10 November 2007

Why old soldiers must never fade away on Remembrance Day

Stephen Comerford and Bridget Lynders on their wedding day in Donabate on 7 February 1905.

Why old soldiers must never fade away on Remembrance Day

By Patrick Comerford

A BOY who grows up without knowing his grandfather has a sense of loss or that something is missing. I never knew either of my grandfathers, nor did I have any Comerford first cousins. Family traditions were generously handed on by a widowed and a maiden aunt, two half-sisters who lived in my grandmother’s house in Terenure. But I was an adult long before I saw a photograph of my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford. He died shortly after my father’s second birthday, and so even my father was unable to tell me what his father looked like. I never knew what he looked like, what his political views and values were, who his friends were, or whether he had any sporting interests. I could never answer that very Irish question: “Where was he in 1916?”

I knew all about the Comerford family story, how we had come from a village of a similar name village in England to Ireland and remained in the south-east for centuries. I knew the houses and homes they had lived in generation after generation. I knew of Cromwellian confiscations and the 1798 Rising. I knew of farmers and shopkeepers, mayors and mapmakers, bishops and lawyers, painters priests, poets and plasterers – stories shared by many families who had lived in the Kilkenny, Wexford, Carlow and Waterford area for generations. But those stories never compensated for not knowing the everyday details of my grandfather’s life. I set out to find him: where he was born, where he lived and worked, even where he was in 1916 – and the tragic story of his lonely death.

When he died on 21 January 1921, Grandfather Stephen was living in Rathmines, but he was buried in Saint Catherine’s, the old Church of Ireland churchyard in Portrane in north Co Dublin. His gravestone says he was 49, and I searched for a birth certificate between 1870 and 1872. Both his given age at death and the spelling of his surname at birth complicated the search. Eventually, I found the birth certificate for Stephen Edward Commerford, who was born on 28 December 1867. His father, James Comerford, a Victorian-era stuccodore from Bunclody (Newtownbarry), Co Wexford, moved from Wexford to Dublin to work on the new churches built by Edward Pugin and George Ashlin.

With the rapid growth of suburban housing in Dublin, James and his family prospered, working on houses built in Rathmines and Ranelagh by builders and developers such as Plunkett and Carson.

James Comerford was radical in his politics – his own father had taken part in the 1798 Rising, and James and other family members turned the plasterers’ guild into a trade union. He remained an active trade unionist into old age, serving as chair of the union and using this position to bring family members from Wexford to work in Dublin.

Insights from union records

Trade union records provide an insight into Stephen’s life as a stucco plasterer. In 1884, at the age of 16, Grandfather Stephen was apprenticed to his father“to learn his Art” for seven years. When times were good, he worked on Ashlin’s churches, on Ashlin’s hospital in Portrane, and on the friezes on the Sunlight Building and the Irish House in Dublin. When times were not so good, he worked on the interiors of suburban and rural houses. Throughout those years, he was an active trade unionist. In 1893, he was a founding member of the Regular Stucco Plasterers’ Trade Union, and was a union council member for many years. As branch secretary, he supported a Parnell commemoration in 1899, and an Irish-language demonstration in 1902. In 1903, the union became the Operative Plasterers’ Trade Society.

The union records include his travelling expenses on the Harcourt Street line from Beechwood Avenue to union meetings. Those records, census returns, Thom’s Directory, his children’s birth certificates, and other family details, made it easy to track the different houses Stephen lived in. during his working life. He was living at 2 Mountpleasant Villas, Ranelagh, when he married his first wife, Anne Cullen of 11 Merrion Square, in 1899. They moved to 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue, where they looked after his ailing father until James died there in 1902 at the age of 85. There Anne had three children, Edmond Joseph, Mary (May), and Arthur James. But tragedy soon hit the family: 24 days after Arthur’s birth, Anne died at 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue in 1903 of “septicaemia 9 days peritonitis certified.” She was only 32.

Stephen was a young widower with three children under the age of three, commuting between Ranelagh and Portrane. In Portrane he stayed with the Lynders family, and there he met my grandmother, his second wife. Less than 15 months after Anne’s death, Bridget Lynders and Stephen Comerford were married in Donabate in 1905. That summer, tragedy struck again when Stephen’s eldest son, four-year-old Edmond, died of meningitis in Clonskeagh Hospital.

After Edmond’s death, Stephen and Bridget moved from Beechwood Avenue and lived at 2 Mountpleasant Villas, 102 South Lotts Road, Ringsend, and 2 Old Mountpleasant (1909-1913). That house stood opposite Saint Columba’s, the former “tin church” in Ranelagh, and is now part of ‘The Hill’ public house.

By 1913, they were living at 7 Swanville Place, Rathmines, and were still there when Stephen died in 1921. They had four children: Patrick (1907), Robert (1909), Margaret (1912), and my father, Stephen Edward (1918). As children, they were well-sp-out. Although there was a gap after 1913, my father’s birth-date allowed me to think that Grandfather Stephen was at home in Rathmines during World War I when anyone asked: “Where was your grandfather in 1916?”

An intriguing gap

But I had some lingering doubts about this gap. Later respectability ruled out prison, and a later child ruled out an affair with another woman. And yet his early death and family silence left me without clues for 1913-1918, a short span but crucial period.

