The Irish Hellenic Society began its new season this afternoon (Saturday 27 September) with a guided tour of Rathfarnham Castle. It was a good social afternoon, packed with local history. Normally, the society holds its events in the United Arts Club in Upper Fitzwilliam, so this was an interesting variation. And I suppose the Greek connection – however tenuous – was provided by the fact that James “Athenian” Stewart was involved in the restoration of Rathfarnham Castle in the 18th century, incorporating many classical and Hellenic motifs in the reordered interior.
Rathfarnham Castle was built in the late 16th century by Archbishop Adam Loftus (1533-1605), whose career included being Archbishop of Armagh, Archbishop of Dublin, Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, first Provost of Trinity College Dublin, and Lord Chancellor of Ireland, the last post making him effectively the Prime Minister or Taoiseach of his day. In south Dublin, he is remembered as the builder of both Rathfarnham Castle and the less-appreciated Knocklyon Castle.
Rathfarnham was described as a “waste village” when Loftus first bought it. His castle in Rathfarnham in 1583 replaced an earlier Anglo-Norman castle and was built on lands which were confiscated from the Eustace family of Baltinglass, Co Wicklow, because of their involvement in the Second Desmond Rebellion.
Gerald or Garret Comerford of Castleinch, Co Kilkenny, stayed at Rathfarnham Castle with Archbishop Adam Loftus in May 1591. Within four months, the lawyer had been appointed Attorney-General of Connacht and Thomond, with the promise of a grant of lands in Munster. [See Comerford 7: The Comerfords of Castleinch and Waterford]
Rathfarnham Castle defended the Pale from the neighbouring Irish clans and in 1600 it withstood an attack by the Wicklow clans during the Nine Years’ War.
Archbishop Adam Loftus, who built Rathfarnham Castle in 1583, and hosted Gerald Comerford as his guest in May 1591
By the time of his death in 1605, Loftus was also the owner, landlord and controller of much of the lands and estates in the Rathfarnham and Knocklyon area, including: Scholarstown, Oldcourt, Tymon, Woodtown, Killakee, Ballycragh, Ballycullen and Mount Pelier Hill or the Hell Fire Mountain. His descendants soon became one of the most prominent, manipulative and long-tailed families among the landed aristocracy in Irish politics.
Loftus left the castle to his son, Dudley Loftus, and it then passed to his son Adam Loftus in 1616. During Adam’s ownership, the castle came under siege in the 1641 rebellion. Rathfarnham Castle held out against the Confederate army when the surrounding countryside was overrun. Adam Loftus opposed the treaty of cessation in order the stop the fighting between the Irish Confederates and the Royalists, and as a consequence was imprisoned in Dublin Castle.
During the subsequent Irish Confederate Wars (1641-1653), Rathfarnham Castle changed hands several times. From 1641 to 1647, it was garrisoned by Royalist troops. In 1647, Ormonde, the Royalist commander in Ireland, surrendered Dublin to the Parliament and Roundhead troops were stationed at the castle until 1649. A few days before the Battle of Rathmines, the castle was stormed and taken without a fight by the Royalists. However, the Roundheads reoccupied it after their victory at the Battle of Rathmines. It is said locally that Oliver Cromwell held council there before going south to besiege Wexford.
Adam Loftus recovered his castle and lands under Cromwell. He then sided with the Parliamentarians, but was killed at the Siege of Limerick in 1651.
After the Civil War, the Loftus family retained ownership of Rathfarnham Castle, and in 1659, Dr Dudley Loftus, great-grandson of Archbishop Loftus, took over the castle. During his lifetime, Dudley held the posts of Commissioner of Revenue, Judge Admiralty, Master in Chancery, MP for Kildare and Wicklow and MP for Bannow and Fethard, Co Wexford. He is buried in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.
2, A family connection
The story of Archbishop Loftus and his descendants is well-known. But I have long been fascinated by the unusual tale of one of his descendants, Philip Wharton, whose titles included that of “second Earl of Rathfarnham,” and how, through this rake’s dissipate life, Rathfarnham Castle passed out of the hands of the descendants of Archbishop Loftus for a number of generations.
Philip Wharton (1698-1731), Duke of Wharton and Earl of Rathfarnham. But who was Maria Theresa Comerford?
I became interested in this Rake of Rathfarnham as I was thumbing through some notebooks and miscellaneous scraps of information in my relentless pursuit of family history. During that search, I came across a reference to the widowed Duchess of Wharton, who died in 1777. In her will, Maria Theresa Wharton named four Comerford siblings – the brothers Francis, Joseph and John Comerford and their sister Frances Magdalen Comerford – as “the four children of my deceased brother Comerford.”
After Maria Theresa’s death, the eldest of these three brothers, Francis Comerford, describing himself as her nephew, proved her will. In addition, a writer in the leading social newspaper of the day, the Gentleman’s Magazine, stated that Maria Theresa’s father was Colonel John Comerford from Co Tipperary. It was an interesting and romantic link. Could a Comerford have married that notorious 18th century rake, Philip Wharton, who inherited an overwhelming number of estates, titles and peerages?
