Saturday, 14 November 2009

Redeeming family memories in Galway Bay

Duras House, outside Kinvara, is part of the sad story of the Comerford family and the Great Famine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

After this week’s hospital tests, and with a demanding working week facing me next week, a two-day break in Galway seemed a suitable way to bring the week to a close. The effects of sarcoidosis have been making me feel unusually tired over the last week or two, and it was good to get out of Dublin for these two days.

I wanted to photograph two houses that have been associated with the Comerford family in recent generations – Comerford House beside Spanish Arch in Galway City, and Duras House outside Kinvara, on the shores of Galway Bay.

The roads between Dublin and the West have improved so much in recent years. In less than three hours, we were in Kinvara. It must be almost forty years since I visited Kinvara, and when I stayed in the An Oige Youth Hostel at Duras House around 1970, I was completely unaware of its associations with the Comerford family and some tragic tales in the aftermath of the Great Famine.

In the mid-19th century, Henry Comerford of Merchants’ Road, Galway, and Ballykeale House, near Kilfenora, Co Clare, and his brother, Isaac Comerford, were prosperous merchants and prominent magistrates in Galway. Henry Comerford of Merchant’s Road became a Freeman of the city in 1840, and was a member of the Galway Grand Jury and a subscriber to the Galway Famine Relief Fund.

The Famine brought bankruptcy to many landlords in the West of Ireland, who found themselves deprived of rental income. Trying to take advantage of these economic changes, Henry Comerford offered £40,000 for the O’Neill estate at Bunowen, Co Galway, in 1845 but his offer was refused.

But Henry was not as heartless as his opportunism might indicate. At the height of the famine, on 12 July 1849, he offered to give land attached to Ballykeale Workhouse in Kilfenora to Ennistymon Poor Law Union in Co Clare, free of rent.

A shipping tragedy

Henry was also the owner of the St John, a Galway brig whose shipwreck was one of the most tragic events during the mass exodus in the aftermath of the Great Famine. The St John sailed from Galway on 7 September 1849, with a crew that included Captain Martin Oliver and the first mate, Henry Comerford, Jr., a nephew of the owner Henry Comerford. Many of those who perished on board the St John were from Ennistymon, Lahinch, and Kilfenora in Co Clare, Galway City, and Connemara in Co Galway.

The loss of the St John near Cohasset off the coast of Massachusetts on Sunday 7 October 1849 led to almost 100 deaths. The helpless ship was smashed again and again on Grampus Rock and began to break up. Horrified spectators on the shore saw people being “swept in their dozens” into the boiling surf from the crowded decks. People clung desperately to wreckage although they were again and again buried beneath tons of water as the colossal waves broke over them. Eight women and four men made their way to the shore, almost dead of exhaustion. Some had to have hands prised from the wreckage which had saved their lives. The survivors among the crew included the first mate, young Henry Comerford.

The American writer Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and his friend Ellery Channing (1818-1901) were in Boston when the tragedy unfolded and quickly made their way to Cohasset. There Thoreau met “several hay-riggings and farm-wagons each loaded with three large, rough deal boxes. We do not need to ask what was in them. The owners of the wagons were made the undertakers. Many horses in carriages were fastened to the fences near the shore, and for a mile or more, up and down, the beach was covered with people looking out for bodies, and examining the fragments of the wreck. It was now Tuesday morning and the sea was still breaking violently on the rocks. There were eighteen or twenty of the same large boxes I have mentioned lying on a green hillside and surrounded by a crowd. The bodies which had been recovered, twenty seven or eight in all, had been collected there.”

Thoreau met a woman who had emigrated from Ireland in an earlier ship “but had left her infant behind for her sister to bring, came and looked into these boxes, and saw in one her child in her sister’s arms, as if the sister had meant to be found thus; and within three days after, the mother died from the effect of the sight.”

A newspaper report of the time says that 46 bodies had been taken from the sea by nightfall, and were buried in a common grave. Thoreau witnessed seeing the funeral headed by the captain and the survivors. Thoreau and Channing saw the first mate, young Henry Comerford, who had survived the wreck along with the captain. Thoreau described Comerford as a “slim-looking youth” who “seemed a little excited.”

Later, the two companions from Concord spoke with another survivor, a “sober looking man,” and Thoreau tried to ask him some questions about the wreck but, not surprisingly, the man “seemed unwilling to talk about” the disaster, and wandered off. A week later, a funeral service was held for some of the victims, conducted by a Unitarian minister, the Revd Joseph Osgood. A second funeral was held after Osgood’s, this one a Catholic Mass for the Irish victims.

In all, 45 Irish emigrants were buried, all unidentified, in a mass grave in Cohasset’s cemetery, although the final death toll was between 90 and 100. Today that grave is marked by a 20-ft Celtic cross erected in 1914.

Thoreau’s account of the wreck was published as The Shipwreck in the June 1855 issue of Putnam’s Magazine. Three years after Thoreau’s death in 1862, this was reprinted as the opening chapter in his book Cape Cod. His account of the tragedy is a gripping essays, and also inspired Robert Lowell’s poem, The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket, published in Selected Poems (1976).

Eventually, Martin Oliver and Henry Comerford returned to Galway. But famine-related tragedies continued to trouble the Comerford family.

A post-famine disaster in Kinvara

In the immediate aftermath of the Famine, Henry Comerford faced another disaster arising from his speculation in lands and estates in the Galway and Clare area.

In the 1850s, he paid over £35,000 for 4,440 acres of land in Co Galway, including 2,700 acres from Sir William Gregory at Kinvara, for which he paid £23,000 for the de Basterot estate at Duras, and portion of the estates owned by J. Lambert and J. Browne, according to the Galway historians, Pádraig G. Lane and Patrick Melin. Duras House, which is six km from Kinvara and 29 km from Galway City, was built by the French family in the 18th century, and their interest in the house passed to the de Basterot family through marriage in France.

