Robert Briscoe, Irish republican, Irish Jew and Irish TD. Briscoe is perhaps unique among many Irish historical figures in playing a role in the independence struggle and formation of two different states, Ireland and Israel. An expert gun-runner and charismatic politician his work on behalf of both countries was legendary but now largely forgotten except perhaps in the USA who took to this extraordinary man and his amazing story.
Robert (Bob) Briscoe’s father, a Lithuanian Jew, came to Ireland in the 1880’s to escape the pogroms against the Jews taking place at that time. He identified with the growing nationalism and Gaelic revival of late 19th century Ireland. Like many of his fellow countrymen he initially worked as a peddler but by 1914 had become a prosperous businessman. In 1894 Bob was born, his father choosing to call him Robert Emmet Briscoe after the executed 18th century Irish patriot Robert Emmet.
In 1914, his father sent him to Berlin to study electrical engineering. When World War I broke out, Bob was arrested as an enemy alien; he was later released in a prisoner exchange. On his return to Ireland his father, probably concerned at the possibility of conscription, dispatched his son to New York. It was said that on the voyage he fell in love with Nora Connolly, daughter of James Connolly who asked him to take care of a sealed envelope. After clearing immigration Nora was met by James Larkin, the labor leader and Bob was asked for the envelope. At that point, Briscoe realized that he had been her courier. This was his first action for Irish freedom, albeit it unwittingly. He later learned the papers he had carried into America were dispatches from James Connolly to German Ambassador Count von Bernstorff. They were the beginning of what was known as the "German Plot."
By 1916 Bob had established himself in New York having set up a factory making Christmas Lights! From a distance, he followed the events taking place in Dublin during and after Easter Week 1916. They had a profound effect on him galvanizing his Irish Nationalist feelings and he began moving in Republican circles in New York attending meetings of the clandestine Clan na Gael organization. He was recruited by Liam Mellows, an IRA leader and returned to Ireland in 1917 having sold his factory. Because he had not been involved in 1916 he was not known to the British authorities which proved invaluable to the fledgling IRA.
In Ireland he operated under the pseudonym Captain Swift establishing a clothing business as a front for his gun running operations for the Irish Republican movement. Michael Collins appointed Briscoe to his personal staff and sent him to post war Germany which was awash with arms after Germany’s defeat. He acquired a huge cache of arms but now began to come to the attention of the British authorities. Despite this he successfully smuggled arms into Ireland on the tugboats, Frieda and the City of Dortmund. Legend has it that British Navy vessels were waiting outside the port of Hamburg to pick up Briscoe from the arms laden tug. The first tugboat left port and was chased by the British Navy. When they boarded, they found it laden with concrete but no sign of any guns or Briscoe. Meantime as soon as he knew the coast was clear he left on the second boat laden with arms and steamed for Ireland. He continued to be involved with the struggle for independence from 1917 through to 1921 working closely with Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera and liaising with Clan na Gael the main support organization in the US.
As an anti-Treaty Sinn Féiner during the Irish Civil War, he carried out an audacious take over of the Irish Consulate in New York. As a constitutional politician, he together with his friend Éamon De Valera, were founding members of Fianna Fail (the governing party in Ireland for much of the 20th century) and was elected to the Irish parliament, Dáil Eireann, in 1927 as the first Jewish member of the Dáil. He continued to be reelected until his retirement in 1965. In the early days of the “Free State” ,as Ireland became known ,after the Cival War Briscoe met antisemitism from both pro and anti treaty factions and in December 1927 an unmarked car pulled alongside him and shots were fired. He was a marked man as both a Republican and a Jew subject to all sorts of innuendo and rumor including that he had instigated the assassination of Michael Collins which was patently untrue.
In the 1930’s Briscoe was quick to recognize the serious danger of the rise of Nazism and the gathering storm clouds over Europe. He drew upon the same Irish American contacts he had developed during his time in New York to raise funds to help Jews escaping the Holocaust. He worked tirelessly to rescue European Jews from the Nazis, crossing Europe and the United States warning of the coming holocaust. Briscoe’s Jewishness was not something he thought much about but with the growing tide of Nazism and fascism across Europe he became more aware of the plight of Jews and the need for them to find refuge. He knew little about Zionism but was drawn to the Revisionist Zionist Leader, Vladimir Jabotinsky, who sent him on missions to the US and Poland. Another mission was to South Africa where he raised money used to purchase ships to bring East European Jews to Palestine. He was less successful in his efforts to get Jewish refugees into Ireland. Ranged against him was a wall of opposition including clerics, politicians and civil servants. During WW2 he attempted to obtain a rescue ship for Hungarian Jews, sailing under Irish Colours but failed to obtain the necessary government permission. He also failed to obtain visas for many German Jews including his Aunt Hedwig and her daughter. Hedwig died in Auschwitz along with 150 other members of Briscoe’s extended family. The argument put forward for not granting visas was Ireland’s neutrality. His inability to do anything about the situation weighed heavily and had a lifelong effect on him.
After WW2 he subversively advised and assisted the Zionist Irgun group who fought the British in Palestine with deadly effect. He used his own experiences of Ireland’s civil war to convince Menachem Begin, the leader of the Israeli resistance, to abandon the Irgun as a physical force movement and convert it to a constitutional party. He bitterly regretted the conflict in Ireland over the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the civil war which followed. In the rise of a Hebrew republic in 1948, Briscoe saw a parallel with the Irish experience. In 1950 an out-of-office De Valera visited Israel with Briscoe and they dined with Ben-Gurion at Chief Rabbi Herzog's home.
As a Dublin City Councillor he became the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Ireland’s Capital City in 1956 and again became Lord Mayor in 1961. A staunch supporter of both Fianna Fail and De Valera he also had to deal with anti-Semitism during his political career both within certain elements of government and the civil service though he claimed never to have experienced anti-Semitism in Ireland. In an interview given to us by his late son Joe in 2007 he said this was unlikely to have been the case based on released government papers. In his long and very active role in politics he was never appointed to either a ministerial position or any leadership role in Dáil Éireann (lower house of the Irish parliament) in which he served from 1927 to 1965. His son Ben said President Eamonn de Valera, his lifelong friend, apologized to him saying the reason for not promoting him to a prominent position was for fear of provoking Catholic opposition.
Briscoe was a colorful character, equally proud of being an Irishman and a Jew. In post second world war America Bob Briscoe was a legendary figure both lauded by Irish Americans and Jewish Americans alike for his extraordinary work on behalf of both groups. His trips to America often involved ticker tape parades particularly when he visited as the Lord Mayor of Dublin during his two separate terms of office.
- Written by Dave Farrell