Philip Wharton had inherited Rathfarnham Castle, Knocklyon Castle and the other Loftus family estates in south Co Dublin through his mother. But he led such a dissolute life that he was eventually forced to sell those estates seven years later to Speaker Conolly for £62,000 in 1723. It was a curious family connection: three generations of my family have been living on housing estates built on the lands once owned by this Rake of Rathfarnham, including Rathfarnham Wood in Rathfarnham, Glenvara Park in Knocklyon and Carriglea Court in Firhouse.
Could a Comerford have married Wharton just three years after his burden of debts and reckless lifestyle had forced him to sell those same lands?
The possibility of such a tenuous yet romantic link between my family and these lands, stretching back 300 years, was given a further romantic twist by the story that the “Rake of Rathfarnham” had renounced his dissipate lifestyle and converted to Catholicism when he married Maria Theresa Comerford. I thought this was a story worth researching, but as I tried to check out Maria Theresa’s identity I found it was cloaked in mystery; and I also came across the shocking story of her husband, who had been baptised an Anglican but later was accused of taking part in Satanic rituals in the Hell Fire Club. Indeed, his debauched lifestyle led to his description by Pope in the Moral Essays as “Wharton, the scorn and wonder of our days.”
3, The family background
Philip Wharton (1698-1731), who was given the title of first Duke of Wharton in 1719, was born in 1698 with too many silver spoons in his mouth. An eloquent and commanding orator, he became so licentious and dissolute that he wasted his patrimony in drunkenness and self-indulgence. He was outlawed for treason, and died in a wretched condition in a Cistercian monastery in Catalonia in Spain at the age of 32. His life, his downfall, and the fate of his widow make a most interesting tale.
From his father, Philip inherited a string of titles and peerages that made him not only the 2nd Earl of Rathfarnham, but also the 2nd Marquess of Catherlough (i.e. Carlow) and the 2nd Baron Trim in the Irish peerage, and the 2nd Marquess of Wharton, the 2nd Marquess of Malmesbury, the 2nd Earl of Wharton, the 2nd Viscount Winchendon, and the 6th Baron Wharton in the English peerage. Philip’s father, Thomas Wharton (1648-1715), the 1st Marquess of Wharton, was one of the chief Whig politicians in the aftermath of the Williamite Revolution of 1688. He is credited with composing the ballad Lilli Burlero in 1688, with its reference to a “Protestant wind.” He later boasted that as the writer of the ballad he “sang James II out of three kingdoms.”
During the reign of Queen Anne, he was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and was known as the truest Whig of his time. But as a man of great wit and versatile cleverness, he was cynically ostentatious in his immorality, with a reputation as the greatest rake of his day. He incurred the wrath of Dean Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), who attacked him as Verres in the Examiner (No. 14), and drew a separate “character” of him, which is one of Swift’s masterpieces. Yet, the Whig politician and essayist Joseph Addison (1672-1719), who had once been his secretary, dedicated the fifth volume of the Spectator to him.
Born in Caen in Normandy in 1648, Tom Wharton earned his reputation as “Honest Tom Wharton” as a young, earnest Puritan streak. Later, though, he became a successful racing enthusiast, especially at Newmarket. In 1673, he married his first wife, Anne Lee (1632-1685), the author of a number of poems, including an Elegy on Lord Rochester.
Anne died childless in 1685, and in July 1692 Tom married his second wife, the Hon Lucy Loftus, heiress to the vast Rathfarnham estates, including Knocklyon, Scholarstown, Woodtown, Ballyroan, Ballycragh, and other tracts of land in Whitechurch, Cruagh, Firhouse, Oldcourt, Tymon and Tallaght. Lucy was a direct descendant of Archbishop Adam Loftus, who had acquired the Manor of Rathfarnham, including all those lands, after their confiscation from Lord Buttevant in 1583.
Lucy’s father, Adam Loftus (1625-1691) of Rathfarnham Castle, held the titles of Baron of Rathfarnham and Viscount Lisburne, and died fighting on the Williamite side at the Siege of Limerick in 1691. The cannonball that blew his head off is now in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. Lucy Loftus was his only daughter and heiress, and she brought a vast fortune and estate with her on her marriage just a year after her father’s death, augmenting Tom Wharton’s income by some £5,000 a year.
William III thought Tom Wharton “too popular, or too much a Republican to be intrusted with the administration of state affairs.” Nevertheless, from 1708 to 1710, Tom was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Addison became his secretary, and Rathfarnham Castle became a useful and accessible residence and estate close to Dublin Castle. As Lord-Lieutenant, Tom Wharton was instrumental in settling poor Palatinate families from Germany in Ireland.
In 1709, Tom earned the wrath of Swift, when he refused him a chaplaincy. Swift, who is said to have had a number of his pamphlets printed at Rathfarnham, later declared Tom “the most universal villain I have ever known ... an ill dissembler and an ill liar.” He described Wharton as “an atheist grafted upon a dissenter,” and said he “is without a sense of shame or Glory, as some men are without the Sense of Smelling; and therefore a good Name to him is no more than a precious Ointment wou'd be to those.”
