, and it’s a matter of regret and mystery that, in 921 years of Jewish residence in Ireland, count them, not once has a Jew and a Beits (the Yiddish word for Irish, don’t ask) got together to do something earth-shattering for the benefit of humankind. With one exception.

In March 1907, a teacher at the Berlitz school in Austrian Trieste got a new pupil. Ettore Schmitz was a paint manufacturer who needed to brush up his English before signing a contract with the British Admiralty. Schmitz was an unknown writer under the pseudonym Italo Svevo. His teacher was an unpublished Irishman, James Joyce. Separated in age by 20 years, the pair became friends. Joyce taught Schmitz at home, sometimes with his wife Livia attending the lesson. They would dine and take long walks. Schmitz smoked like a factory, Joyce was overfond of a drink. They lamented each other’s weakness. Schmitz lent Joyce money for booze.

What did they talk about? Judaism. Practically every Jewish reference in Ulysses derives from conversations the Joyce had with Schmitz and observations at his festive table. The character of Leopold Bloom is modelled on Schmitz, at least in part. ‘He’s always asking me about Jews,’ Schmitz told Joyce’s brother, but he didn’t object. He sniffed a whiff of posterity.

Published in Paris in 1922, Ulysses put a bomb under English literature as Picasso had done under art. It is a work of paramount necessity and eye-popping originality, sued by the Brits for obscenity until it was world famous. Schmitz in 1923 published Confessions of Zeno, a psychoanalytic narrative that never steps outside Trieste any more than Bloomsday ever leaves Dublin. Joyce found him a French publisher.

Schmitz died in 1924 after a car crash, pleading for a last cigarette. Joyce died in 1941 in Zurich, where he once wooed a Jewish woman with the gift of a menorah (OK, I worked in a Chanukah angle). His puns, his invented words and his chapter-long streams of unbroken consciousness bear an incontinent excess that might be Jewish. Neither he nor Schmitz ever won a literary prize. Both have fine statues in Trieste. Dublin finally honoured Joyce in 1990. Between them, Yid and Beits broke and remade the English novel.

Ah, you’re bugged by the Beits? It’s what refugees from Russian pogroms called Ireland when they discovered it was not America. ‘Eier-land’ sounded like the German-Yiddish word for eggs. So they encoded it in Hebrew as ‘Beits’, a word-play which, had Joyce heard it, would surely have found its way onto Leopold Bloom’s breakfast plate. With latkes.

December 14, 2020 11:36

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