21 January 2012

Remembering my grandfather 90 years after his death

A wreath of poppies on my grandfather’s grave in Portrane this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

It was ninety years ago today that my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford, died on 21 January 1921.

This afternoon, I visited Saint Catherine’s, the small old Church of Ireland churchyard where he is buried with my grandmother, Bridget (nee Lynders), between Portrane Castle and the Burrow Beach in Portrane in Fingal, north Co Dublin.

I never knew my grandfather, and there is nothing on the grave to indicate how or why he died. But it was important to visit his grave today on the 90th anniversary of his death, and to lay a wreath of poppies at the foot of his gravestone.

It is only three months since I visited Thessaloniki in northern Greece to retrace my grandfather’s footsteps while he was posted there with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the winter of 1915-1916 at the height of World War I.

Stephen Comerford was only 46 or 47 years old when he was stationed in Thessaloniki. As I walked through the streets and up the hills of Thessaloniki last October, I imagined how he must have watched his comrades die from the wounds they received in Balkan battles, from the bitter cold of winter and from the frostbite – many of them young enough to be his sons, while his wife and children wondered whether they were ever going to see him again.

Looking down on the city of Thessaloniki and out to the Thermaic Gulf ... and recalling my grandfather’s days here during World War I (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

On my way up, I was conscious of his presence on those slopes in Thessaloniki. As I stopped at a church here, a monastery there, I imagined the prayers he prayed, hoping he would return alive to his wife and children in Ranelagh and to her family in Portrane?

Yes, Stephen Comerford returned alive from Thessaloniki – discharged in May 1916 on medical grounds because he had contracted malaria in Thessaloniki. Had he not returned alive, my father would not have been conceived, and I would not have been born.

Thessaloniki was very much on my mind as I laid that poppy wrath this afternoon. But the inscription on his gravestone makes no mention of his part in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, or of how he had died.

Ironically, the gravestone also gives the wrong age for him at the time of his death. Stephen Comerford (1867-1921) was born on 28 December 1867, and died on 21 January 1921 at the age of 53. But the gravestone says he died at the age of 49 – the age he was at the end of World War I and at the time of my father’s birth.

As his health deteriorated, he must have remained 49 for ever in my grandmother’s memory.

Stephen and Bridget (Lynders) Comerford on their wedding day in Donabate in 1905 (Comerford family collection)

The English wartime poet Rupert Brooke wrote before he died in World War I:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

In Ireland, my grandfather remained 49 for ever in my grandmother’s heart. But there is some corner in Thessaloniki that is for ever Ireland, and there is this one part of Portrane that is for ever Thessaloniki.

Perhaps my grandfather might have enjoyed my cutting of the Vasilopita with the Greek community in Dublin last night. But his memory was honoured today. This old soldier was not forgotten, even after ninety years. In the centenary of commemorations we are facing over the next decade, the contribution of men like my grandfather must not be undervalued, still less forgotten.

The tide was out on the Burrow Beach, and in fading lights of the afternoon there were small ripples and pools in the golden sands. As I headed towards the Quay, I resolved that by the one-hundredth anniversary of his death, there should be a new gravestone, recalling my grandfather’s true age, his part in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers ... and, perhaps, even a mention of Thessaloniki.

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