That year, “Honest” Tom was paid £3,000 for the office of Revenue Commissioner by Thomas Conolly (1662-1729), MP for Derry. Conolly was removed from office when Tom left office, but he returned to benefit from the misfortunes of the Whartons, acquiring their estates in Rathfarnham and Knocklyon within the next decade and a half.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who later had an affair with Philip Wharton, described “Honest Tom” as “the most profligate, impious and shameless of men,” while his wife, Lucy Loftus, was “equally unfeeling and unprincipled; flattering and fawning, canting, affecting prudery and even sanctity, yet in reality as abandoned and unscrupulous as her husband himself.”
4, The birth of a rake
Tom and Lucy Wharton had three children: two daughters, Jane and Lucy; and a son Philip, who was born around 21 December 1698, was baptised on 5 January 1699, and who would inherit his father’s titles and his mother’s estates. Philip’s sponsors at his baptism were King William III, Princess Anne of Denmark (later Queen Anne), and the Duke of Shrewsbury, and from the age of seven he was known as Viscount Winchendon, one of his father’s many titles.
The former Lucy Loftus from Rathfarnham Castle died on 5 February 1716; her husband died just two months later, on 12 April 1716. They left their 17-year-old and recently-married son Philip to succeed to his father’s panoply of titles and to his mother’s vast estates. Young Philip also inherited his parents’ great influence and wealth, with an estimated income of £14,000 a year that included his mother’s jointure of £6,000. But he would quickly dissipate this heritage within less than a decade.
Early in the previous year, Philip had already married Martha Holmes, the young daughter of an Irish general. But poor Martha was quickly abandoned by her wanderlust husband and was left at home. By the end of August 1716, a precocious Philip, still only a 17-year-old, was in Paris ready to offer “all imaginable submission” to the titular James III, the exiled Stuart Pretender. At Avignon in early October, the Pretender gave Philip the titles of Duke of Northumberland, Marquess of Woburn, Earl of Malmesbury and Viscount Winchendon, although he knew these Jacobite titles were mere baubles that could never be used in England or Ireland. Instead, when Philip returned from France, his flamboyance amused Dublin’s elite and he was introduced to the Irish House of Lords in Dublin by two of the leading peers of the day, James FitzGerald, 20th Earl of Kildare (father of the 1st Duke of Leinster and grandfather of Lord Edward FitzGerald) and Henry Montgomery, 3rd Earl of Mount Alexander.
And so, though still only an 18-year-old, Philip Wharton took his seat on 27 August 1717 as the 2nd Marquess of Catherlough (Carlow), 2nd Earl of Rathfarnham and 2nd Baron Trim. With Philip’s spectacular performances in the Irish Parliament, and despite his youth and known Jacobite sympathies, the Whig government found it expedient to promote him in the English House of Lords, making him the first and only Duke of Wharton on 28 January 1718, little more than a month after his 19th birthday. Thus the “Rake of Rathfarnham” became the youngest non-royal person ever advanced to the highest rank in the British peerage.
However, Philip’s wild and profligate frolics and his reckless playing at politics would quickly earn for him the satirical description by Alexander Pope (1688-1744) as “the scorn and wonder of our days” (Moral Essays, i. 179). In mid-1718, Philip briefly returned to poor Martha, the young wife he abandoned two years earlier. In March 1719, she gave birth to his only son, Thomas. But Thomas died before even reaching his first birthday, and once again Martha was abandoned.
Surprisingly, at times Philip could also show a generous and cultured aspect to his personality, and he unexpectedly endowed new buildings at All Souls’ College, Oxford.
Philip began political life as a Tory but he soon became a prominent Whig. In his private life, he was a Freemason and an atheist who sought to ridicule religion by publicly presiding over festive gatherings with allegedly “satanic” trappings. Around the same time as he was made a duke, he played a prominent role in the foundation of the first Hell Fire Club in London, and became its president around 1721. The club’s meetings were often held in a tavern near Saint James’s Square, although a nearby riding academy was sometimes used to allow the attendance of ladies of good reputation who could not be decently expected to be seen in a public house.
Of the female members of the club, one in particular stands out: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) was the daughter of the Duke of Kingston, who had been Philip’s guardian. She became Philip’s mistress, but was a notable figure in her own right: a strong-willed individualist, she had married Edward Wortley Montagu, the English ambassador in Constantinople. Lady Mary was not content with the polite life of a diplomat’s wife; instead, she travelled extensively on the Continent without an escort, was rumoured to have infiltrated the Sultan’s harem while her husband was ambassador to the Sublime Porte from 1716 to 1718, and at Adrianople she discovered there the secret of the smallpox vaccine, which she introduced to England.
