Jewish memoir is a unique and historically important book

Recently published in Cork, at its launch ‘Memoir of an Irish Jew’ was described as a ‘unique and historically important book’
Jewish memoir is a unique and historically important book

Yvonne Cohen, daughter of Lionel Cohen, pictured with Prof Dermot Keogh, Emeritus Professor of History, Emeritus Jean Monnet Professor and member of RIA at University College Cork, and Patricia Looney, Senior Executive Librarian, at the launch of Lionel's "Memoir of an Irish Jew" at Cork City Library, Grand Parade, Cork. Picture: Michael O'Sullivan /OSM PHOTO

A ‘DISTINCTIVE and unique’ memoir was launched in Cork City Library last week, on what would have been the author’s 99th birthday.

Memoir Of An Irish Jew is the story of Lionel Cohen, who was born in 1922 into a Jewish family in Cork. Lionel served in the Irish Army, the British Merchant Navy, the Israeli Army and in the fledgling Israeli Merchant Navy.

He reluctantly returned to Ireland in 1952 to work in the family tailoring firm where he met his future wife May, a Catholic. The memoir covers his experiences at home and abroad, and the challenges of living in an Ireland very different to the Ireland of today.

Lionel had shown Professor Dermot Keogh the manuscript that became this memoir many years previously, but it remained shelved in a lever arch file after his sudden death in 2000. 

20 years later, during the Covid-19 lockdown, Lionel’s daughter Yvonne began to work on the manuscript, at the suggestion of Professor Keogh.

“My father wrote as he spoke, sharing the chapters of his story with humour and frankness,” Yvonne said. 

“This memoir is his legacy to his grandchildren, it allows them to understand his unique perspective and experience his wonderfully positive attitude to life.”

Yvonne paid tribute to a number of people for the support that encouraged her to pursue its publication, including Augustus Young, Desmond and Anne MacHale, Alannah Hopkin and Thomas McCarthy.

Mr Young described the work as ‘A richly personal account of growing up in the Jewish community in Cork’ and it was also praised by Mr McCarthy.

“There are many distinctive and unique things about Lionel Cohen’s wonderful memoir, but that it is pure Cork is beyond dispute,” he said. “He shares a Patrick Galvin-like, resolutely urban sense of Cork; a feel for its social landscapes and class tensions, a sense of possessiveness for its old sayings and urban wisdoms.

“Lionel takes everything in his stride, from serving in Cork’s Coastal Defence Battery during the ‘Emergency’ to operating as Radio Officer on hazardous shipping runs into the new Israel, all the while as calm as if he was just taking a stroll from Marble Hall Park in Ballinlough to his father’s garment factory behind Cash’s stores.

“In Memoir of an Irish Jew he has created a unique and historically important book.”

Alannah Hopkin also praised the book, saying: “Lionel’s memoir is a unique record of 20th-century Cork as seen by a Jewish Irishman who was in turn soldier, ocean-going sailor, family man and childcare worker.

“His warm-hearted autobiography is infused with his love of life, people and reading.”

The book has been published by Cork City Libraries and was launched by Professor Keogh, who described the book as a very important historical work.

“It is a privilege for Cork City Libraries to publish this unique memoir,” said Patricia Looney, Senior Executive Librarian. “As a young library assistant, I remember both Lionel and May Cohen visiting the City Library and Douglas Library.

“Their warmth, friendliness and Cork humour, made them memorable above others and it is wonderful to have the opportunity to remember them with the publication of this book.”

Memoir Of An Irish Jew, by Lionel Cohen, published by Cork City Libraries. Available at Waterstones Cork and in Cork City Librasy, priced €15.

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