Friday, 13 October 2017

The story of Blake’s Castle
and the tenacious survival
of one of Galway’s tribes

Blake’s Castle … a surviving tower house of one of the Tribes of Galway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

In my furtive search I failed to find Forster House in Galway yesterday [12 October 2017]. During an afternoon break from the conference in Galway, I was searching for the house on Forster Street off Eyre Square that was the birthplace of Charles ffrench Blake-Forster (1851-1874), the romantic Victorian genealogist who popularised many of the stories about the origins of the Comerford family in Ireland.

Charles ffrench Blake-Forster was a prodigal but controversial journalist, writer, historical novelist, periodical writer and genealogist, and his mother, Mary Josephine Comerford, was from Galway.

Charles Blake-Forster was proud of his descent from the Comerford family and his long lineage traced through the Blake-Forster and ffrench families.

Charles ffrench Blake-Forster, was born in Forster House on Forster Street and gave a highly colourful but mythical account of the origins of the Comerford family in his The Irish Chieftains, or, a struggle for the Crown (1872). In this book, he does not give his source for ‘an ancient vellum Ms’ that contained the family tree of the Comerfords and it has never been traced.

Having failed to find Forster Street House yesterday afternoon, I walked across to the Spanish Arch and photographed Comerford House, a house long associated with another branch of the Comerford family.

Close to Comerford House, at the bottom of Quay Street, I stopped at Blake's Castle, which Charles Blake-Forster would have claimed as another ancestral home, alongside Forster House.

Blake’s Castle on Quay Street in the heart of Galway was built around 1470 and is a typical mediaeval, urban tower house. It preserves a number of key features, including the interesting and unusual trefoil-headed windows to one corner, and the restored machicolation to the roof level that would have defended the doorway.

This three-storey castle has a single-bay ground floor and first floor and a two-bay second floor. The castle has a flat roof with a crenellated parapet, with projecting machicolation on supporting corbels to the top floor above the entrance.

There are square-headed window openings to the upper floors, double-lights to the top floor and a single-light to first floor, which have recent chamfered limestone block-and-start surrounds.

East corner of the first floor has cusped trefoil-headed windows to two sides, with tooled stone surrounds. The three-centred doorway at the ground floor has a limestone surround, and the walls are built of coursed, roughly-dressed limestone rubble.

The Blake family claimed to be descended from Ap-lake, one of the Knights of the Round Table. In fact, the family arrived in Ireland with the Anglo-Normans, and is descended from Richard Caddell, who was Sheriff of Connaught in 1306. He was nicknamed niger in Latin or ‘Black’ in English, and the name Blake derives from this name.

The Blakes of Galway were a powerful family, with several important castles at Menlo, Ardfry, Ballyglunin, Castlegrove and other places. They were one the ‘Tribes of Galway’: Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, D’Arcy, Deane, ffont, ffrench, Joyce, Kirwan, Lynch, Martin, Morris and Skerritt.

Sir Valentine Blake (1560/1562-1635) was described as the richest man in Galway in 1592. The eldest of three sons of Walter Blake and Juliana Browne, Blake owned extensive property in Galway, Mayo and Clare. He lived in Galway and at Menlo Castle, four miles north of Galway. He was elected Sheriff of Mayo in 1611, but when he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy he was dismissed. He was elected MP for Galway in 1613 and Mayor of Galway (1611 and 1630-1631).

He became a baronet in 1622 and is the ancestor of the Blake baronets of Menlo, currently represented by Sir Anthony Teilo Bruce Blake, 18th Baronet.

The Ardfry branch of the family is descended from Sir Richard Blake of Ardfry (died 1663), was Mayor of Galway (1627-1628), MP for Co Galway (1629), and the speaker or chair of the assembly of the Confederate Catholics in Kilkenny in 1647-1649.

Sir Richard Blake’s direct descendants died out in 1744, but a kinsman, Joseph Blake, bought the estates from trustees and moved to Ardfry around 1770 and built a house on the site of an old castle.

His son, Joseph Henry Blake (1765-1803), conformed to the Church of Ireland. As MP for Co Galway he voted for the Act of Union and was given a peerage in 1800 as Lord Wallscourt of Ardfry.

The title was created with remainder to the heirs male of the body of his father, Joseph Blake. When Lord Wallscourt died in 1803, he had one daughter and his father was still alive, but neither was among the heirs to the title. The barony was suspended for three years, and Lord Wallscourt was finally succeeded by his nephew, Joseph Henry Blake (1795-1816), as the second baron, in 1806.