Duras House looks out towards Galway Bay (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

At the time of Griffith’s Valuation in 1855, Count de Basterot was leasing Duras House and demesne from Henry Comerford. At the same time, Comerford owned a substantial property in Rineen, including a mill which he was leasing to Daniel O’Dea. Comerford also held vast estates in Kilcummin, Killannin, Moycullen, Dawros, and Kilmoylan in Co Clare, and in Drumcreehy and Kilfenora in Co Clare.

That decade immediately after the Great Famine saw a change of landlords in many parts of Ireland, adding to the economic distress and increasing emigration. Sir William Gregory (1817-1892) of Coole Park, Co Galway, was forced to sell his Kinvara estate, including Kinvara Castle, which, in the early 1850s, was reported to be on the verge of complete decay.

Gregory, who had been MP for Galway, later became Governor of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). His second wife, Isabella Augusta Lady Gregory (1852-1932), became a key figure in the Irish literary revival, was a co-founder of the Abbey Theatre, for which she wrote several plays, and was a close friend of the poet William Butler Yeats.

When the Kinvara estates were sold in the Encumbered Estates Court in 1857 to cover the debts Gregory had incurred during the Famine years, they were bought by Henry Comerford. In order to buy the Kinvara estates, Henry raised a loan in Dublin on the strength of the rents he estimated he could receive once he owned the estate.

Gregory’s relationship with his tenants had been a good one and the question of secure leases had never arisen while he was landlord. But once Comerford secured possession he set about doubling and even trebling the rents.

Kinvara was a seaport and market town, with cattle fairs, a harbour, a court house and a police station. When he bought the Kinvara estate, Comerford also acquired the Tolls and Customs in Kinvara, Delamaine Lodge, the area known as Town Parks, the Fair Green, the gate house and the animal pound. In all, his new estate came to a total of 333 acres.

But the local historian, Monsignor Jerome Fahy, noted that Comerford’s purchase of the estate spelt disaster for Kinvara and its people. The “comparatively short interval of about twenty years witnessed the ruin of over a thousand homesteads in one parish” on the Comerford estate. His tenants had no security of tenure, and he increased their rents drastically, and he was resolute if not ruthless in implementing his policy of eviction.

Father Francis Arthur observed: “The change of landlords for the greatest portion of this place has rendered this one of the most wretched and deplorable parishes in Ireland.” It was, he said, impossible to obtain aid even from the merchants of Kinvara because they, as a result of Comerford’s rack-renting, were “bereft of all hope.”

Henry Comerford of Merchants’ Road, Galway, died in 1862. The Return of Proprietors published in 1876 shows the representatives of Henry Comerford holding over 2,000 acres in Co Galway. His brother, Isaac Comerford, who was treasurer of the Galway Magistrates, was a draper and general shopkeeper in Kinvara, and a magistrate in Galway. He appears to have inherited some of Henry’s estates and owned 444 acres in Co Galway.

As the landlord of Kinvara, Isaac Comerford raised the rentals of Kinvara from £335 to £1,150. However, by 1866, he was adjudged a bankrupt and his assets were seized on behalf of Todd Burns and Company, Mary Street, Dublin, for monies owed. As Monsignor Fahey put it a generation later: “[T]he machines were overworked, and the geese that laid the golden eggs were done to death, and the comparatively short interval of about twenty years witnessed the ruin of over a thousand homesteads in one parish.”

Nevertheless, Isaac Comerford owned 444 acres in Co Galway in the 1870s.

The French aristocrat, Count de Basterot, continued living at Duras House, where he had been Henry Comerford’s tenant. He rebuilt the house in 1866, and this is commemorated in a plaque high on the front of the house.

A plaque recalls Count de Basterot’s 1866 restoration of Duras House, which he leased from the Comerford family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

In September 1897, the poet W.B. Yeats – who would receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 – Sir William Gregory’s widow, Lady Gregory, and Edward Martyn met the count at the house to start the discussions leading eventually to the formation of the Irish National Theatre, the Abbey Theatre.

Count de Basterot was still at Duras House in 1906, a mansion house then valued at £10. The house is now a popular youth hostel owned by An Oige.

The tree planted by Lady Gregory’s grand-daughters on the lawn of Duras House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Duras House looks out over Galway Bay. In the unkempt lawn in front of the house, there is a tree planted a few years ago by Lady Gregory’s grand-daughters. The Gregory family’s happy connections with Duras House have lasted longer, and have brought more joy to Kinavara, than the story of the Comerford family.

After a brief visit to shingle and stone beach at the head of the peninsula north of Duras House, we headed back into Kinvara. Today there is no hint of a heritage of famine tragedies in this pretty village. Kinvara hosts two festivals each year: Cruinniu na mBad (the Gathering of the Boats) in August, which is Ireland’s best-known Galway Hooker Festival; and Fleadh na gCuach (the Cuckoo Festival), a traditional Irish music festival each May.

After a late lunch in the Merriman Hotel, with its quaintly named bar, M’ Asal Beag Dubh (My Little Black Donkey), we were back on the road to Galway. In the square in front of the Spanish Arch and Comerford House, we watched the sun go down over the Claddagh and Galway Bay as the waters of the Corrib River rushed out to sea.

In the evening, we had dinner in KC Blakes, a restaurant in Blake’s Castle, a few steps away. We would return the next day to visit Comerford House and the Galway City Museum.

But meanwhile, I was relaxed and having a good break. I may have sarcoidosis. But sarcoidosis does not have me.