January 11, 1904 was the day that a Catholic priest in Limerick, Ireland, gave an incendiary speech defaming the Jews of his city, and ignited a commercial boycott that drove some of the town’s Jews away.
At the turn of the 20th century, Limerick – today a city of some 100,000 in south-central Ireland – had some 38,000 residents, about 170 of whom were Jewish. Most were small-businessmen, either peddlers or owners of shops on Collooney Street. Some were moneylenders. A majority had arrived during the preceding two decades from Lithuania, in the wake of the pogroms that rocked the Jews of the Russian empire following 1881.
What happened in Limerick in 1904 is also commonly referred to as the “Limerick pogrom,” but the term is misleading as no one was killed, and the anti-Jewish activity was not, for the most part, physically violent.
Still, an economic boycott can have devastating effects on a community, and the sentiments voiced by Father John Creagh and echoed by other public figures could have appeared in Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer newspaper a few decades later.
The Redemptorist church where Father Creagh preached was situated a few minutes’ walk from Collooney Street, and indeed his verbal attack that Monday evening focused on the economic devastation that Limerick’s Jews – who had come to the city “to fasten themselves on us like leeches and to draw our blood” – were supposedly wreaking on their Christian neighbors.
“The Jews came to Limerick apparently the most miserable tribe imaginable, with want on their faces, and now they have enriched themselves,” declared Creagh. “Their rags have been exchanged for silk.”
He then proceeded to explain how they accomplished this.
“They go about as peddlers from door to door, pretending to offer articles at very cheap prices, but in reality charging several times more than in the shops ... and the people are blind to their tricks,” he claimed.
Creagh combined these contemporary charges with the age-old libel that the Jews had crucified Jesus, and that they possessed “an unquenchable hatred for the name of Jesus Christ and his followers.”
As Creagh’s followers departed the church, which was affiliated with the Arch Confraternity of the Sacred Heart, an estimated 200 of them gravitated over to the Jewish neighborhood, and began pelting their homes and businesses with mud and rocks, breaking windows.
A few days later, Creagh spoke again. He claimed to be opposed to violence, and instead recommended that the way to respond to the threat of the Jews was with a boycott of their businesses.
Several local papers endorsed Creagh’s call, and at least one well-known public figure – the nationalist politician Arthur Griffith, who the following year was to found the Sinn Féin party – voiced support for the action.
The confraternity to which Father Creagh belonged also sent a statement of “best wishes on his recent lectures on the ways and means of Jewish trading,” adding that the organization’s 6,000 members “express [their] full confidence in his views.” However, both the bishop of Limerick and the Catholic bishop of Ireland, Thomas Bunbury, strongly criticized Creagh’s diatribes.
The boycott, which according to some sources went on for as long as two years, was only partially successful in ridding Limerick of its Jews. Of the 31 Jewish families resident in the city in 1904, five are believed to have picked up and moved. They included several families (the Goldbergs and the Marcuses, for example) who went on to make their marks on Irish life. Others left for England or other points.
As for Father John Creagh, he was moved by his superiors – first to Belfast, but eventually to an island in the Pacific. Later, he was appointed vicar apostolic of Kimberley, in Western Australia. He died in New Zealand, in 1947.
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