Sunday, 15 November 2015

The sea and the beach are reminders
of the legacy and tragedy of wars

Walking on the beach at Bettystown, Co Meath, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

In my sermons in Zion Parish Church, Rathgar, this morning [15 November 2015], I spoke of how we had recalled the two World Wars in Remembrance-tide services over the past week, and how the tragedy of refugees is the greatest human catastrophe facing Europe since the end of World War II 70 years ago.

I have attended two Remembrance services in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute in Dublin, and a Remembrance-tide Eucharist in the Chapel of Westcott House in Dublin.

As a fitting close to these Remembrance-tide recollections this afternoon, two of us visited the grave of Patrick Culley in Mount Jerome, Harold’s Cross, and the grave of Stephen Comerford in Portrane in north Co Dublin.

A poppy cross on the grave of Patrick Culley in Mount Jerome, Harold’s Cross (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

We placed a poppy cross on the grave of Patrick Culley in Mount Jerome. His simple gravestone mentions that his connections with the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). He spent World War I in the trenches in France, and the horrors he witnessed undoubtedly contributed to the problems he faced later in life.

After the war, he worked in the Guinness Brewery in Dublin. But his state of health mist have been a major reason for the industrial accident which killed him on 17 August 1938. He was only 50 years old, and left a young family, including my late mother-in-law.

A poppy wreath rests against the gravestone of Stephen Comerford in Saint Catherine’s Churchyard, Portrane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

From Harold’s Cross, we then drove across the city to Portrane, where we laid a poppy wreath at the grave of my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford.

He enlisted in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers – “the Toffs and the Toughs” – 100 years ago 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 the Greek city of Thessaloniki. But in the severe Greek winter, many of those soldiers suffered frostbite, dysentery and other sicknesses. Then, in the summer’s heat of 1916, more of them came down with malaria and were evacuated from Thessaloniki.

He too contracted malaria in Thessaloniki, and was discharged on 3 May 1916, just three days after the Easter Rising came to an end, and was sent to Dublin. He was decorated with the appropriate medals for someone who had served the full war period, but never recovered his health.

My father was born in December 1918, but my grandfather’s health continued to deteriorate, and on 1 January 1921 he died a sad and lonely death in the hospital he had helped to build. He was buried in Saint Catherine’s, the old Church of Ireland churchyard in Portrane.

The inscription on his gravestone makes no mention of his part in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, or of how he died.

I find it very telling that his gravestone also gives the wrong age for him at the time of his death. Stephen Comerford 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 when he came back from the war in 1916. As his health deteriorated, he must have remained 49 for ever in my grandmother’s heart.

After taking a short time to look at the high tide at the beach in Portrane, we then drove on to Bettystown on the long sandy coast that stretches from Laytown in Co Meath to Mornington, close to Drogheda.

We had lunch at a table by a window in Relish in Bettystown, looking out at the rolling waves of high tide, before going for a walk on the beach. The tide was receding, and the twilight colours of late autumn added to the beauty of the afternoon.

Looking at the beauty of the beach and the sea, it was impossible not to think about both the horrors my grandfather faced in the waters of the Aegean Sea 100 years ago and the tragedy of refugees in the Aegean fleeing the horrors of war today, a century later.

Clouds above the beach at Bettystown, Co Meath, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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