By Alexander Goldberg.
“Other people have a nationality. The Irish and the Jews have a psychosis”.
Maurice White’s novel ‘Keep Breathing Out’ is a welcome addition to the growing library of works attributed to Irish Jewish writers.
The book itself was published to coincide with last year’s Homecoming, an attempt by the Irish tourist board to encourage the 70 million Irish worldwide to come and visit the home country. Maurice is himself one of these exiles and it is through these eyes that the book tackles the difficult question of whether it is possible to be both Jewish and Irish.
The novel is set in the late 1960s in a small semi-fictitious Irish town called Dargle. The story tracks the experience of a locum psychiatrist, Dr David Benn, who takes up a placement in St Elba’s Mental Hospital. He has arrived in Dargle, an Irish Catholic community, in search of both Ireland and his own identity. Behind the asylum wall the locum who sees himself at first as the ‘Jew doctor from the Protestant University’ explores his own identity through a number of relationships: his Catholic lover, the hospital priest, his colleagues and the patients.
On the face of it this book is about illicit love, focussing on the relationship between the Dublin Jewish doctor and his Irish Catholic lover, Deidre Gillespie, the hospital administrator, but the book ends up exploring so much more including the place of Jews in Ireland, the role of the Roman Catholic Church, institutional child abuse, mental illness, celibacy, sex as a form of therapy and racism. This is a lot to pack into a 200 page novel and if I was to have any criticism of the book then it would be that none of these themes gets fully explored in its entirety.
Life within the walls of the asylum provides a dystopia where otherness can be explored rapidly. The captives are thrown together both day and night with unusual consequences. In such an environment time can be sped up and the novel is fast paced which is mechanism that enables it to jump between themes.
The overarching theme of whether it was possible to be both Irish and Jewish in 1960s Ireland is not new. The author, who is a psychiatrist, signals his intention to explore this theme through from the start and selects as the novel’s epithet Brendan Brehan’s quote “Other people have a nationality. The Irish and the Jews have a psychosis”. The novel in many ways rejects this double identity idea and the lead character sees himself very much as a Jew. The author sees the Jewish neighbourhood of Terenure in Dublin as some sort of safe haven for Jews with its Jewish school, community and other comforts. David sees the world through the prism of his Jewish identity as he says ‘One thing you can’t change is being a Jew’. And yet we see his love of Ireland coming through: the character is madly keen on horse racing, the pub culture and perhaps surprisingly Benn (like the book’s author) shares a fascination of pig farming.
Deidre seems to accept Benn’s commentary on his Jewishness and otherness without really challenging it. She seems accepting of him whilst those around the couple take sides on the acceptability of the match. For me, the author sets Deidre up as an allegory of Ireland herself and Benn is someone who is desperate to embrace her, love her and hold her like many of the Jews living there in the middle of the twentieth century. Sometimes she lets him down but mainly it is those around her, especially her family, who are most hostile to Benn.
What seems particularly surprising in the novel is that there appears to be no resistance at all from Benn’s family on his relationship. His widower father seems quite supportive if anything. I find this part of the book the most difficult. The fairy traditional Litvish Irish Jewish community was hardly renowned for its endorsement of interfaith relationships in the 1960s anymore than the Irish Catholic majority. The progressive Jewish father adds to the dystopia in this novel. For me, he seems to be a much more secular 21st Century figure who does not necessarily fit the mold of the Jewish parents of the 1950s and 1960s, especially the ones who sent their children to Dublin’s only Jewish school.
It seems that Benn’s father is more of a 21st Century figure whilst the Gillespies is perhaps closer to the attitudes of the times and not just for Ireland. This does not excise their probable antisemitism, far from it, but I am not sure that a middle class and influential Catholic or Protestant family in England or the US would have been all that much more accepting of their daughter’s Jewish lover in 1969 than the Gillespies are in this novel.
Throughout England is presented as some sort of liberal utopia in this novel: open, liberal, sexually liberated and free from the shackles of the Church. This might be true but it does not answer the key question that the novel is posing: can someone be Jewish and Irish or Jewish or British? And the underlying and never openly asked question in this novel is why did the Jewish community leave Ireland in the thousands?
Ireland’s Jewish community never peaked much over 5000 at its height during the interwar years and at the time this novel is set hundreds of young people left the community and migrated abroad to the UK, America, Israel and the Commonwealth. There has been a passionate debate within the Irish Jewish community of whether Jews were accepted but ultimately driven out due to economics or a more revisionist narrative that they left due to anti-Semitism.
The two counter-narratives go like this. The first see Ireland as good to the Jews, welcoming and embracing. When Jews were being rounded up and slaughtered in Europe the Jews found refuge, employment and acceptance in Ireland. The country is predominantly Catholic but the original Irish Constitution specifically recognised Jews as part of the new Republic. Irish nationalist such as Parnell were philosemites, intervening in the Cork dockers strike of the 1880s, to take a stand against anti-Jewish sentiments. Jews, in turn joined the 1916 Easter Uprising (including two or my great aunts). In turn, the Irish supported Zionist causes and armed Jewish fighters in Palestine in the 1930s and later gave Israel both a Chief Rabbi and a President. Jews in Ireland were made judges, Government Ministers, Lord Mayors and had honours bestowed on them. Indeed, Irish Jewish culture is celebrated to this day and Ireland’s greatest novel Ulysses having as its central character, Bloom, someone with Jewish Heritage. Each year Dublin celebrates Bloomsday. The reason the Jews left was purely economic. Ireland has exported millions of people over the last two centuries and over 70 million people worldwide could claim Irish citizenship. The Jews followed this pattern and that of many highly educated middle class Irish and migrated in the hope of finding a suitable job and higher standard of living.
