During the weeks before Passover in April 1916, a young Jewish woman in Dublin was busily tending the lettuces in her garden. Estella Solomons was not, as she had told her parents, collecting vegetables for the Passover Seders. Rather, she was concealing guns and ammunition among the greenery to be collected later that evening by members of her local branch of the Irish Citizen Army. At 34, Solomons had interpreted the global Jewish demand for justice as a personal obligation to free Ireland. She had placed herself at the center of Ireland’s revolutionary network, which in reality comprised of nationalists across all classes and religious communities—Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant.
In the spring of 1916, controversial plans were being made not only for a military revolt, but for the introduction of a political system known as Home Rule, which could replace the British Crown. After many failed and postponed attempts to bring in a Home Rule bill during the Great War, a growing network of men and women’s paramilitary organizations had decided to take matters into their own hands. The slums of Dublin, still recovering from the reoccurring famines of the 19th century, became the focal point of the Home Rule movement. The Irish Citizens Army grew impatient for the end of war and the unfulfilled promise of autonomy, and came to the conclusion that power would only be handed over if claimed by force. This frustration was felt by a minority within the city’s Jewish quarter, where Solomons lived.
While a number of Dublin’s Jews joined the Allied front in the war, most, including recent arrivals from tsarist Russia and Poland, remained in Dublin to work. This Jewish minority, often overlooked in national remembrance, played an intriguing role in the Rising that followed, and Solomons was at the forefront of their participation. Drawing on the Jewish Museum of Dublin’s archives of newspapers, correspondence, and historical literature, along with Solomons’s legacy of paintings documenting the Rising, we can look back, in time for the upcoming 100th anniversary of the rebellion, held on April 24, to appreciate the role that Irish Jewish women played in the fight for independence.
Shortly before the Rising broke out in 1916, Solomons, driven by outrage at the political marginalization of her Irish contemporaries, joined Cumann na mBan, the women’s division of the independence movement. Her search for autonomy from the middle-class suburban Jewish home in which she had been raised led her to the art universities of London and Paris, where she studied from age 18 to 24. She returned unmarried to Dublin, where she lived with her parents, and became a well-known artist in the cultural underground that nourished young nationalists, renting an art studio on Pearse Street. In the streets of Dublin, she witnessed the harsh suppression of republican activism by the Royal Irish Constabulary. One day, while sketching Dublin’s slums from Wellington Quay, she was questioned by the Royal Irish Constabulary, who became suspicious and banned her from sketching in public places, an event that undoubtedly contributed toward her joining Cumann na mBan. Solomons began to identify politically with Irish nationalism, and celebrated the Irish volunteers and revolutionary culture through art. She painted the republican volunteers who took refuge from the authorities in her studio, sent to her by her comrades in Cumann na Mban. Solomons’s main contact in 1916 was the Butterman, a milkman who taught her how to fire a handgun should the Royal Irish Constabulary arrive to search her home, and whose wife she painted.
Solomons was not the sole Jew in Cumann na mBan, and was joined by two other Jewish women in 1916. Fanny and Molly Goldberg lived in the same Jewish quarter as Solomons, known as Dublin’s “Little Jerusalem,” and were only 20 and 23 years old when they began working on the weapons committee of the women’s volunteer force. Despite public disapproval, these nationalist women refused the role of bystander and became active participants in the fighting. Irish militant feminists were persuaded by Countess Markievicz and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, leaders of the Irish suffragette movement, that the republican cause would boost their own struggle for independence and participation in politics. There would be no freedom for women, they were told, without freedom for Ireland. Indeed, women’s campaigns often faced similar dilemmas as those faced by Jewish communities, directing loyalty toward the most likely protector of their civil rights and safety.
Solomons experienced the various dilemmas that arose from the revolution through the reality of her Jewishness, Irishness, and womanhood, a complex identity that she maneuvered to her own advantage during the Rising. Her Orthodox family disapproved of her new acquaintances. When Estella’s brother-in-law, a private in the British Army on leave from the Allied front in Europe, came to spend Passover with his sister’s family, Estella sequestered his uniform for use by the Irish volunteers in the Rising. This minor domestic dispute was a reflection of battles happening in homes around Ireland; family members and indeed entire Jewish communities were divided by the events of 1916, which highlighted generational, religious, and political differences.
Previous attempts had been made to create a solid dialogue between nationalists and the Irish Jewish community. Indeed, contemporary Zionist writers often exchanged ideas with the Irish nationalists who supported their cause. Republicans such as James Connolly published their voting leaflets in Dublin in Yiddish, appealing to the Zionist-nationalist sentiments in the community as a parallel. Yet the cooperation caused an outcry among the traditionalists of the community. In September 1908, the “Judeo-Irish Home Rule Movement” held its first meeting in Dublin, but ended in physical clashes between loyalists and republicans on the first night of its opening. It received criticism from within the Jewish community, who feared its existence would lead to the classification of Irish Jews as conspirators against the Crown, and eventual retaliation by the authorities in the form of sanctions.
Their fears were not unfounded. Jewish communities in Ireland were not exempt from British suspicions of republican conspiracy and came under scrutiny by the authorities during the Great War. Any expression of nationalist sentiment, however minor or fleeting, did not go unnoticed, and the neutral majority was often punished collectively for a minority’s involvement in the Home Rule movement. This entailed violent excursions into the homes and businesses of those accused. One newspaper in the city of Cork reported that the home of a 60-year-old Jewish woman was raided by the infamous Black and Tans, the special military force later sent to suppress Zionist paramilitary networks in British Mandatory Palestine; she had a heart attack and died when they burst into her bedroom armed in the middle of the night. Many British and Irish Jews of German origin were also suspected by the British authorities as being overly friendly with their former countrymen. Belfast’s Lord Mayor, Sir Otto Jaffe, a German-born Jew, was accused by his political peers of being a German spy and forced to resign his post and leave Ireland in 1916. The war revived old tensions, religious and racial, and the authorities were not immune to anti-Semitic conspiracies, even in Ireland.