5, The South Sea bubble
The eventual fate of Philip Wharton’s group was sealed by one of the great political and financial crisis of the early 18th century. In 1720, Parliament passed the South Sea Bill, permitting the South Sea Company to assume the entire national debt in order to pay it off out of its profits. This bizarre attempt at privatisation resulted in a short-term stock market boom, but was followed by the inevitable disastrous crash. Thousands lost their fortunes, including the young duke, who lost £120,000.
Wharton soon found himself at the head of a coalition of opposition Whigs and Tories, unified only by their outrage against Lord Sunderland’s government. Philip was most eloquent in his attack on the government, and Lord Stanhope was so excited by one of his tirades in parliament that in replying he burst a blood vessel and died.
The majority Whigs unleashed a brilliant counter-attack. To divert public attention from the South Sea Bubble and to undermine Wharton’s credibility, Sunderland and Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745) denounced the Hell Fire Club and its activities before Parliament. The charges of immorality alienated the Tories and moderate Whigs, and Wharton’s power was broken. The Hell Fire Club was suppressed by royal decree on 28 April 1721.
An unabashed Wharton went on to become Grand Master Mason of the London Grand Lodge of Freemasons in 1722. During his instalment, the orchestra, in a gesture that amounted to a dangerous political declaration, played a Jacobite anthem, Let the King Enjoy His Own Again. By now, however, Wharton had dissipated his large inheritance from the Loftus family. He was finally forced to sell his estates to pay off his debts, and returned to Ireland later that year.
In 1723, while he still only a 24-year-old, young Philip first tried to sell Rathfarnham Castle and Estates, including Knocklyon Castle, to Viscount Chetwynd for £85,000, but was forced to reduce his asking price when eventually he sold them for £62,000 to the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, William Conolly. Conolly would never reside at either Rathfarnham Castle or Knocklyon Castle, instead letting both to a number of tenants.
5, Life in exile
Following the South Sea Bubble burst, despite sale of Rathfarnham Castle, Knocklyon Castle and his other Irish estates, Philip Wharton had lost the staggering sum of £120,000 (in an era when a middle class salary in London might be £200 a year). In response, he hired musicians and a hearse and held a public funeral for the South Sea Company.
Soon after, Philip went abroad, arriving in Vienna in June 1725. After migrating around Europe, in and out of the Stuart Pretender’s favour, he considered returning to Ireland or England. However, he sealed his loyalties when he once again publicly declared his support for the Old Pretender.
On 4 March 1726, James Stuart appointed him his ambassador to Madrid, and a day later nominated him a Knight of the Garter. Arriving in the Spanish capital, Philip declared that he was the Stuart monarch’s “Prime Minister,” and he was invested with the insignia and robes of the Order of the Garter in the Spanish capital with great ceremony on 10 April 1726 by the exiled Duke of Ormonde.
By now, Philip’s debts back in Ireland and England stood at over £70,000. He was soon living in Madrid as a house guest of the Duke of Lyria, who described him in his diary as having “neither faith, principles, honour, or religion – lied in every word, was cowardly, indiscreet, and a drunkard, possessed of all the vices. His only good quality being an admirable fawning toady.”
6, Marriage in Madrid
Throughout his dissolute life, and despite his very public affair with Lady Mary Montagu, Philip Wharton had remained married to the much-neglected Martha Holmes. She had been abandoned finally when he went into exile on the Continent and poor Martha died on 14 April 1726, within a week of Philip’s arrival in Madrid.
A day after he heard of poor Martha’s death, Philip, for the first time, saw the woman named in various accounts as Maria Theresa Comerford, Maria Theresa O’Neill and Maria Theresa O’Beirne; she too was newly arrived in Madrid, having moved there with her mother, Mrs Henrietta Comerford, following the death in Badajoz of Henrietta’s husband, Colonel John Comerford, also known as Don Juan de Comerford.
Philip fell passionately in love with this beautiful young woman, who had been appointed a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Spain. He was immediately determined to marry her, and announced to all that he would turn Catholic in order to do so. However, Philip’s plans alarmed the Duke of Lyria and the Duke of Ormonde, who were protective of the young Maria Theresa. The two older dukes did what they could to dissuade and distract this new, younger duke, who by now was calling himself the Duke of Northumberland.
But Philip kept disappearing without explanation and eventually announced, “in the tone of a zealous and profound Catholic,” that he had been taking instructions in the Catholic faith – which was true, according to the spies sent to watch him by the Duke of Lyria. Philip was converted to Rome, and announced that he planned to marry Maria Theresa within a few days.
His conversion was the subject of a contemporary lampoon:
Pray isn’t it queer
That a wild Peer
So known for his Rakish Tricks
That Wharton shou’d
At last be Good,
And kiss a Crucifix?
With much difficulty, the Queen of Spain was persuaded to give her consent to the match. And so, despite the mixed despair and hilarity of his critics, Philip married Maria Theresa on 22, 23 or 26 July 1726 – whichever date is correct, it was just three months after the death of Philip’s sadly neglected and abandoned Martha.
