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September 25: Robert Briscoe

September 24, 2015

Robert Briscoe, a son of Lithuanian Jews who was active in the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Féin during the Irish War of Independence (1919-21), was born in Ranelagh on this date in 1894. His father built up a very successful furniture manufacturing business in Ireland, while Briscoe himself — sent to America by his father to keep him from joining the Irish independence movement — built a successful Christmas lights manufacturing business in the U.S. before returning to Ireland in 1917. Family contacts in Germany would enable Briscoe, under Michael Collins’ direction, to become a main procurer of armaments for the IRA during the independence struggle. He eventually served in the principal chamber of the Irish legislature for thirty-eight years and became the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1956, two years before the publication of his autobiography, For the Life of Me. Among his legislative objectives was curtailing abusive moneylending, which had resulted in IRA targeting of some Jews. “My bill [934] regulated the interest that could be charged,” Briscoe wrote in his memoir, “and also made it illegal for a married woman to borrow money without the knowledge and consent of her husband, for these foolish ones are always the easiest prey of the moneylenders.” Briscoe’s own Jewish views were shaped by his admiration for Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionist movement; Briscoe helped to train Jabotinsky in guerrilla warfare tactics, and helped to raise funds for Irgun in the U.S.

“Briscoe had many hair’s-breadth escapes. On one occasion he emerged from a hotel room in Cobh to ‘pistols poked in his belly’ by Free State soldiers under the control of General James Emmet Dalton, who had entered the town overnight. Knowing he might be shot without trial if recognised, he claimed to be a wool merchant. One soldier asked, ‘Are you a Jewman?’ ‘Yes,’ replied Briscoe, whereupon a second declared, ‘Hold on! He’s only a Jewman. We’d be wasting our bloody time with him!’ and kicked him down the stairs and out into the street.” —Lucas Peacock, “Breaking Down Barriers”