Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona dhuit!
!יום פטריק הקדוש שמח
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
On at least one occasion in American Jewish history, all three of these greetings would have been appropriate during the holiday festivities. As Saint Patrick Day approaches, a look back to 1957 highlights a moment in which Jewish America was in the spotlight on the most auspiciously Irish day of the year in two of the most arguably Irish American cities.
Over the weekend of St. Patrick’s Day, 1957, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Robert Briscoe, paid a visit to both New York City and Boston. While on tour in the United States, the Lord Mayor participated in both city’s festivities for the Christian feast day, leading the St Patrick’s Day parade in New York on Saturday and in Boston on Sunday. Briscoe was unique among special and honored guests of the parade’s history, as he was an orthodox Jewish Irishman, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin. His arrival and participation in both American cities was greeted with tremendous fanfare from Irish and Jewish Americans alike. Supported by both the United Jewish Appeal and the Irish Societies of America, his US tour made national headlines for the unique confluence of identities he presented.
He was so well-received in New York, in fact, that New York Mayor Robert Wagner joked, “I’m glad Bob Briscoe isn’t running against me,” in reference to his enthusiastic response from both Irish and Jewish New York constituencies.1 The Irish community rejoiced in his authentic brogue, his jovial manner, and clear demonstration of Irish nationalism. The Jewish community celebrated his synagogue visits, granting him honors (aliyot) at the congregations where he prayed, and extolling his consultation with orthodox rabbis about his Saturday participation in the New York parade, concluding that it was not considered “work,” and was permitted for him to attend as an observant Jew.2
As he walked though New York City to the synagogue for sabbath morning services, he stopped to visit a catholic Cardinal, and deliver gifts from the Archbishop of Dublin (including chocolates, rosary beads, and a glass bowl), and the cardinal assured him that his arrival was the most exciting event in some time. When Briscoe remarked that he must away to synagogue, the Cardinal joked, “Be sure to leave all those Rosary beads here,” and both laughed genially. He strolled the city, charming those he met, and even greeted NYPD officers with a “Top o’ the morning” to positive response.
His reception in Boston is particularly interesting for the controversy around his inclusion at the head of the parade. In the days leading up to his arrival, Fr. Leonard Feeney, an American Jesuit priest, leader of what would become known as “The Boston Heresy,” and editor of “The Point,” attacked the fact of his involvement, particularly because the parade was delayed a day for Briscoe’s arrival from Saturday to Sunday, to accommodate Mayor Briscoe’s inclusion in the New York City St Patrick’s Day parade.
“The Catholics of Boston,” he explained, “have been instructed to hold off on their tributes to Saint Patrick until [the] anticipated Jew arrives to witness the proceedings.” Though Feeney railed against Briscoe in the harshest of terms, what is most interesting about his vitriol is who he blames for the Irish Mayor’s Jewish heritage infringing upon the celebrations of Saint Patrick. The fault, he explained did not lie with the native Irish, who elected Briscoe, because “the glaring historical truth of the matter is that only lately have the Irish ever seen a Jew. And although instructed by their Faith that the Jews are a perfidious and deicide race, the Irish have never had the lesson driven home for them the way the Poles and the French and the Italians and the Germans and the Spaniards have.” So, he concludes, the guilt lies with American Jews, who claim to emphasize unity by demonstrating “that most fantastic of twentieth century myths: the notion that Jew and Christian can be hyphenated, that Christianity and Judaism are common foundations of a common culture…”
In the week proceeding the event, the Fr. Feeney and his “Feeneyites” met on Boston Common, gathering a crowd of over 500 carrying images of Saint Patrick, six foot high crucifixes, and images of the Virgin Mary. Speakers called Briscoe names (“kike,” “devil,” “Christ-hating Briscoe,” and “scrootch owl” among them), and ridiculed Catholic Boston for spoiling the holiday with the Dublin Jew at the head of the parade, allowing the Jews to attempt a “takeover” of the holiday. They called for a curse on Briscoe, and shouts of “Heil Hitler” and Nazi salutes abounded when Feeney took the stage.3
The beauty in this story that counters such ugly accusations is in the earnest and undeniable triumph of the belief in harmonious unity across Boston. Among Jewish, Catholic, and Irish populations, Bostonians rejoiced in the demonstration of Irish heritage and culture brought by the Jewish Lord Mayor from Dublin. His reception among the Catholic majority in Boston was so positive, and his presence so appreciated, that when the Feeneyites next met (even the same public speakers) back at the Boston Common, they avoided any mention of Briscoe’s name or his successful visit to the city.
Although his visit may not be remembered as particularly significant today, the visit of the Jewish Mayor of Dublin presented an example of patriotism and participatory citizenship of embraced national minorities that resonated with Americans of many backgrounds. According to the Boston Globe, Briscoe was met with “the most extraordinary acclaim extended to a foreign visitor in recent memory,” and brought “a record 450,000 to the St. Patrick Day parade in South Boston.”4 Even among the Native American population he was honored during his visit, presented with a feathered headdress by the Southern Cheyenne Sioux Nation, making him an honorary chief.5
Though his term as Lord Mayor ended after only one year, Briscoe, mayor of a city 3,000 miles away, had profound effect on the Irish and Jewish communities in Boston. After leaving office, the Jewish Times remembered his impact, explaining that he had helped to bring greater understanding and more mutual respect between the communities, and “served to perfection his dual roles as a staunch and loyal Irishman and as a devout and religious Jew.” The admiration and affection he garnered from the Jewish and Irish communities is evident in the language used to describe him. He fulfilled his duties, the Jewish Times concluded, “with the twinkle and sparkle of the fabled leprechaun and the wisdom and sincerity of the sages of old.”6
1 The Times Record, March 16, 1957, Page 1.
2 Irving Spiegel, “Briscoe Attends Pre-Purim Rites: Lord Mayor Prays at Altar in Traditional Prayer Shawl—Pays Visit to Cardinal,” New York Times, Mar 17, 1957, p. 52.
3 All of this from the report of Isadore Zack, March 18, 1957, for the New England Regional Office of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
4 Leo Shapiro, “Irish Patrol Crams 3 Extra Visits Into Boston Tour Before Departure,” Boston Globe, March 20, 1957.
5 “Lord Mayor First Irish Jew Sioux,” Deadwood Pioneer Times, April 18, 1962.
6 “The Lord Mayor Retires,” The Jewish Times, July 4, 1957, page 6.