But the marriage was already facing difficulties. Despite her consent, the Queen of Spain refused to attend the wedding, as did the Duke of Lyria, who then added injury to insult by evicting Philip from his house. Now homeless, Philip and his new duchess first went to Valencia, then travelled on into France, and on 12 October 1726 they were in Rome, where he “resigned” the title of Duke of Wharton. By now, Philip was deeply in debt and sorely impoverished, and to avoid further scandal he was ordered back to Spain by the Stuart court.
He returned to Spain penniless, enlisted in an Irish Foot Regiment, served as a volunteer at the Siege of Gibraltar in 1727, and was offered the rank of colonel in an Irish regiment, “Hibernia,” in the Spanish army in May that year. By September 1727, he was at Cadiz, “in bad health, and rarely sober.”
7, Treason and destitution
Despite having converted to Catholicism on his marriage to Maria Theresa, Philip founded a lodge of English Freemasons in Madrid in 1728. Now, driven either by a desire to return home or the hope of relieving his abject poverty, Philip applied for a pardon in June 1728 through the British ambassador in Paris, Horatio Walpole (1678-1757). Walpole was a brother of Robert Walpole, who had exposed Wharton’s Hell Fire Club in the Commons, and Philip’s plea was refused on 12 July 1728.
Worse was to follow: as a consequence of his conduct at the Siege of Gibraltar, Wharton was outlawed for treason by the English House of Lords on 3 April 1729, forfeiting all his titles and any remaining estates in England.
What happened, not just to the fate, but to the faith of the former president of the Hell Fire Club who had been converted to Catholicism by his beautiful second wife?
He was now dogged by fits of superstition in the intervals between blasphemy and libertinage. For three years, he was to be found rambling about Europe in a state of beggary, drunkenness and almost complete destitution, followed continually by a clamorous rabble of creditors. Hoping he might survive on his army pay, he returned to his Irish regiment in Spain. But his health broke down completely in the winter of 1730. He died a destitute in the Cistercian Monastery of Saint Bernard at Poblet, near Tarragona, at the age of 32 on 31 May 1731, and was buried in the church there the next day. At his death, all his titles, apart from that of Baron Wharton, became extinct.
Alexander Pope wrote of him in his first Moral Essay, probably noting Wharton’s death, in 1731:
Wharton, the scorn and wonder of our days,
Whose ruling passion was the lust of praise ...
Walpole later wrote:
With attachment to no party though with talents to govern any, this lively man changed the free air of Westminster for the gloom of the Escurial, the prospect of King George’s garter for the Pretender’s; and with indifference to all religion, the frolic lord, who had written the ballad on the Archbishop of Canterbury, died in the habit of a Capuchin.
8, No inheritance in Rathfarnham
In his will dated 1 April 1731 at the Court of Tarragona in Catatonia, Philip appointed his widow as his “universal heiress.” Maria Theresa may have expected to inherit a major fortune and estate back in Ireland, but she soon learned that her husband had been outlawed as a traitor.
The consequences dawned on her when, as the widowed Duchess of Wharton and Countess of Rathfarnham, she went to England with her grandmother to claim his estate and found that it had been forfeited to the Crown. To add insult to injury, All Souls’ College, Oxford, sued Philip’s executors for the balance of the money required for the new buildings he had endowed some years earlier.
Maria Theresa’s mother, Mrs Henrietta Comerford, died in Madrid in August 1747. Maria Theresa, who was still living in London in 1761, subsisted on a small Spanish pension, and died on 13 February 1777 at her house in Golden Square. She had been a widow for almost half a century, and there were no children to inherit her claims to her husband’s former wealth and titles in Ireland, including his estates and castles at Rathfarnham and Knocklyon. She was buried on 20 February 1777 in Old Saint Pancras churchyard, near Camden Town in London.
A writer in the Gentleman’s Magazine states that her father was Colonel John Comerford, from Loughkeen, Co Tipperary, although I would discover that this was a mistaken identity. In her will, the widowed duchess mentions her “niece Mrs Elinor O’Beirne, now residing in the court of Spain,” along with “Mrs O’Beirne now living with me” and her two daughters, then under the age of 21, “Mrs Mary Magdalene de Salle, my brother’s widow,” and “Francis, Joseph, John and Frances Magdalene, the four children of my deceased brother [Joseph] Comerford.” The first of these last four, Francis Comerford, as her nephew, proved the will.
9, Identifying ‘Maria Theresa Comerford’
So, who was this beautiful young widow, and was she a member of the Comerford family? She had used at least three different surnames during her lifetime, and I found it a difficult task to disentangle the mystery surrounding her identity. Charles O’Connor, the antiquary, wrote in 1762 that the Duchess of Wharton’s “father was cousin-german to mine.” But this provided few clues as I tried to uncover the identity of this mysterious Irish beauty who might have provided a 300-year-link between the Comerford family and the Rathfarnham, Knocklyon and Firhouse area.
