On our visit we experienced a tangible expression of this in Kenmare, where perfect strangers went out of their way to help us get our laundry done and then volunteered to drive us back to our hotel when we couldn't find a taxi.
Encounters with ordinary folks are easy in Ireland, not only because there is no language barrier, but also because so many people have links to America and feel genuinely warm toward us.
Today, however, many of the people one meets in Ireland are not Irish. There are more than 300,000 Poles and countless thousands of other Continentals, many from Eastern Europe, in the country. A large number of these young men and women work in hotels and restaurants; being greeted by a receptionist with a Slavic accent becomes almost commonplace.
The reason for this influx of foreigners is, quite simply, the economic boom the country experienced after joining the European Union and adopting the euro as its currency. In Dublin and larger cities, construction cranes, new highways, industrial parks, as well as modern office and apartment buildings offer proof of Ireland's standing as the Celtic Tiger.
This newfound prosperity has also had an effect on Ireland's small Jewish community. For the past 50 years, the community had been shrinking from a high of more than 5,000 members to less than a thousand today. Where Dublin once had more than a dozen synagogues it has but three today, and those in Cork and Limerick are completely gone.
Now, however, the boom has stanched the outflow of Jews and the community is experiencing modest growth with the inflow of skilled computer scientists and construction engineers from Israel, Britain, South Africa and even Canada and the U.S.A.
The majority of these immigrants have young families, which has resulted in an increase in the enrollment at Dublin's Jewish day school. Rabbi Zalman Lent, a Chabad rabbi from England, together with his wife, Rivki, is responsible for the community's youth programs, school and summer camp, as well as for teen and young marrieds activities.
The rabbi says there is virtually no anti-Semitism in Dublin, and people have been respectful toward him. The only time he experienced any hostility, he said, was when someone called him "Osama bin Laden," presumably because of his black beard.
The Terenure Hebrew Congregation, at 32a Rarthfarnham Road, is Ireland's largest and most prominent synagogue; its spiritual leader, Dr. Yaakov Pearlman, is chief rabbi of Ireland, a position that gives him a degree of official recognition. The synagogue is Ashkenazi Orthodox in the manner of the British United Synagogue, and it holds regular Friday night and Shabbat morning services, as well as daily minyans. The congregation also provides study and communal programs and features a mikvah.
The Dublin Progressive Hebrew Congregation, at 7 Leicester Avenue, is an egalitarian community along the lines of the American Conservative movement. It has a visiting rabbi from England, Rabbi Charles Middlebergh, who conducts services weekly "in season." According to Max Roitenberg, an immigrant to Ireland from Ottawa, Canada, services are held every Friday evening and most Saturdays and on all holidays. Roitenberg said the congregation has some 200 members, many of who are converts or in mixed marriages. In the absence of the rabbi, services are conducted by lay members.
The third synagogue is a small ultra-Orthodox stiebel, Machzikei Hadass, in the Terenure suburb.
Kosher food is readily available at the SuperValu market on Braemor Road in Churchtown, while kosher bread is available at the The Bretzel Bakery at 1a Lennox St. in Portobello. While Irish meat and dairy products are popular the world over, we were surprised to learn from Rabbi Lent that the preparation of kosher meat is a major industry in Ireland and that much of the kosher meat sold in Europe is imported from there.
Although it is a small institution located in two adjoining row houses in what was once a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, the Irish Jewish Museum is a "must see" for Jewish visitors. Upstairs is the former Walworth Road Synagogue, preserved much as it was during its heyday, complete with plaques honoring major donors. Several showcases with documents and memorabilia from the first half of the 20th century have been added. Possibly the saddest of these is the record of an Irish Jewish woman married to a Lithuanian citizen who became the only Irish citizen to be murdered by the Nazis.
Downstairs, the museum presents an overview of Irish Jewish history and features a plethora of memorabilia, including records and correspondence related to the family of Irish-born Chaim Herzog, who opened the museum in 1985 when he was president of Israel. Raphael Siev, a native Dubliner and retired barrister-at-law, is the museum's curator and happily shares his memories with visitors. The museum is open Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Admission is free.
Ireland is a country of significant historical and literary interest and exquisite natural beauty. It is truly an "emerald isle," with a vast variety of wonderful places to stay, ranging from modest bed and breakfasts to magnificent country houses. The economic boom has also resulted in an influx of master chefs and the opening of gourmet restaurants in Dublin, as well as in the major tourist centers of the country.
Even though there are undoubtedly some bargains to be found, it's important to remember that as long as the U.S. dollar remains weak against the euro, you must be prepared to have the Celtic Tiger bite you in the wallet. But, being Irish, he'll do it with a smile.
For more information, visit http://www.jewishireland.org/