1894: An IRA Gun Runner Who Taught Jabotinsky How to Fight the British Is Born

Robert Briscoe, equally proud of being an Irishman and a Zionist, understood all about British weakness, if he had to say so himself.

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The civic offices of the Dublin City Council, albeit different from in Robert Briscoe's day.
The civic offices of the Dublin City Council, albeit different from in Robert Briscoe's day.Credit: YvonneM, Wikimedia Commons

September 25, 1894, is the birthdate of Robert Briscoe, an Irish Republican Army gun runner, longtime member of the Irish parliament, and first Jewish mayor of Dublin. Briscoe was a colorful character, equally proud of being an Irishman and a Jew, a Zionist who instructed Ze’ev Jabotinsky in guerrilla warfare, and a kosher meat processor who once stumped the panelists on the TV show "What's My Line?" with that fact.

Robert Briscoe was born in Dublin, the third of the seven children of Abraham William Briscoe and the former Ida Yoedicke, both Lithuanian-born Jews. Abraham owned a company that manufactured and sold furniture.

The family lived in Dublin’s Ranelagh neighborhood, in the city’s south. Bob attended the Kildare Street National School, in Dublin, and the Townley Castle School, a Jewish boarding school in Ramsgate, in England, among other institutions. In 1914, his father sent him to Berlin to study electrical engineering. When World War I broke out, Germany arrested Bob as an enemy alien; he was later released in a prisoner exchange.

Define 'anti-Semitism'

Back in Ireland, he was dispatched by his father to the United States, to avoid possible conscription into the British army. On his voyage, he was asked to deliver a letter to a German diplomat in New York. Unbeknownst to Briscoe, it concerned the purchase of weapons for the Irish Republican Army.

In New York, the young Briscoe set up a small factory to manufacture Christmas lights, which he sold at a $6,000 profit, then a substantial sum, before returning home in 1917. By then, he was knowingly involved with the fight for Irish independence, and was sent during the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921 to procure weapons in Germany.

Briscoe claimed not to have experienced anti-Semitism in Ireland. On the other hand, despite his long and active involvement in politics, he never was offered a ministerial position or even a leadership role in the Dail Erann, the lower house of the Oireachtas (Irish parliament), in which he served from 1927 to 1965, representing the Fianna Fail party. Briscoe’s son Ben told historian Dermot Keogh in 1995 that his father had been told apologetically by President Eamonn de Valera that he had avoided promoting him to an overly prominent position for fear of provoking Catholic opposition.

How to fight the British

In the late 1930s, with Israel under British Mandate rule, revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky spent time in Ireland, where Briscoe and others shared with him what they knew about fighting British forces.

“I explained British military weaknesses, an d where their strength lay; and how to profit by the first, and combat – or evade – the second," Briscoe later wrote in his memoir. "In fact, I appointed myself to a full professorship with the Chair of Subversive Activity against England.”

Both before and following World War II, once he was serving in the Dail Erann, Briscoe pushed the Irish government to accept Jewish refugees from eastern Europe, but with little success. He also promoted Jabotinsky’s plan to bring a million Jews from Hitler’s Europe to mandatory Palestine, this too obviously to little effect.

One of Briscoe’s early acts as an Irish legislator was to introduce a bill that would regulate and limit the activities of moneylenders, many of whom were Jewish, and many of whom charged excessive rates and gave a bad name, he felt, to the Jewish community. This bill, which also limited the amount that a woman could borrow without her husband’s consent (because, as Briscoe recounted in his memoir, “these foolish ones are always the easiest prey of the moneylenders”), became law in 1933.

In 1956, Briscoe was elected by the Dublin city corporation to his first one-year term as lord mayor, a position he also held in 1961-62. He also owned several businesses, including a textile factory and a kosher meat-packing plant, the latter of which led to his "What's My Line?" appearance, in 1958.

In 1919, Briscoe married Lillian Melanie Isaacs. The couple, who considered themselves observant Jews, had seven children, one of whom became a Carmelite nun.

Robert Briscoe died on May 30, 1969, at the age of 74.