Other families have fascinating stories from that time. My wife Barbara had two grandfathers who were on opposing sides in 1916: Joseph Doyle, a sergeant in the Irish Citizens’ Army, was interned in Frongoch after the Rising; Patrick Culley was decorated for his part in the trenches in France with the Royal Army Medical Corps. Recently, when Barbara’s uncle was home from London, I tried to provide him with a fuller picture of Patrick Culley’s war-time role. During an idle moment, as I searched for his medal records, I keyed in my grandfather’s name. The missing gap was about to be filled.

Stephen Comerford enlisted as a private in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers – “the Toffs and the Toughs” – on 14 July 1915 as a private, regimental number 9062. His “theatre of war” was the Balkans, and he was discharged on 3 May 1916, only three days after the Easter Rising ended in Dublin. But his discharge was not related to to events in Ireland or any political conflict, for when the war was over he was decorated with three medals: the Victory Medal, the British Medal and the 1914-1915 Star.

The disaster at Gallipoli

The Royal Dublin Fusiliers arrived on the Greek island of Lemnos in late July, and were sent to Gallipoli on 6-7 August. But the landing of 2,500 men at Suvla Bay was disorganised and incompetent. General Sir Frederick Stopford, from Courtown, Co Wexford, stayed on board his ship, while General Sir Bryan Mahon kept his distance on the island of Imbros. Chocolate Hill was captured on 7-8 August, but at a heavy cost. They tried to capture Scimitar Hill, but were forced to withdraw following heavy fighting. By the time Suvla Bay was fully evacuated, 2,000 men had been killed or died of their wounds in a disastrous, ill-planned and unsuccessful escapade.

The survivors were evacuated to Thessaloniki in October as part of an allied force requested by the Greek Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, to support Serbia against invading Bulgarians, Germans and Austrians. But the pro-German King Constantine wanted Greece to remain neutral, and Venizelos resigned on 7 October. The Irish soldiers relieved a French division at Lake Dorian, and took part in the Battle of Kotsurino on 6-8 December 1915, but were forced to retreat with the allied forces back into Greece.

That winter in Greece was severe, and more than 1,600 men of all ranks were evacuated, suffering from frostbite and other ailments. Those who remained in Thessaloniki continued to suffer casualties from disease, dysentery, malaria and frostbite. In the soaring summer’s heat of 1916, many Irish soldiers came down with malaria and were evacuated through Thessaloniki.

Stephen Comerford was discharged on 3 May 1916 and was sent back to Dublin. Malaria was life-threatening, but in Stephen Comerford’s case it was life-saving … for a short time at least.

At the capture of Yenikoi in October 1916, the fusiliers suffered heavy casualties, including “friendly fire” from their own artillery. In 1917 they were moved out of Thessaoloniki. Some were sent to Egypt to take part in the Palestine Campaign, including the Third Battle of Gaza and the capture of Jerusalem. Others were moved to France, where they fought at Ypres and in the trenches, continuing to suffer devastating losses untilb the war ended on 11 November 1918. Just over a month later, Stephen Comerford’s youngest child, my father Stephen Edward Comerford, was born in Rathmines on 14 December 1918.

A soldier’s untimely death

After returning home, my grandfather continued to suffer from malaria. No more children were born and he died alone in hospital on 21 January 1921 at the age of 53. He had survived Gallipoli, only to succumb to malaria in Thessaloniki. Malaria had saved his life – he might otherwise have died in the Balkans, the Middle East or the trenches in France. Malaria eventually killed him, but not before my father was born.

My father – the child born at the end of World War I – was the only one of seven children to have children himself. Malaria not only saved my grandfather’s life, but it ensured that he had grandchildren and that the family line continued. My grandmother continued to live in Rathmines until 1935, when she moved to Ashdale Park, Terenure.

When she died in 1948, she too was buried in Portrane, close to other members of the Lynders family.

In the political climate of post-independence Ireland, stories like my grandfather’s were forgotten. His lonely hospital death was filled with sadness, typifying how those soldiers were easily forgotten by those who sent them to war. His only reward was three medals.

Over the past three decades, I have worked regularly and had lengthy holidays throughout Greece and Turkey. But whenever I was in Thessaloniki or Turkey, I never realised that my father might never have been born and I might never have been born had my grandfather not survived in Gallipoli or Serbia, contracted malaria in Greece and been sent home in 1916. And so this pacifist is happy to wear a poppy on Remembrance Day, if only to say that men like my grandfather should never have been neglected, and their story should never be forgotten.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College, Dublin. This essay was first published in November 2007 in the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Diocese of Cashel and Ossory).

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Very nice indeed, Patrick! WW I has long intrigued me, from Irish, British and American points of view; Gallipoli seems to capture the essence of WW I, which after all, was one big meat grinder.

I had a grandfather (QUINN) who was in the US Signal Corps in Europe; he was gassed. When he returned home, he found his wife pregnant, he divorced and subsequently remarried but spent the rest of his life a helpless alcoholic.

They shall grow not old,
As we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them,
Nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning
We will remember them.

Charlie Comerford
Stanhope, NJ USA