Belfast ‘pogroms’, Rabbi Rosenzweig and Winston Churchill

Famously the term ‘pogrom’ has been used and criticised when applied to political violence in Belfast. But it’s use goes back to at least 1911 when Belfast Rabbi Jacob Rosenzweig wrote about anti-Jewish violence in Wales. Contemporary newspapers widely reported on Eastern European pogroms. So, when people at the time used the term ‘pogrom’ it appears intentional.

In August 1911, Rabbi Rosenzweig wrote to the London Evening News about attacks on Jewish property in South Wales. While German-born, the Rabbi had spent eleven years in South Wales and couldn’t reconcile the anti-Semitic attacks with his own experience of the people of the area. He went on to say “I shudder at the precarious position in which my people in the north of Ireland would be situated, for the first few months at all events, if Home Rule should be granted.

During 1911, Tredegar, Ebbw Vale, Cwm, Caerphilly and Baergoed saw Jewish properties attacked and looted. Tredegar had also seen vicious anti-Irish riots in the past, such as in 1882. This was eventually brought under control by the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, bringing in the army. At the time, Churchill described the violence as a ‘pogrom’.

The Irish News (29/8/1911) suggested that Rosenzweig’s comments were correct. It stated that “We are told in every issue of the Orange Press that ‘Ulster Unionists will kick up a bloody war’ if Home Rule is granted, and we fancied the only enemy they think of fighting is the Catholic and Nationalist community. But Mr Rosenzweig apparently fears they will enhance the pogrom with a massacre of Israelites.

This seems to have introduced the term ‘pogrom’ into the vocabulary used to describe political violence in Ireland. Early in 1912, the Strabane Chronicle reported on unionist threats to oppose Home Rule by the Ulster Unionist Council calling on “All the scum of Belfast, the worst dregs of the populace…” and asked if the “Ulster Unionist Council is anxious for the pogrom that will result.

In 1912, Home Rule appeared imminent. Recent parliamentary reforms had meant that the end was in sight for the decades long obstruction and torturous progress of Home Rule Bills for Ireland through the British parliament (albeit, a ‘parliament’ elected solely by the tiny wealthier and male fraction of the adult population). Now, procedural changes meant that Home Rule could no longer be frustrated in the unelected upper chamber.

On the Twelfth of July in 1912, in particular, anti-Catholic and anti-Home Rule violence became an issue. The ‘special correspondent’ of the Daily Chronicle wired the following to his paper from Belfast that day: “Here you have a city that has filled the whole world with its wailings about the coming danger of persecution of the blameless Protestants by the Papists. Yet, when you come you find that over 2,000 men dare not follow their usual avocations because they are either Roman Catholics or are known to sympathise with Home Rule. An imaginary fear you will say. Is it? When you hear of scores of the men being carted off to the hospitals with skulls battered in with the iron bolts and hob-nailed shoes of Sir Edward Carson’s lambs, you begin to understand their fears. A Roman Catholic, or a Protestant, if he is a Home Ruler, goes about Belfast in fear of his life just now, so he effaces himself as much as possible. It is quite evident that Unionist leaders are beginning to see that this Belfast pogrom has quite gone just a little too far, so the Belfast ‘Black Hundred’ has been informed that its continued activities might injure the cause.”

The Daily Chronicle writer went on to say “This morning I walked along the route followed last week by a procession of the Belfast Unionist Clubs. The procession was accompanied by at least 50 policemen, and the windows of every known Roman Catholic and Home Ruler were smashed. I cannot hear of a single prosecution.”

It may not be a coincidence that pogroms in Eastern Europe (and critical public reactions to them) figured in recent Irish newspaper reports in mid-July 1912. Indeed, two days before the Twelfth, newspapers in Ireland, such as the Freeman’s Journal carried reports from Reuters on a pogrom at Sdunska (Zduńska Wola), near Lodz in present day Poland. The death of a servant working for a Jewish family was reported as the pretext for a large crowd having attacked Jews in the street and smashing the windows of Jewish houses in Sdunksa that July. The news item itself was entitled ‘Pogrom near Lodz’. Similar pogroms in eastern Europe were regularly reported in the press and clearly general knowledge of them was sufficient for the Belfast Newsletter to use the term ‘Black Hundred’ with no need for an explanation (it was the monarchist faction in Russia which frequently instigated pogroms)

The reaction to the media coverage of the violence in Belfast in July 1912 turned into a libel trial that ran in to 1913. This included, at one point, as part of the prosecution case, that the number of expelled workers was libelously reported since the press gave a figure of 2,000 or 3,000 expelled workers. The prosecutions claimed that this was a libelous slur on unionism and unionists as the number of expelled workers was only 1,400!

But the term ‘pogrom’ had clearly stuck. The Belfast Newsletter ran an article in 1914 (on 26 March) entitled ‘Pogrom Plot’ about the founding and arming of the Ulster Volunteers. At the time, ‘pogrom’ was found in use in the likes of Freemans Journal, Derry Journal, Strabane Chronicle, Western People, Belfast Newsletter, Irish Independent and Irish Times in 1912-14, referring to unionist violence in Belfast. The official British criticism of and responses to pogroms in Eastern Europe was usually contrasted with lack of government reactions to pogroms in Belfast (in particular).

And it had now clearly entered the local vocabulary. On 1 September 1919, the Irish Independent reported the Westminster Gazette’s Belfast correspondent as saying that “Absolutely trustworthy information has reached the Nationalist leaders in Belfast theat the Orange shipyard workers who disgraced their city and their cause 7 years ago [ie 1912] by organised attacks on their Home Rule fellow-workers are preparing for another ‘pogrom’.” At the time the Belfast Newsletter vehemently protested both the use of the term ‘pogrom’ and the qualifying ‘another’ (without checking its own archive for use of the term, obviously).

Semantics and terminology are as often used to obscure reality in writing as they are applied to illuminate it. When it comes to use of the term ‘pogrom’ to describe political violence of a particular character, like any shorthand, it’s meaningful use is limited (similar to the recent use of ‘sectarian’). Even ‘pogromists’ of whatever kind, have been motivated by something or someone, and it servers a wider purpose to interrogate the anatomy of that radicalization process.

The application of the term ‘pogrom’ to anti-Catholic violence in Ireland, first appears in contemporary sources alongside news reports from Eastern Europe describing ‘pogroms’. Despite modern protests to the contrary, the contemporary reports on the violence clearly resonate in scale and scope and indicate a good contemporary level of public knowledge of the characteristics of a pogrom.

Thanks to Kieran Glennon (who prompted this) – check out his book From Pogrom to Civil War on Belfast in 1920-22

Or check out the contemporary book, Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom.

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