John Comerford, who is described as her father in her will by Maria Teresa, was Major-General John Comerford (ca 1665-1725), of Finlough in Loughkeen, Co Tipperary, of Waterford, and of Madrid. A Jacobite exile who fled with the Wild Geese to Spain, Comerford became a colonel in the Regiment de Waterford in the Spanish army in 1718, was later promoted to the rank of major-general and knighted by the King of Spain. He died in Badajoz on 18 May 1725.
However, John’s place in the Comerford family tree is difficult to establish. A certificate of genealogy issued in favour of his son Joseph Comerford in 1744 by the Catholic Archbishops of Armagh and Dublin and five other bishops (Clogher, Meath, Derry, Kilmore and Kildare), and a similar pedigree in the Genealogical Office dated 1724 appear to be nothing less than genealogical fiction or fantasy.
John must have been a close relative of that amazing adventurer and pretender, Joseph Comerford of Clonmel, Waterford and Cork, who claimed for himself the French title of Marquis d’Anglure and who made John Comerford his heir. John Comerford’s sister, Elizabeth Comerford, married Peter Burke (died ca 1764) of Birr, Co Offaly, ancestor of the father and son John Burke (1786-1848) and Sir John Bernard Burke (1814-1892), who gave their names to Burke’s Peerage, Burke’s Landed Gentry, and similar publications.
However, these connections have made it no easier to trace John Comerford’s ancestry. Around 1716 or 1717, perhaps in Dublin, John Comerford married the widowed Henrietta O’Neill, widow of Colonel Henry O’Beirne, an Irish colonel in the Spanish army, and daughter of Henry O’Neill of Eden, Co Antrim, and his wife, Sarah O’Neill, of Shane’s Castle. John and Henrietta Comerford had one son and three daughters: Joseph, Elinor, Frances (“Donna Francisca”) Magdalene and Dorothea (“Donna Dorothea”). Elinor, the only surviving daughter, also married into the O’Beirne family and was living with the Duchess of Wharton at her house in Golden Square, London, in 1777.
The only son of Henrietta and John Comerford, Joseph John Comerford, was described by Maria Theresa Wharton in her will as “my deceased brother.” Born in 1719 in Barcelona, he was later made a Knight of the Order of Calatranta, and was still living in Spain in 1744, when he was known as “Don Joseph” Comerford. He married the widowed Mary Magdalene, Madame de Salle; she was still living when Maria Theresa made her will and described her as “my brother’s widow,” and Joseph and Mary Magdalene were the parents of the four Comerford children named in Maria Theresa’s will: Francis, Joseph, John and Frances Magdalene.
Francis or “Francisco” Comerfort was a sponsor in 1772 at the baptism in Spain of Carlos O’Donnell, father of the first Duke of Tetuan and Spanish Minister of War. Five years later, he was in England, and as her nephew proved the will of the Duchess of Wharton in 1777.
10, Not the father of the Duchess
But John Comerford from Waterford was not the father of Maria Theresa Comerford, who married Philip Wharton of Rathfarnham. It appears she was the daughter of Henrietta Comerford by an earlier husband, Colonel Henry (Enrique) O’Beirne, who, like John Comerford, was an Irish officer in the Spanish army. Henry died at a relatively young age and when his widow later married John Comerford in Dublin, Maria Theresa assumed her stepfather’s surname and so became Maria Theresa Comerford, the name she would use later upon her marriage.
By the 1720s, the Comerford family appear to have been living back in Dublin. However, Maria Theresa followed her stepfather and her mother to Madrid from Ireland in 1725, and John Comerford died soon after in Badajoz. There she was appointed Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen of Spain. And so in Madrid, the “very beautiful” Maria Theresa Comerford met the profligate Philip Wharton, the Rake of Rathfarnham, and married him within weeks.
11, Rathfarnham returns to the Loftus family
Maria Theresa never recovered the Rathfarnham estates or the lands and fortunes she believed were hers by right in Ireland and England. But in 1767, ten years before her death, the Rathfarnham estates, which had been sold in 1723 by Philip Wharton to Speaker Conolly, were recovered by the duke’s distant cousin. When Speaker Conolly died in 1729, his estates, including Rathfarnham, passed to his nephews, first to Thomas Conolly, MP, of Stratton Hall, Staffordshire, and then to William Conolly, MP for Ballyshannon, who died in 1760.
In 1742, the Conolly family sold the former Loftus and Wharton estates to the new Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Hoadly (1678-1746), who had rebuilt the episcopal palace at Tallaght Castle. When Rathfarnham Castle came into his possession, Archbishop Hoadly lavished money on its restoration. Although he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh that same year, he repaired the castle and made it his home. He died in Rathfarnham Castle of a fever on 19 July 1746 and was buried with his wife in Saint Maelruain’s Church, Tallaght. His Rathfarnham estates then passed to his daughter Sarah and her husband, Bellingham Boyle, a nephew of the Earl of Shannon.
There is a curious tale in this circuitous route of inheritance, for Bellingham Boyle was a third cousin of Philip Wharton: Philip’s great-grandmother, Lady Dorothy Loftus, was a sister of Boyle’s great-grandfather, Roger Boyle, 1st Earl of Orrery. Five days before his death in 1767, Bellingham Boyle sold Rathfarnham Castle and demesne for a mere £17,500, one-fifth of the £85,000 sought and less than one-third of the £62,000 received by Philip Wharton when he sold the estates almost half a century earlier.
