Did you know the Irish Constitution turned 80 last week? I know, the little blue book’s big day is easy to miss.
In the middle of the very muted celebrations on Twitter it was brought to my attention that, alone of all the Constitutions of the world, Ireland’s was the only one to give official recognition to the Jews in the era of Adolf Hitler and his jackboots.
It didn’t have to, of course: in 1937 Éamon de Valera was under immense pressure from the ultra-conservative faction of his party and public opinion to recognize the Catholic Church as the "One True Faith."
The since-repealed Article 44 recognized the “special position” of the Catholic Church “as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens” and it then gave the nod to the various Protestant denominations and the Jews of Ireland.
At the time, the text of Article 44 is said to have sent the future Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid into a rage. The next day the so-called "Co-maker of the Constitution" apologized to Dev for the harshness of his words and wrote him a note saying he was “very sorry” for his behavior.
Today, a provision that gave such privileged mention to the Catholic Church seems hopelessly old-fashioned and, given Dev’s strong belief in Irish Unity, surely naive. But given the context of the time, it surely ranks as one of his more progressive policies. In 1937, Jewish people had already been stripped of their German citizenship, banned from marrying non-Jews and their property was being seized only a few hundred miles to the east of Ireland's shores.
Imagine the reaction in much of mainland Europe if a politician had attempted to give the Jewish faith a constitutional pat on the back.
Of course, Ireland was not immune from antisemitism. In 1904 the Limerick Boycott forced the city’s small Jewish population to flee and in 1943 as war raged in Europe Oliver Flanagan, a Fine Gael TD told the Dáil: "There is one thing that Germany did, and that was to rout the Jews out of their country. Until we rout the Jews out of this country, it does not matter a hair's breadth what orders you make.”
Antisemitism was why few Jewish refugees from Europe were admitted to Ireland during the 1930’s and 40’s - although after WWII, Dev personally overruled the Justice Department to allow Polish Jewish children to be brought into the country for recuperation. His reward was a forest in Israel that bares his name to this very day.
"In 1966, the Dublin Jewish community arranged the planting and dedication of the Éamon de Valera Forest in Israel...— Shane (@scary_biscuits) July 1, 2012
Despite these prejudices and despite the smallness of Ireland’s Jewish community - only some 4,000 in the Republic at the time - we should be proud of Dev’s efforts to stand by a community that was nearly exterminated in the coming years. At a time when so much of Europe was marching to the drumbeat of fascism and dictatorship, Dev gave us a constitution that gave people the fundamental rights (with caveats) of democracy, freedom of worship and due process.
We could have done a lot worse.