Rewind - Robert Briscoe

By Sean Heffernan

For this week’s column we will be hopping on the 175 bus and taking the route 12 stops to stop 2557, Tallaght Village, Old Bawn Road.

We will then cross the road and hop on a 77A or 27 bus to stop 1424, Drimnagh Road, Crumlin Hospital, to the heart of the constituency of this week’s subject matter, Robert Briscoe.

Rewind 1

Robert Briscoe with President Kennedy in 1962

His parents were Lithuanian immigrants who had fled that country due to anti-semitic pogroms that had spread across Tsarist Russia and its adjoining territories in the 1800s.

When Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, the Imperialist Government blamed it on the Jews, issuing official proclamations decrying aspects of their culture and spreading lies alleging they were involved in devious acts, which they clearly were not.

It is reckoned that, in total, various anti-Jewish attacks in Russia and its adjacent territories led to over 2,500 deaths by 1903.

Quite a few Lithuanian Jews that fled in fear, settling down in the United Kingdom, but some then moved onward to Ireland – it was Lithuanian Jews who were victims of disgusting attacks during the Limerick pogrom of 1904.

In that case it was not a monarchy but a local Catholic priest that stirred the citizens into an anti-semitic frenzy.

In a previous edition of this column about the Dublin suburb of Portobello I went into some detail as to Dublin’s Jewish population.

Robert Briscoe was born in 1894 and his father Abraham William Briscoe operated a furniture-making factory in Ormonde Quay alongside the river Liffey, which he set up after a number of years working as a salesman selling all sorts of items.

In 1914 it is said that the father sent his son to the USA, as he feared he would be conscripted into the British Army and would have to fight in World War 1.

However the huge anti-conscription protests across the island saw to it that the Westminster Government abandoned plans to bring in conscription this side of the Irish Sea, and by 1916 the future TD was back on Irish soil.

In 1919 he was designated ‘arms procurement officer’ by Michael Collins and subsequently travelled to Germany to seek ammunitions from the Government there to aid the battle for Independence.

He also was instrumental in setting up a wool distribution company which was based in Co. Galway, but it was a mere front organisation where monies used to buy arms and other items were channelled through.

He also headed to the USA with Eamon De Valera when the future Taoiseach sought to sell so called “Green Bonds” to Irish American investors in order to raise finance so the newly setup ‘Provisional Government’ which operated in a parallel underground structure to the British rulers could begin to properly function like a bona fide administration.

During the Civil War Briscoe was very much on the side of the Anti-Treaty rebels who were not happy at the treaty signed by Michael Collins in London which, while granting wide ranging autonomy, still left George V as the overall ruler of Ireland.

In 2014, letters the Jewish rebel sent to the Military Pensions Board were made public and in them he expressed his frustration that what he termed lies about him ‘profiting from the war’ were doing the rounds.

He stressed that while his brother, who now ran the family’s import business, made money at the time, he survived on meagre finances during the period of the Civil War and was worthy of an extra financial stipend to help him meet the day to day expenses of family life.

One of the first and notable things he undertook after being elected to Dáil Eireann in 1932 for the ‘Dublin South’ constituency was to get a law passed that limited the amount of interest a moneylender could charge on a loan.

Given the dire financial straits many people in Dublin faced at the time, they dreaded having to make a trip to the loan shark to get the money for Christmas presents and food, etc, due to the amount they would likely be asked to pay back, thus this was a very important piece of legislative change.

He was a noted supporter of plans to create a new Jewish state in part of what was then the British Protectorate of Palestine in the Middle East and in this effort he made representations to US President Theodore Roosevelt where he urged him to back plans to create a new Jewish state in the Middle East and also provide the necessary means for Jews to relocate to it.

He would win 12 further elections during his lifetime, and in 1955 he would achieve another notable feat in being sworn in as the first ever Jewish Mayor of Dublin.

His son Ben would later also enter politics and himself as well as also being sworn in as Lord Mayor, represented the constituency of Dublin Central on a number of occasions.

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