And so, once again, the Loftus family returned to Rathfarnham Castle in the person of the youthful Nicholas Loftus (1738-1769), 2nd Earl of Ely and fourth cousin of Philip Wharton. Rathfarnham Castle was bought on behalf of Nicholas by his uncle, Henry Loftus (1709-1783), MP for Co Wexford. Nicholas had succeeded to the family titles and the estates in Co Wexford only a year before the Rathfarnham and Knocklyon estates were bought back on his behalf.
Young Nicholas had been violently mistreated by his abusive father throughout his childhood. In his bid to establish his rights to the Loftus estates, he was the subject of a celebrated legal case concerning his soundness of mind, but was successfully defended by his uncle Henry. Nicholas died a few months after securing his legal victory in 1769, probably as a consequence of the great hardships he suffered in his youth. His uncle Henry Loftus, inherited the fortune, becoming 4th Viscount Loftus, and in 1771 Henry was made Earl of Ely. He set about remodelling his ancestral home at Rathfarnham Castle, using the best of architects, artists and craftsmen of the day, including Sir William Chambers, James “Athenian” Stuart and Angelica Kaufmann.
The entrance to Rathfarnham Castle was redesigned as part of the restoration work by Sir William Chambers, James “Athenian” Stuart and Angelica Kaufmann (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2008)
The mullioned windows in the castle were enlarged and the battlements replaced by a coping with ornamental urns. A semi-circular extension was added to the east side and an entrance porch approached by steps, on the north. The interior was decorated in accordance with the tastes of the period and leading artists, including Angelica Kauffman, were employed in the work. Writers of the period who visited the house have left extravagant descriptions of its splendour.
Henry also built another entrance to the castle in the form of a Roman Triumphal Arch on the banks of the Dodder to celebrate the triumphal return of the Loftus family to Rathfarnham Castle.
When Henry died in 1783, Rathfarnham Castle, Knocklyon Castle and their vast estates, first acquired two centuries earlier by Archbishop Adam Loftus, were once again secure in the possession of his descendants. The estates were inherited by Henry’s nephew, Charles Tottenham Loftus, who later became Marquess of Ely as a reward for voting in favour of the Act of Union in the Irish House of Lords.
12, Rathfarnham in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries
In 1812, the Loftus family leased Rathfarnham estate to the Ropers and removed their valuable possessions to Loftus Hall in Wexford (which is on the market once again). The lands and castle were then used for dairy farming and fell into disrepair. To quote a contemporary account from 1838:
“Crossing the Dodder by a ford, and proceeding along its southern bank towards Rathfarnham, a splendid gateway at left, accounted among the best productions of that species of architecture in Ireland, invites the tourist to explore the once beautiful grounds of Rathfarnham Castle, but they are now all eloquently waste, the undulating hills covered with rank herbage, the rivulet stagnant and sedgy, the walks scarce traceable, the ice-houses open to the prying sun, the fish-pond clogged with weeds, while the mouldering architecture of the castle, and the crumbling, unsightly offices in its immediate vicinity …
“The castle, so long the residence of the Loftus family, and still the property of the Marquis of Ely, subject, however, to a small chief rent to Mr Conolly, is an extensive fabric …
“The great hall is entered from a terrace, by a portico of eight Doric columns, which support a dome, painted in fresco with the signs of the Zodiac and other devices. This room was ornamented with antique and modern busts, placed on pedestals of variegated marble, and has three windows of stained glass, in one of which is an escutcheon of the Loftus arms, with quarterings finely executed. Several other apartments exhibited considerable splendour of arrangement, and contained, until lately, numerous family portraits, and a valuable collection of paintings by ancient masters. But, when it is mentioned, that this structure has been for years a public dairy, and the grounds to the extent of 300 acres converted to its uses, some notion may be formed of their altered condition.”
In 1852, Rathfarnham Castle was bought by the Lord Chancellor, Francis Blackburne, whose family lived there for three generations. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Revd William Blackburn (1868-1919) was Warden of Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham (1909-1919); he is buried in Whitechurch Graveyard. The property developers Bailey and Gibson acquired Rathfarnham Castle in 1912 and divided up the estate. The eastern part of the estate became the Castle Golf Club, and the castle and the south-western portion of the grounds were bought in 1913 by the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), while the north-western part of the estate was sold off for housing.
The Jesuits converted the former Loftus ballroom in the castle into a chapel. One of the Jesuits at Rathfarnham Castle, Father William O’Leary, built a seismograph that could detect earth tremors and earthquakes anywhere in the world, so that for a time Rathfarnham Castle was a source of earthquake information for the national media.
