Gerald and Sheila on their 50th wedding anniversary. Photo: John Goldberg

The life and legacy of Gerald and Sheila Goldberg

If you take a stroll along Albert Road, through Shalom Park, and around the dockland area of the city, you'll encounter echoes of what used to be the city's vibrant Jewish quarter, affectionately known as 'Jewtown'. In days gone by, this part of the city was home to a small yet thriving Jewish community, complete with shops, synagogues, and various other services.

By the mid-20th century, it is estimated that there were 450 Jewish people living in the city, though the community is much smaller today.

One of the most prominent figures of the community, and indeed in the city, was Gerald Goldberg, along with his wife Sheila. Not only were they the first Jewish lord mayor and lady mayoress of the city in 1977, they also made immense contributions to the cultural fabric of the city, along with numerous charitable projects which still survive today.

The story of Gerald and Sheila is the focus of a recently released book written by their son, David, titled 'Gerald & Sheila Goldberg of Cork: A Son's Perspective'.

Early years

While an often told myth suggests that many Lithuanian Jews ended up in Cork thanks to sea captains who told them that 'New York is the next parish', David clarifies that Gerald’s father immigrated and worked as a peddler in Limerick, before moving to Cork.

The family’s first house in Cork was in 21 Anglesea Street. During his childhood, he witnessed the bodies of both Cork lord mayors, Tomás McCurtain and Terence MacSwiney, lying in state, an experience that deeply impacted him. He also saw Michael Collins speak.

“He always told the story that he went to see Michael Collins speak four times, but Collins only spoke twice in Cork,” said David. “In 1922, Gerald was ten. Why would a child of ten want to go to see Michael Collins? But he did say it had a great impact,” he added.

Gerald and Sheila

Gerald met Sheila, who was from Belfast, in 1928. “It seems to have been love at first sight, but they didn’t meet again for another five years. They wrote to each other all the time. It’s a testament to their relationship that they went on writing, and it didn’t break down,” says David. Together they had three sons together and embarked on a journey which stitched them into the very fabric of Cork city.

“Gerald was an austere man at times and could be difficult, but he was also very loving and caring,” says David.

He also had high praise for his mother who he describes as remarkable. “She was a woman who did everything with passion, elegance, grace and tremendous humour. She ran six projects in her lifetime, and all of those projects successfully.”

Sheila’s projects

While Gerald’s achievements as lord mayor are well known, Sheila also made an immense contribution to the city. “While Gerald was a genius, I think the real genius was Sheila,” he says.

She was one of the founders of the Meals on Wheels, she also was responsible for building Abode, which provides services to people with physical and sensory disabilities. She spearheaded the building of hydrotherapy pool for children at the Lavanagh Centre, developed the Cork Orchestral Society and instituted the Cork lunch time concerts. “Everything Sheila did continues today, not only does it continue but it is bigger and better and that’s her legacy,” he says.

Gerald’s career

For his part, Gerald became an accomplished lawyer, setting up his own practice and working in the field for 62 years. “He took all the hard cases that other solicitors would not touch. Anybody could buy a house for you, but if you were in trouble, people would say ‘Go to Goldberg’,” says David. “At that time, he was probably the best solicitor in the country.”

However, David explains that as he was on the spectrum, it was difficult for him to delegate or work with other people. “He had a stack of young solicitors who came into the office to train with him; he should have brought them into the practice, but he couldn’t do it.” David says it’s a great sadness to him that his father didn’t achieve the one thing he really desired: a building in Cork with the name of Goldberg Solicitors.

Gerald became involved in local politics and was elected as an alderman in 1965. “He went for mayor in 1967. But it was tied up between the two main parties, and there were only two independents on the council at the time. He was nominated by the other independent who said it would be a miracle if he was elected,” he explains.

Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress

In the end, he became a member of Fianna Fáil. In 1977, he secured the nomination for the position of lord mayor and in June of that same year, he proudly donned the prestigious chain of office, and in his first address to the council, Gerald spoke in English, Irish and Hebrew.

He marked a historic milestone as the first Jewish lord mayor, with Sheila serving as lady mayoress, which David describes as the “zenith of their careers.”

“His election received coverage in all the Irish newspapers, but also in Maariv, The Jerusalem Post, both Israeli papers, and The Jewish Chronicle,” said David.

In one of the lighthearted moments in the book, David recalls Gerald opening a footbridge during his tenure, which connected Union Quay and Morrison's Island, situated close to the former synagogue on South Terrace. The bridge was officially named Trinity Bridge, but in typical Cork fashion, it was promptly christened 'the Passover' due to Gerald's role in its opening!

While serving as mayor, he embarked on a trip to the United States and managed to raise substantial funds for Ireland. During this visit, he also met New York mayor Ed Koch.

At the end of his term, it was recognised that Gerald and Sheila had both been great ambassadors for the city, and though Gerald had the option of running again for a second term, he chose not to. He had the opportunity to take up positions in other countries, according to David, Cork held a special place in his heart, and he consistently declined those offers.

“He had a great sense of place. Gerald could have left Cork, he claimed he was offered positions in Israel, New York and Switzerland. But he never took any of them up. He couldn’t leave, he just couldn’t do it.”

Gerald died on New Year's Eve 2003, and the then lord mayor Colm Burke said the city had lost one of its most outstanding citizens.

'Gerald & Sheila Goldberg of Cork: A Son's Perspective' by David Goldberg is published by Oak Tree Press.