Goldberg, Gerald Yael (1912–2003), solicitor, politician and writer, was born 12 April 1912 in Cork city, eleventh of twelve surviving children of Louis J. Goldberg, peddler and shopkeeper, and his wife Rachel (née Sandler). His birth name was Yael or Yoel; the anglicised ‘Gerald’ was chosen for him by his sisters in infancy.
Louis Goldberg originally came from Akmijan in Lithuania; according to family tradition he left to escape persecution and was deposited at Queenstown (Cobh) by a dishonest sea-captain who told naive passengers this was America. Cormac Ó Grada points out, however, that Louis initially lived with relatives in Limerick while setting up in business as a peddler, suggesting a planned migration. Louis Goldberg assisted his mother and brothers in emigrating to Ireland. The family spoke Yiddish at home, but were polyglot and valued learning highly. Louis was deeply religious, and for a period services were held in his house after the Limerick Jewish community split (the faction led by Louis Goldberg accused its rivals of tolerating dubious money‐lending practices; their opponents attributed the split to personal rivalries.)
The Goldbergs moved to Cork (where Rachel’s family lived) after the anti‐Semitic Limerick riots, and subsequent boycott, of 1904, in which Louis was assaulted. Although Gerald did not experience this himself, he was exposed to family memories of it; when he came home from school as a small boy and wished to play in the street, his mother told him to take off his boots and socks and go barefoot like the other boys in case prosperity produced resentment. In later life he was involved in commemorations of the attacks on Jews and outspokenly rebuked those who attempted to justify or palliate the outbreak; he lived to see the Limerick Jewish cemetery restored and commemorated.
Goldberg retained vivid childhood memories of the war of independence and civil war period, including the burning of central Cork by crown forces (during which his family had to leave their home temporarily). He attended the lyings‐in‐state of Tomàs MacCurtain (qv) and Terence MacSwiney (qv), whom he always revered; in this originated his lifelong ambition to be lord mayor of Cork, and in later life he commissioned portraits of MacCurtain and MacSwiney for the City Hall. Goldberg also acquired a lifelong reverence for Michael Collins (qv) after hearing him speak at a public meeting. Cork Jews were more nationalistic than their Dublin co‐religionists (many of whom were unionists before the First World War).
He was educated at Christ Church National School (Church of Ireland) and the Cork Central Model School (catholic), then briefly attended a Jewish boarding school in Sussex, Macaulay College. His experience here was unhappy; when he and his brother applied to be excused Armistice Day (as a German pupil was excused) because the British had murdered MacCurtain and MacSwiney, they were chastised. Goldberg then attended Presentation Brothers’ College, Cork (PBC). The Presentation headmaster, Edward Connolly, helped him to overcome the reluctance of the Cork solicitors’ firm Barry Galvin and Son to accept a Jewish apprentice, and in 1936 he qualified as a solicitor after studying for the LLB at University College Cork (1931–4). He attributed his choice of profession to familiarity with Talmudic law. Goldberg always recalled Brother Connolly with the greatest respect, and generally had a warm relationship with Presentation College, which was attended by many Cork Jews. (There was, however, a short period when the school refused to accept Jewish pupils because a brother superior took exception to Goldberg’s legal representation of a family which sued the school because the parents felt their son had received excessive physical punishment.)
As a student Goldberg attempted to join the Blueshirts but was refused on the grounds that only Christians were admitted; this, and experiencing anti‐Semitism from some students, gave him a longstanding antipathy to Fine Gael. Goldberg’s attendance at PBC and UCC (Dublin Jews, and some Corkonian Jews, favoured Wesley College and TCD) strengthened his identity as a Corkman. He retained strong links with the UCC faculty of law and often gave talks to students. Goldberg received an MA from UCC in 1968 and subsequently registered to undertake a Ph.D. dissertation on representations of the Jew in the works of Shakespeare; he never completed this project, but was awarded an honorary LLD in 1993.