The other narrative is that the Jews arrived in Ireland in the 1880s (at least the current community) were faced anti-Jewish sentiments that were more common and more extreme than elsewhere in the British Isles. This culminated in the Limerick Pogrom of 1904 following an anti-Jewish speech by Father Creagh, a Redemptorist priest (which is mentioned in the novel). Senior figures in the establishment of the state, particularly Arthur Griffiths, the founder of Sinn Fein, was anti-Semitic and indeed some of his followers went on to have Nazi sympathies. During the 1930s there was a visible group of anti-Jewish Fascists called the Blueshirts roaming around Ireland (who later merged into today’s Governing Party Fine Gael). The Free State and the Republic favoured the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church became all powerful in Ireland and until nostra aestate was not complimentary about the Jews. In this narrative Ireland is seen as homogenous or perhaps a land of two tribes: one Green and one Orange. It was not a centre of mass migration in the same way London, Manchester, Paris or New York had become by then. To be truly Irish in the south you needed to be Catholic. Catholicism and Irish identity were too wrapped up in one another. The Jews were never accepted.
White follows the second narrative. He or Benn want to embrace Ireland. The author rejects the Zionist narrative in an interesting scene in the book where he sees the local Jewish narrative on the Middle East as fanciful. It is not a choice between competing nationalisms in this novel but whether Ireland will accept him and in the end it seems it doesn’t. Not only does his lover’s family reject him but also his colleagues. We are left with the feeling that his locum position would never be made a full-time. He does have friends and he does have those who are supportive of him and his relationship but we are left with the feeling others are not. His love of Deidre and of Ireland is sincere and embedded but it is Ireland who forces him out. It can’t accept his relationship. The novel views the Church as immoral and corrupt. This echoes a trend in Irish literature. Indeed it gives a bit of a nod and wink to Ulysses. However, the current iconoclastic and anti-clerical trend in Irish literature at the moment following the child abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. White is unforgiving in his attack on the Church and does it through the person of Fintan, the priest in the asylum. The book speaks of the depravity of Fintan’s priest uncle, the issues he has with what he has seen being done to children and also his own celibacy. Ultimately, he allows himself to be worked on by some of those in the hospital that favour very alternative forms of treatment (through flagellation and living out his extreme sexual fantasies). Fintan’s relationship with Benn is complex. Whilst Benn and Deidre seem to ultimately forgive his various indiscretions the author does not. By the end of the book, we are left with a broken man.
Whether, it be Benn, Deidre, Fintan, or the unfortunate inmate Nellie, (who is placed in the asylum for 20 years because she became pregnant outside marriage) all the characters share the dilemma of whether they should escape their personal asylums: the Church (Fintan), institutionalism (Nellie), her family’s preconceived ideas (Deidre) or Ireland (David Benn). For sure all feel trapped both in their personal asylums and for me it is the author’s portrayal of being trapped in Ireland or by questions of identity that I find concerning.
Perhaps, it is possible that you do not have to extract your Jewishness to become Irish or your Irishness to become Jewish. The relationship with Ireland and its Jews is complex. Bloom is still the most famous Irish Jew despite neither being Jewish or real. Perhaps dystopia and reality merge in a land built on stories on banshees, leprechauns and giants. Only recently, the edge of the district in Cork that the locals still refer to as Jewtown, the old ghetto where no Jews live today, they have opened a New York style bar. The locals decided that it would be fitting to name it after my grandfather, a well-known local Jew, and so there is a bar that bears my family name: Goldberg. What greater honour can you have in Ireland? What greater celebration is there of Irish-Jewish-ness? Just like the leprechauns the Irish Jew has become part of the landscape, blending fiction and reality into the narrative.
You see in exploring the psychosis of being Jewish and Irish perhaps Benn is right in his remarks that he will always be a Jew but I come away from this novel thinking that it is impossible to take the Irishman out of the Jew or the Jew out of the Irishman: Benn is more Irish than he cares to admit. I end up disagreeing with the novel in terms of its underlying analysis of Jewish-Irish relations and wish in parts it had been more positive about the Irish Jewish experience and more self-reflective on Jewish attitudes to Ireland itself. However, I enjoyed the read and it left me wanting more and asking many questions on this subject. No doubt I shall have to ponder these questions and that of Irish Jewish identity over a nice cold pint at a quayside in Ireland…
Alexander Goldberg is an international consultant on intercultural, interfaith and community relations. He is Jewish Chaplain to the University of Surrey, chair of the FA’s Faith Committee and co-presents a monthly programme on BBC radio.
Keep Breathing Out by Maurice White, Kennedy and Boyd 2013.