These Jewish Eyes Are Smiling
The Irish Connection
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday that began as a religious celebration, but has become an international festival celebrating Irish culture. This would be a good time to look at the similarities between the Irish and the Jews. At first glance, there do not seem to be many cultural connections between the two groups. However, all is not as it seems. As noted by historian Rory Fitzgerald, the similarities are many:
- Both have ancestral roots older than most other cultures (ancient Hebrews and the Celtics)
- Both call home to small countries that are contested by others (Israel and Ireland – although Ireland is about 3x larger)
- Both Israel and Ireland are home to monuments older than the pyramids of Egypt (Jethro Cairn and Stonehenge)
- 4000 year old burial chambers known as dolmens are mysteriously found in both countries
- Both have been prosecuted throughout history and wander the worlds as outsiders (both have had their own Diaspora, but maintained close bonds with their kin even from the furthest corners of the world)
- Both have a disproportionate number of Nobel laureates in their ranks
- Both countries declared their independence about the same time – Israel in April 1948 and Ireland (became a republic) in April 1949
- The Irish may have ancestors that are from the lost tribes of Israel. There is a theory that the tribe of Dan, known for their seafaring prowess may have travelled throughout Europe. There is a group that settled in Ireland known as the Tuathe De Dananna. They ruled the Emerald Isle at some time around the 7th or 8th century BCE, that some theorize may have been decedents of the Tribe of Dan (whom fled the Assyrians that tried to conquer their homeland in northern Israel). Note that the earliest known Jews to visit Ireland occurred in 1079 when five Jewish merchants brought gifts from a foreign king.
Other similarities I have found also include the harp, a symbol of Ireland, and also plays a significant role in Jewish history (David). Corned beef is the infusion of both Jewish and Irish cuisine.
Although there is no corn in it, food historian Shaylyn Esposito has pointed out in an article in Smithsonian.com that corned beef may be thought of as Irish as the Shamrock, but the current version of corned beef was heavily influenced by the Jews. Because people did not have refrigerators, they would salt meat (and fish) to preserve them for the long winter months. The Gaelic Irish had historically used cows for milk and as beasts of burden, favoring pork products for food instead. However, they had come up with a way of taking the meat off of the bone and salting the pieces of de-boned meat.
When Great Britain took over Ireland, they brought with them the taste for beef and this salted beef was imported back to the British Isles, as well as used for their navy (especially those afloat in the Pacific Ocean). They used large grains of salt to cure the beef. These large pieces of salt were called corns because they were the size of corn kernels, and although the origin of the name was not a compliment to the food, the name Irish corned beef stuck. However, the Irish people themselves (due to strict laws by the British Government) did not have money to buy beef for themselves. Due to the Great (Potato) Famine in the mid 1800s, many Irish sailed to America to find prosperity. Many did, and began to have enough money to purchase beef for their dinner table. However, the beef they bought was a different type of corned beef they had been making in Ireland. This new corned beef was purchased (almost exclusively) from shechita (שחיטה), kosher butchers. This variation of corned beef was made exclusively from a cut of meat called the brisket. Brisket is tougher than other part of the cow, but it was cheaper source of meat for the poorer immigrants. This type of corned beef still needed salt, but it also undergoes a different cooking process in order to make more tender for the palate. When Irish Americans transformed the religious holiday of St. Patrick’s Day into an Irish day of celebration – they used the Jewish version of corned beef to place atop their cabbage.
Although this article paints the Irish-Jewish relationship with rosy colors, one must also not forget that there are some darker chapters such as the Limerick Pogram, tensions between Jews and the Irish in pre-war USA, and the more recent anti-semetic comments by Irish President Mary Robinson. For the most part, this is a cultural relationship that has fared better than most. Author Brendan Behan once wrote “Others have a nationality. The Irish and the Jews have a psychosis.”
I do not have space to add a proper recipe for corned beef, but what is a good corned beef without great mustard?
6 tbs mustard seed
2/3 cup mustard powder
½ cup beer (may substitute with water)
2 tbs brown sugar
3 tbs white wine vinegar
2 tsp salt
1) Ground the mustard seed
2) Combine mustard seed, mustard powder, brown sugar, and salt in bowl
3) Add beer and stir well and let sit for 15 minutes
4) Stir in vinegar
5) Place into glass jar with lid and place in fridge for 15 hours before eating
Kurlansky, Mark, Salt: A World History (Penguin Books 2003).
“Are the Celts One of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel?” (James O’Shea” IrishCentral.com: 2016) @ http://www.irishcentral.com/news/are-the-celts-one-of-the-ten-lost-tribes-of-israel-233823021-237790101
“The Irish-Jewish Parallels” (Rory Fitzgerald: HuffingtonPost.com: 2010) @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rory-fitzgerald/the-irish-jewish-connecti_b_545088.html
“Is Corned Beef Really Irish?” (Shaylyn Esposito: Smithsonian.com: 2013) @
“Some Tales of ‘Celts’ Exposed by the Science of DNA” (Michael O’Laughlin: IrishCentral.com: 2016) @ http://www.irishcentral.com/roots/some-myths-of-tales-of-the-celts-exposed-by-the-science-of-dna-214731551-237762461