This threat, however, did not deter Irish Jews who empathized with the independence movement. Dublin’s Jewish quarter produced revolutionaries such as Robert Briscoe, who fought in the War of Independence and procured arms from Germany, Ireland’s closest ally during the war. Briscoe famously declared that being Jewish did not undermine his loyalty to the Irish Free State, where he was later elected 12 times to the parliament. The religious community followed Briscoe’s example during the Rising and War of Independence. Ireland’s Chief Rabbi, Isaac Herzog, who later became the chief rabbi of Israel, became known as the “Republican Rabbi” during this period for his advocation of Irish independence, and stirred controversy in 1916 while serving the pro-royalist community in Belfast. Later in 1922, Rabbi Herzog was among the first to receive for his inspection the first Irish Constitution, which included a clause on the freedom to practice Judaism in the proposed Irish Free State. The Irish Jewish position on independence combined a civil and religious sense of duty, and while many held halakhic views against the revolutionary violence that exploded across the city on the last day of Passover, Solomons did not.
Solomons’ public involvement with Cumann na mBan showed a lack of concern for accusations of treason. The little sympathy she held for the Allied cause during the Great War was undermined by the events at home, and like many she felt betrayed by the postponement of Britain’s promise of Home Rule. Solomons never declared herself a political enemy of Britain, yet her participation in arms and ammunition trafficking could have been tried for treason in the tense months before the Rising. Her fellow volunteer Nora Connolly brought information on Allied naval war plans to the German ambassador in 1914, shortly before republican Roger Casement’s arms contract with Germany was revealed. These events confirmed to the British government that the Irish independence movement could be a potential wartime threat, resulting in harsher sentences for those convicted of conspiracy.
On April 24, 1916, the last day of Passover, Estella Solomons’s ideological commitment was tested when the Irish Citizen Army occupied the city’s institutions by force, killing sentries and citizens who stood in their way. Dreams of a coup-d’état rapidly turned into a violent reality. Ireland’s Rising began swiftly, and brought the city center to a halt. Streets were divided between British Army units and republican snipers who occupied strategic public buildings, such as the General Post Office and Dublin City Hall, using the windows to fire at the British Army. Cumann na mBan worked as agents transporting ammunition, able to avoid detection precisely because they were women. Solomon and several other Jewish women, including the Goldberg sisters, smuggled ammunition from Portobello, Dublin’s Jewish quarter, to Sackville Street, where the rebels had occupied the General Post Office and other strategic buildings. Two hundred women took part in trafficking ammunition under long, voluminous skirts, while those who chose to wear the uniform and carry a gun actively participated in the exchange of fire with the British Army in the city center.
Women, children and elderly non-combatants were killed by the crossfire. Civilian deaths reached 485, partially because both the British Army and Irish Citizens Army regarded civilians as possible adversaries in the Rising. Unarmed members of the Metropolitan Police were shot by the rebels, and armed civilians were shot by the Royal Irish Regiment. The public had mixed feelings toward the paramilitary forces who announced themselves the new government by proclamation of a Free State, and who had set up barricades in streets, parks, and public institutions. The Irish Citizen Army found themselves at odds with the public whom they claimed to serve, and whose loyalty they had demanded. On several occasions, citizens who attempted to dismantle the barricades or enter the public buildings were shot dead. The rebels also failed to take the city’s main university, Trinity College, where students joined the guards and defended the buildings.
The confrontation persisted for five days, partially due to the large amounts of Republican ammunition amassed before the Rising in different locations across the city. The British Army and Royal Constabulary, who were not forewarned of the Rising, defended themselves when the rebels tried to blow up several barracks across the city, and quickly gained ground through the use of cannons and heavy artillery. The Rising’s fate was decided by the ratio of ammunition, and the rebels simply could not compete with the British Army’s reserves of arms and ammunition. The Rising ended as rapidly as it began, when republican ammunition ran out. Gradually the occupied buildings were secured or destroyed by the British Army, and the rebels arrested.
Their trial for treason culminated with 16 deaths in May, when the rebels were shot one by one by firing squad. Authorities assumed this decision would mute nationalism until the end of the war. In reality, the trial provoked a public outcry which replaced the former disapproval and indifference shown toward militant republicans. It garnered more support for civil and military action against the British ruling class, and sparked the War of Independence in 1918. Support reverberated across the capital, even within Dublin’s Jewish quarter, where debates about the future of Ireland took over many Shabbat tables. Solomons was an active participant in the War of Independence, which culminated in the creation of an independent state in 1922, and spent the remainder of her life remembering those who fought for its creation through art, her chosen vehicle of revolution in peacetime.
The centenary of the 1916 Rising remembers the revolution as the spark that lit the fire of independence. However, the nuances of the revolution are overshadowed in the present nationalist narrative and its martyrs. Few of the Jewish political figures who fought for Irish independence are embraced in national remembrance, nor are those who opposed the declaration of a Free State. Just as nations are created with boundaries, they generate casualties of memory. Many, however, survive. The image of Estella Solomons, who at 34 years old stood alongside the women of the Rising, has resurfaced as a survivor of Jewish memory.
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