Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Wearing a poppy so my grandfather’s story might not be lost

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

Patrick Comerford

Rite and Reason:

Why old soldiers must never fade away on Remembrance Day


I never knew either of my grandfathers, nor did I have Comerford first cousins. Family traditions were handed on by a widowed and a maiden aunt, two half-sisters who lived in my grandmother’s house. But I was an adult long before I saw a photograph of my paternal grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford. He died shortly after my father’s second birthday, and so I never knew what my grandfather looked like, and I could never answer that very Irish question: “Where was he in 1916?”

When I set out to find out more about him – and where he was in 1916 – I discovered the tragic story of his lonely death on 21 January 1921. He was then living in Rathmines and he was buried in Saint Catherine’s churchyard in Portrane, Co Dublin. Stephen was born in 1867. His father, James Comerford, an arts-and-crafts stuccodore and architect from Wexford, was one of the designers of the Irish House on the corner of Wood Quay and Winetavern Street. In 1884, at 16, Stephen was apprenticed to his father “to learn his Art” for seven years, and they soon became involved in turning the plasterers’ guild into a trade union.

Union records, census returns, street directories and family records made it possible to track the houses where Stephen lived, including 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue, Ranelagh, where his father James died in 1902 at 85. A year later, in 1903, Stephen’s young wife Anne died in the same house at 32. As a widower with three children under the age of three, he commuted between Ranelagh and Portrane, where he stayed with the Lynders family while working on George Ashlin’s new hospital and chapel. There he fell in love again, married my grandmother, Bridget Lynders, in Donabate in 1905, and they had more children.

However, the gap in Stephen’s life between 1915 and early 1918 remained. His early death and family silence left with no clues about that crucial gap, including 1916. Then, in an idle moment during an internet search for the war-time records of another family member, I keyed in my grandfather’s name. The missing story unfolded.

Stephen Comerford joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers – “the Toffs and the Toughs”– in 1915. Within days, he was sent to the Greek island of Lemnos and on to Gallipoli and Suvla Bay. He was among the few survivors evacuated to Thessaloniki. In the severe Greek winter, many of them suffered frostbite, dysentery and other sicknesses. In the summer’s heat of 1916, more came down with malaria and were evacuated from Thessaloniki.

Stephen was discharged on 3 May 1916, three days after the Easter Rising ended, and sent back to Dublin. Malaria was life-threatening but life-saving – for a few months at least. The war ended on 11 November 1918 and a month later, on 14 December, his youngest child – my father Stephen Edward Comerford – was born in Rathmines. Later, Stephen was decorated with the three standard medals – the Victory Medal, the British Medal and the 1914-1915 Star. But his health continued to deteriorate, no more children were born, and he died alone in hospital at the age of 53.

My father was the only one of seven children to have children himself. So malaria saved my grandfather’s life, however briefly, and ensured that he had grandchildren. His only reward was three medals – but even these were lost in the various family moves between Rathmines, Terenure and Rathfarnham. His lonely hospital death was filled with sadness, typifying how those soldiers were forgotten by those who sent them to war and their stories not handed on in their families.

I have worked and travelled throughout Greece and Turkey. But I never realised that my father might never been born – and I might never have been born – if my grandfather had not been there, contracted malaria and been sent home from Thessaloniki in 1916. As a pacifist, I am now happy to wear a poppy on Remembrance Day, if only to say that my grandfather and men like him should never have been neglected, and their sad stories should never be forgotten.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This article first appeared as a Rite and Reason contribution to The Irish Times on 11 November 2008. For an earlier, expanded version see: http://revpatrickcomerford.blogspot.com/2007/11/why-old-soldiers-must-never-fade-away.html