On qualifying, Goldberg established his own practice as a solicitor. This was a hazardous business for someone with no family connections in the profession, but he quickly established a reputation through effectiveness in defending impoverished clients. Throughout his career he took full advantage of his rights of audience in the district and circuit courts, where he specialised in civil cases; The State (O’Mahony) vs. South Cork Board of Public Health (1941), concerning a council house tenant threatened with arbitrary eviction and denial of right to purchase, set an important precedent in Irish administrative law. (He also featured in criminal cases, including some high‐profile Cork murder trials.) He had a forceful courtroom presence, which in later life also manifested itself in Cork Corporation debates. Relaxing in Rearden’s pub near the courthouse, a favourite haunt, he told the writer Mary Leland, who recalled him delivering ‘long referencing sentences … in a voice of mixed gravel and honey’ (with a strong Cork accent), that a good lawyer should always be an actor. Goldberg enjoyed a long and successful career as a solicitor, retiring only in 1996. He served on the council of the Southern Law Association (the Cork city solicitors’ governing body) and became vice‐president, but was not re‐elected to the council in the year he would have become president by rotation. Ascribing this to anti‐Semitism, he resigned from the SLA and was on bad terms with it for many years. He was subsequently president of the Incorporated Law Society.
In August 1937 he married Sheila Beth Smith (d. 1996), a member of a well‐known Belfast Jewish family and sister of the painter Sidney Smith (1912–82), who assisted the development of Goldberg’s appreciation of the visual arts; they had three sons. Their relationship was close and loving, cemented by shared artistic and charitable interests; Sheila’s support was recognised as having been vital to Gerald’s achievements, while he was active in support of her philanthropic activities. These included fund‐raising for Meals on Wheels and the Cork Spastic Clinic, founding and chairing the Abode centre for disabled adults, and serving as a director of the reconciliation group Co‐Operation North. On her death she received a civic funeral. She was affectionately known as ‘the duchess’.
Throughout his life Goldberg remained a believing and observant Jew; he was a cohen (descendant of the priestly tribe of Levi), which involved certain religious duties. In 1943 he was elected president of the Cork Hebrew Congregation, and remained the public face of Cork Jewry until his death; he served as cantor and occasionally taught Hebrew classes. His republican views led him to express the opinion that partition and the consequent severance of Belfast Jewry (which remained affiliated to the British rabbinate) had been damaging to Irish Jewry as a whole. Relations with the Dublin Jewish authorities, whom Goldberg always believed looked down on the Cork community, were sometimes fraught, as in April 1947 when, after one dispute, Goldberg withdrew the Cork representative from the Jewish representative council of Ireland.
In the 1930s Goldberg established a committee in Cork to help Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution; in later life he spoke bitterly of the refusal of the state to admit such refugees, and recalled how a German Jew who deserted a ship at Cobh was sent back to the concentration camps despite the Cork community’s willingness to assist him. Goldberg served in the Douglas unit of the part‐time Local Defence Force during the 1939–45 emergency; he later claimed that Jews suffered discrimination within the force and there is some evidence to support this. The Goldbergs made contingency plans with friends; in the event of invasion the Goldbergs’ sons would have been sent to these friends who would have tried to preserve them from the inevitable fate of their parents by passing them off as their own sons while privately bringing them up as Jews and sending them to US relatives whenever this became possible. Although Goldberg was an outspoken Zionist and regularly visited Israel, on more than one occasion he turned down offers of positions in Israel, stating that he felt he owed a debt to Cork for its hospitality.
