Santa Claus (or one of his stand-ins) arrived early at Shalom Park this week and brought his ukulele with him, joining the Shandon Ukulele Ensemble as they belted out Christmas songs for delighted locals.
Leading the festivities was Andrew Desmond, who lives in the area, and who said he was delighted to have been asked to play there, “or indeed anywhere”, before launching into “Jingle Bells”.
Shalom Park was, as always, an inner-city island of beauty, a peaceful green space in the shadow of the Elysian tower, beside the old Albert Road gasworks and the small streets known locally as Jewtown, Cork’s historic Jewish district.
Helen Phelan, a Waterford blow-in living here 20 years, is known locally as “the guerrilla gardener” for her work in the community garden inside the back gate of Shalom Park, and she was out enjoying the music with her friend Patsy Finn.
“We could be doing a lot worse,” she said.
Both women offered great praise for the local community gardaí, especially for their work in addressing some antisocial behaviour in the park, and while we talked, Garda Lorraine O’Donovan texted to jokingly check that Helen and Patsy were behaving themselves.
Isabel O’Mahony (10) lives locally and said she wished she had known this event was happening, as she could have brought her saxophone along.
Isabel’s sister Lola, who is nine and plays drums and piano, confided in The Echo that the Santa playing with the Shandon Ukulele Ensemble was not kosher, as his beard was clearly fake.
Their mom, Lisa, said her daughters love Shalom Park, and have been coming there since they were small, and, she reckoned, they know every dog walking there by name.
Frances O’Connell, who lives locally, thanked Andrew Desmond and his friends for playing on such a cold evening, and said their kindness made Shalom Park a little warmer.
From the late 1800s, this area was home to Lithuanian Jews fleeing pogroms, and local lore has it they were bound for America and disembarked here mishearing “Cork, Cork” as “New York”, although that’s probably just a legend.
For the early part of the 20th century, most of the men of Jewtown were door-to-door pedlars, selling household wares and holy pictures, and – because their rounds took a week to complete – they were known as “Weekly Men”, or in Yiddish, “Vicklemen”.
David Marcus’ remarkable 1986 novel A Land Not Theirs depicts Cork Jews drawn further and further into the War of Independence.
Gerald Goldberg, elected Cork Lord Mayor in 1977, remembered his father, a Lithuanian Jew and an ardent Irish Republican, hanging up in their home a picture of Prince Edward and Princess Alexandra, successfully fooling raiding Black and Tans with a trick he had learned in the old country, where Jews would dupe marauding Cossacks with portraits of the Tsar.
By mid-century there were perhaps 450 Jewish souls living in Cork, and the community was thriving, but today there are only a few Jewish people left here, and none in Jewtown.
The synagogue over on the South Terrace, closed these past five years, is home now to Cork’s Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
For all that, though, Shalom Park has celebrated Hannukah every year for the past decade, even if Covid-19 meant last year’s had to be mostly online.
“It’s more like the United Nations around here, these days,” Helen Phelan said. “It’s lovely to see so many people from different countries walking and playing in the park, and we all get along, and we all learn from each other.”