Friday, 11 September 2009

Meeting distant cousins in churches and cathedrals

Simon Street (centre) with Canon Patrick Comerford (left) and Canon Mark Gardner (right) in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Patrick Comerford

Indian Summer indeed … it seems to be almost typical of the Irish experience of summer over the years: good weather when students are sitting exams, then cold wet weather for July and August, and the good weather returns when all your holiday entitlements have been used up and pupils and students return.

Although the sun has been streaming through my office window, all week, there’s been a lot to do and the past week has been a busy one … cathedral services and board and committee meetings, faculty meetings, lectures to prepare, sermons to write, a funeral to attend, a column to write for diocesan magazines, radio and television interviews, and, of course, the Palatine commemorative service in Old Ross, Co Wexford.

In glorious sunshine, I travelled back down to Wexford on Wednesday, and came back late that night under a clear starry sky, with the moon bouncing off the calm waters of the Slaney at Ferrycarrig, and glistening again on the still sea off the Wicklow coast.

In the midst of all this, it was a pleasant surprise to meet two distant cousins – perhaps very distant cousins – in both Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and in Saint Mary’s Church, Old Ross, and to compare notes and research on our shared Comerford story and heritage.

Simon Street arrived from England in Christ Church Cathedral on Monday afternoon. His mother was a Comerford from Brighton Road, Rathgar, while his father was a direct descendant of George Edmund Street, who was the architect at the rebuilding of the cathedral in the 1870s.

For a few years, I have been trying to fill out the biographical details of Dr Charles Henry Comerford, who is named on the World War I memorial in Rathfarnham Parish Hall, the War Memorial Hall, across the road from the house on Rathfarnham Road I was born in.

Charles Comerford’s branch of the family moved from Ireland – probably from Co Wexford – at the beginning of the 19th century to Somerset, where generations of Comerfords worked as pilots and mariners on the River Avon and in the Bristol Channel (see 18: Comerford of Somerset, Monmouth and Rathgar).

Edward John Griffin Comerford (1860-1937), a commercial traveller with the Bristol tobacco company, WD & HO Wills, returned to Ireland about 100 years ago, with his wife Mary Elizabeth and their son Charles, and moved to 30 Brighton Road, Rathgar. Their neighbours included James Walter Beckett (32 Brighton Road), a builder, Cumann na nGaedhael TD for Dublin South, and an uncle of the playwright Samuel Beckett. Walter’s son, the composer Professor Walter Beckett (1914-1996), was the organist in Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, conductor of the Dublin Operatic Society, the Dublin Musical Society, Leamington Spa Bach Choral Society, a lecturer in TCD, Professor of Harmony and Counterpoint, the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and music critic of The Irish Times (1946-1952).

Edward Comerford’s only daughter, Noreen Mary, was born in Dublin in 1916. That same year, Charles, who had studied medicine, graduated at Trinity College Dublin. It appears he immediately joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving as a captain in Thessaloniki.

Because he is named on the war memorial in Rathfarnham, I had long thought that Charles had died during World War I. But in recent months, I have learned that survived the war, and worked as a doctor in England into the 1950s.

My eldest aunt, who lived in my grandparents’ house within a five-minute walk of Brighton Road and who also worked for Players Wills, remembered and often spoke of this Comerford family. She believed we were related to them, but she never knew what had happened to them.

Earlier this year, I found out that Charles Comerford’s father, Edward Comerford, and his family also moved to England, and continued to live in the greater Manchester area, where he died in 1937. His widow Mary died in Portugal in 1957.

Edward Comerford’s daughter, Noreen, who was born in Dublin in 1916, studied at Oxford, and then married John Edmund Dudley Street (1918-2006), a direct descendant of the architect George Edmund Street (1824-1881). Apart from Christ Church Cathedral, Street was also the architect of the Royal Courts of Justice (the Law Courts) in London, Cuddesdon Theological College in Oxford, the nave of Bristol Cathedral, East Grinstead Convent, and Saint Philip and Saint James Church in North Oxford, which now houses the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. His apprentices included William Morris, a key figure in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Street’s death on 18 December 1881 was hastened by overwork and professional worries connected with the erection of the law courts. He was buried on 29 December 1881 in the nave of Westminster Abbey.

For the past few months I have been exchanging emails with Simon Street, a son of Noreen (Comerford) and John Street. We have shared our research and our notes about his maternal ancestors among the Comerfords of Somerset and Rathgar. On Monday last, he visited Dublin, and it was a real pleasure to welcome him to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin – the cathedral that owes so much architecturally to his ancestor, George Edmund Street.

G.E. Street’s image, carved on the top of a column in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

The Dean’s Vicar, Canon Mark Gardner, offered a particularly warm welcome on behalf of the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church. He brought Simon on a tour of the cathedral, pointing out a sculpted image of G.E. Street’s sculpted image on on top of one of the pillars in the nave.

In the chapter house before Evensong, Mark pointed out a bust on a window sill that he had long believed to be of Street – Simon assured us that it is not. So who is this mystery figure?

A bust on a window ledge in the Chapter House in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This is not George Edmund Street ... so who is he?

Later in the week, on Wednesday evening, I was in Old Ross to preach at the special service in Saint Mary’s Church to mark the 300th anniversary of the arrival of the first Palatine refugees in Co Wexford.

A number of old friends and colleagues were there in strength, including local historians Bernard Browne, Nicky Furlong and Helen Skrine of Butlerstown Castle, King Milne’s widow Sheila, and the daughters of Sean and Sheila Cloney.

Clerical cousins ... Canon Patrick Comerford and Father Bernard Cushen in Old Ross, Co Wexford, on Wednesday evening

It was also good to meet at least three distant cousins from the Comerford side of the family – Father Bernard Cushen, Parish Priest of Ramsgrange, Eileen Doyle of New Ross, and her son Kevin Deegan. They are all descendants of Martin Comerford, a younger brother of my great-great-grandfather, James Comerford (1775-1825) of Bunclody, Wexford (see 8: Comerford of Bunclody and Dublin). Bernard’s brother, Father Paddy Cushen, is Parish Priest of Ferns – they were both students in Saint Peter’s College, Wexford, while I was living in Wexford and working as a journalist with the Wexford People.

After the service, we went back to the Horse and Hound Inn in Ballinaboola, near Foulksmills, where Bernard and I pored over and shared details about ancestors and cousins. There’s a lot more to find out, but it was getting late, and I needed to be back in Dublin for the next day’s work.

But it was a good week for making and renewing connections with Comerford cousins, no matter how distant. And all in the same week that Martin Comerford scored the decisive goal that led to Kilkenny securing a four-in-a-row record in All-Ireland Hurling Finals.