Goldberg was elected to Cork corporation as an independent alderman for the north‐west ward in 1967, reflecting a lessening of the traditional reluctance of many Irish Jews to become involved in politics (and the gratitude of his extensive clientele, to whom he half‐humorously attributed his election). He was an active contributor to corporation debates despite the continuing demands of his extensive legal practice. He joined Fianna Fáil in 1970, stating that it was impossible for an isolated councillor to achieve anything on the corporation and that Fianna Fáil were the most honest, progressive and united of the major parties; in general he saw his role in civic rather than party terms. In 1977–8, by which time he had moved to representing the south‐east ward, he was elected lord mayor of Cork, the first Jew to hold this office. During his term he researched the history of the civic regalia, including the mayoral chain (he published a pamphlet on its connection with Terence MacSwiney) and the mace (leading him to make a public appeal for the British Museum to return to Cork several former Cork maces it had acquired over the years). He was a highly successful lord mayor with a flair for the post’s mainly ceremonial duties. These included opening the Holy Trinity footbridge, crossing the Lee near the synagogue, which Cork wits christened ‘the Passover’.
His mayoralty was a source of pride to him, and indeed to many of Cork’s citizens; he regarded his selection as a successor to MacCurtain and MacSwiney not just as recognition of his individual services but as proof that Cork rejected anti‐Semitism and recognised him as ‘an Irishman and a Jew’ (the title of an 1982 RTÉ television documentary about him which he scripted and presented). In 1982 he openly considered leaving Ireland after he received death threats and after a fire‐bomb attack on the Cork synagogue, which were linked to hostile relations between Irish peacekeeping forces in South Lebanon and Israeli and Israeli‐backed forces. He blamed the Irish media for encouraging anti‐Semitism by its Middle Eastern reportage, and openly accused himself of having ‘betrayed my Jewish heritage’ through his attachment to Cork, though this attachment later reasserted itself (Ir. Times, 10 January 2004). He retired from Cork corporation in 1985. In 1986 he criticised Charles Haughey’s leadership of Fianna Fáil and declared his support for the newly founded Progressive Democrats party.
The Goldbergs’ house ‘Ben Trudah’ (named after Sheila’s parents) on the Rochestown Road was a gathering place for students, artists and intellectuals. He was a patron of the arts, who assisted (amongst others) Aloys Fleischmann (qv) and Joan Denise Moriarty (qv). He had a fine private art collection, including glass, ceramics, silver, antique furniture and a large library of Hebrew books. Over the years he presented works of art to many Cork institutions, including Christian Brothers’ College, the Augustinian church, and the Cork School of Music. In 1964 he was a government appointee to the board of the National Gallery of Ireland and he was extensively involved, as patron and donor, with Cork’s Crawford Art Gallery (where the Goldbergs founded the practice of holding lunchtime concerts). Until his death he remained president of the Cork Orchestral Society. Shortly before his death Goldberg donated his library to University College Cork.
He published several books and pamphlets on antiquarian themes, notably Jonathan Swift and contemporary Cork (1967), for which he undertook original research in the Registry of Deeds and shed new light on why Swift refused the freedom of Cork. He contributed a ‘note on the Jewish community in Cork’ to Bernard Shillman’s A Short history of the Jews in Ireland (1945). In later life he often gave interviews to scholars and assisted research on the history of Irish Jewry.
In 1964 he was honoured by the National Association of Claimants Attorneys of America and in 1987 he received a life membership of the Royal Dublin Society. For much of his life he was active in various sporting codes, and was goalkeeper to the Cork Jewish soccer team well into middle age. As a young man he was active in the Scouting Association of Ireland, through which he met his wife. He was a freemason, joining the Cork Harmony lodge in 1938. The writer and journalist David Marcus (1924–2009) was his nephew.
Gerald Goldberg died in Marymount Hospice, Cork, on 31 December 2003, and received a civic funeral on 4 January 2004 to the Cork Jewish graveyard at Curraghkippane; Cork corporation members wore skullcaps in his honour. He was one of Cork’s ‘characters’, embodying in his family memory and his own lifetime the history of the Cork Jewish community from the immigration of the 1880s to the late twentieth‐century dispersal to Israel and larger Jewish communities elsewhere; though a few Jews remained in Cork, his death was seen as the virtual end of the community. If his career in Cork represented any sort of ‘debt’ as distinct from the just reward of his abilities and services, none can doubt that it was more than paid. His personal papers are at University College Cork.