The Seismograph House, formerly the Stewart’s House at Rathfarnham Castle and now the offices of the Tree Council of Ireland (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2008)
To the north of the castle some of the remains still stand from a long vaulted chamber formerly known as Cromwell’s Court or Fort. This was apparently a barn or storehouse erected as part of the castle farm and had narrow loopholes in its 5-ft thick walls. In 1922, it was incorporated into the new retreat house, to which it formed the ground storey and its character concealed from the outside by a uniform covering of cement plaster.
My father was a life-long member of the Castle Golf Club. Not far from the Castle Golf Club clubhouse there once stood an attractive little temple built of stone and brick, another relic of Lord Ely’s time at Rathfarnham. Although out of repair, if restored, it might have added much to the charm of that part of the golf links. Unfortunately, the club committee decided to demolish it in 1979.
In 1986, the Jesuits sold Rathfarnham Castle. Before leaving, they removed the stained glass windows, made in the Harry Clarke studios, from the chapel and donated them to Tullamore Catholic Church, which had been destroyed by fire in 1983. The other windows were donated to Our Lady’s Hospice, Harold’s Cross, and to Temple Street Children’s Hospital, Dublin.
Rathfarnham Castle was sold to Delaware Properties in 1985 and soon there were fears in the area that the castle was about to be demolished. After immense public pressure to save the building, the castle was bought by the state in 1987 and was designated a National Monument. Since then, the castle has undergone extensive refurbishment and has been opened to the public. The programme of active conservation has provided tantalising glimpses of layers of its earlier existence, as we discovered this afternoon.
Autumn growth in the gardens of Rathfarnham Castle (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2008)
13, Castle trivia
One of the chilling stories about Rathfarnham Castle that was repeated during this afternoon’s tour is that of the skeleton of a woman found in one of the hollow walls on the middle floor in 1880. It has been ascertained that she was there for over 130 years. It is believed that this woman was shut behind wooden panelling. Two suitors were arguing over her love and they decided to sort out their differences by way of a duel. The victor would then rescue the fair maiden from the wall. However, as it happened, both men died from their wounds.
The whole affair was conducted in secret and so the beautiful young woman was left hidden there, entombed in the wall, where she died. Lady Blackburne had the corpse’s silk dress made into cushions in 1880. Some claim her ghost haunts the ballroom in the castle.
The south façade of Rathfarnham Castle, with the spire of Rathfarnham Parish Church visible to the left. A secret tunnel is said to have led from the castle to the church
One interesting feature of the castle is its secret tunnels. One is said to have led from the castle to an exit at the present Castle Golf Club. Another led from the castle to the Church of Ireland parish church in Rathfarnham village. The second tunnel was only discovered in 1987. Both tunnels have been closed off. A third tunnel is believed to have led to the Yellow House, the oldest public house in Rathfarnham.
14, Back to Rathfarnham
It is ironic and worth recording that the decree of the English House of Lords in 1729 outlawing Philip Wharton and depriving him of his titles and his remaining estates in England was reversed by Writ of Error in the Queen’s Bench on 3 May 1845, when it was ruled that the outlawry was informal and irregular. Unknown to herself, Maria Theresa Comerford had died still legally entitled to call herself both Duchess of Wharton and Countess of Rathfarnham.
But if Maria Theresa was never born into the Comerford family, and thus was unable to provide me with a direct link between the Comerfords and the Rathfarnham and Knocklyon family that spanned over 2½ centuries, my search for her identity resulted in the discovery of one other centuries-old, albeit distant, link between her step-father and the Rathfarnham area.
John Comerford’s sister, Elizabeth Comerford, and her husband Peter Burke of Birr, had a great-granddaughter, Catherine Maria, who married Augustus Abraham Hely-Hutchinson (1766-1834), fourth son of the Right Hon John Hely-Hutchinson of Butterfield House and Provost of Trinity College Dublin, who gave the fair green to Rathfarnham village. It was a very distant and obscure connection, but the search for connections led me to the tale of the Rake of Rathfarnham.
15, A sad finale
The triumphal arch built on the banks of the Dodder by Henry Loftus to celebrate the return of his family to Rathfarnham Castle can still be viewed from Dodder Park Road, on a slope below the grounds of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and Mount Carmel Hospital.
The triumphal arch on Dodder Park Road is now an indecorous traffic island in a sad and dilapidated state (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2008)
But the arch is decaying, desolate and abandoned, covered in graffiti, its former dignity betrayed by cement blocks, and access denied by boulders. It serves merely as an indecorous traffic island.
I look down on this arch each day from the corridor outside my study in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and believe that unless remedial restoration work begins immediately, this sad relic that once told a story of adversity and triumph may soon be lost to future generations.
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This essay includes some material first presented on Thursday 7 April 2005 in a lecture to Rathfarnham Historical Society, ‘The Rake of Rathfarnham: the story of Philip Wharton who owned Rathfarnham Castle in the early 18th century.’ The lecture was part of the programme to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of Archbishop Adam Loftus on 5 April 2005. The Irish Hellenic Society can be contacted through its secretary, Ms Catherine Hickey, 15 The Laurels, Terenure, Dublin 6W.