Have you ever noticed that Jews and Irish both consider corned beef their special cuisine? With the Irish national holiday coming up, I wondered: who created this dish? How is it that two very different communities came to like it so much?
Irish and Jewish, or St. Patrick’s Day and Purim
I recently discovered a group founded in New York City in the 1960s that calls itself Loyal League of Yiddish Sons of Erin and is open to any Jew born in Ireland. They get together throughout the year and celebrate their two “ancient civilizations,” including an “Erev St. Patrick’s Day” dinner. The years when Purim and St. Patrick’s Day coincide are particularly well attended considering the small number of potential members.
Mitzuyan Kosher Catering hasn’t been called as yet to cater such an event in Toronto, but we’d be happy to! Although we pride our kosher fusion menus (we look further east than Ireland for inspiration), this certainly would be an event we’d enjoy catering.
Jews Have Been in Ireland, On and Off, Since Henry II
The first Jews to land on the Emerald Isle landed in 1079, according to the Irish Jewish Community website, when five Normandy merchants visited Tairdelbach, the King of Munster. They weren’t encouraged to stay.
Over the years, Jewish communities expelled from various European kingdoms settled in Dublin and Cork, only to be expelled by royal decrees and periodic pogroms. By 1900, about 3,770 Jews lived in Ireland, more than half in Dublin. Most came from Lithuania.
The community never really grew much, even after Robert Briscoe won the first of two elections for Lord Mayor of Dublin in the 1950s; he also served in the 1960s. But outbreaks of anti-Semitic behavior led to Jewish emigration to England, North America, or Israel throughout the 20th century. The population never grew to much more than 5,500. Even today, it’s difficult to know how many Jews live in Ireland; The Times of Israel reported between 500 and 2000 in 2013.
Kosher Butchers Introduced Irish Immigrants to Corned Beef!
Interestingly, beef—corned or otherwise—wasn’t a traditional Irish staple, according to Smithsonian magazine. Few Irishmen owned cows, and those who did kept them for milk. Beef was the food of kings and the nobility. The regular folks ate a lot of bacon.
During and after the Famine, thousands of Irish emigrated to North America. Guess where they discovered corned beef?
You got it. The Irish settled into existing immigrant neighborhoods, including Jewish ones. For the first time in their lives, they had money to buy beef and shopped at the neighborhood kosher butchers. If they wanted bacon, they’d have to go to another neighborhood.
Although the two communities didn’t develop the same ties you see between Italians and Jews, the Jews and Irish do have some similar histories. Both suffered more than their fair share. Both groups have had a worldwide diaspora and left their mark on many cultures. And both are noted for literature and artistic achievements.
It was no coincidence that James Joyce made Leopold Boom the hero of his masterpiece Ulysses. Bloom was based on his good friend Aron Schmitz, an Italian Jewish writer whom Joyce tutored in English. Joyce, who read Schmitz’s Italian novels (his first language was actually German) helped get his work translated into French, which led to their re-discovery among Italian readers. If you’re inclined to look for him, he published under the name Italo Svevo.
Corned beef takes time, but it’s worth it. Here’s a recipe from Tamar Genger of Joy of Kosher that’s sure to keep Jewish and Irish eyes smiling.