This second Lord Wallscourt never married and died before reaching the age of 21. The title then passed to his 18-year-old cousin, Joseph Henry Blake (1797-1849), as 3rd Lord Wallscourt. He was an early adherent of socialism. During his travels in Europe, he was first impressed by ‘some of the theories, then much debated, for lifting the labourer into the position of partner with the capitalist.’

Following a visit to the co-operative commune established by John Scott Vandeleur and Edward Thomas Craig at Ralahine in Co Clare, Wallscourt tried to introduce socialist theories to his estate at Ardfry. He was a supporter of the Young Ireland movement and the French revolutionaries in 1848, although he he did not believe that armed revolution was a practical proposition in Ireland during the Great Famine.

His wife divorced him for adultery and his unreasonable and eccentric behaviour, which included violent rages and a penchant for public nudity, which he described as a ‘fresh-air bath.’ He died of cholera in Paris in 1849.

This second family title died out in 1920 at the death of his grandson, Charles William Joseph Henry Blake (1875–1920), 5th Lord Wallscourt.

Meanwhile, Blake’s Castle served for a time as the county gaol. In 1788, John Howard describes it: ‘Galway County Gaol is near the river. There is a new court but no pump. The criminals are in two long rooms with dirt floors and no fireplace, the debtors have small rooms above stairs.’ The felons were given a sixpenny loaf of household bread every other day. This bread weighed 3 lb 12 oz, and the prisoners often sold their loaf of bread for 4½d ‘to buy potatoes.’

The gaolers’ salary was £20 and on 1 April 1788 there were four debtors and seven felons in the gaol.

In 1807, work began on building a county and town gaol on the site of the present Roman Catholic Cathedral is today.

At the end of the 19th century, Blake’s Castle was being used as a corn store. During the 20th century, the ESB put an ugly substation in there, and the building deteriorated, with only the south wall facing the street and parts of the east and west walls remaining. In recent years, Blake’s Castle was restored as part of an hotel. It became a restaurant in the 1990s, and today it is Costa coffee shop.

A voyage of discovery
without immediate results

Setting out on the journey along Forster Street from its corner with Eyre Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

During a break from the conference yesterday afternoon, I took the bus from Taylor’s Hill into the centre of Galway, passing the campus of NUI Galway and the cathedral, and hopping off at Eyre Square.

I was in search of some of the houses in Galway that have links with the Comerford family, and in particular the house in Forster Street off Eyre Square associated with Charles ffrench Blake-Forster (1851-1874), the romantic Victorian genealogist who popularised many of the stories about the origins of the Comerford family in Ireland, and whose mother, Mary Josephine Comerford, was from Galway.

In The Irish Chieftains, or, a struggle for the crown (Dublin, 1872), Blake-Forster, who was then only 21, claimed:

‘Amongst the chivalrous and bold warriors (all of whom were not Normans) who accompanied William II, second reigning Duke of Normandy, surnamed the Conqueror, in his invasion of England, AD 1066, was Sir Fulco de Comerford, under whose azure banner, on which was emblazoned three mullets or, fought twenty men-at-arms, and four knights of his own kindred to aid William of Normandy in his invasion of England in 1066. After the conquest Sir Fulco received a grant of several lordships from William the Conqueror, and from him descended De Comerford [sic], of the county of Stafford, whose younger brother, Sir Henry, and his nephew, Sir Fulco de Comerford, came to Ireland in the rain of Prince John, son of King Henry II, in 1189. Fulco returned to England with the Earl of Montaigne; but Sir Henry remained in Ireland, and, marrying a sister of the powerful Hugo de Lacy, Governor of Ireland, became possessed of considerable property, and was ancestor of the Irish Comerfords; according to an ancient vellum Ms, “Hee was ane gudely knyghte, and ancesture of ye Comerfords, Barons of Dangeanmor”.’ [Blake-Forster, Irish Chieftains] (Dublin: McGlashran & Gill, 1872, p. 476, n. 68).

Henry Comerford inherited Ballykeel House, or Ballykeale House, near Ennistymon and Kilfenora, Co Clare, once the home of the Lysaght family, in 1839, and it passed from Henry Comerford to the Blake-Forster family in 1846 when his eldest daughter and co-heiress, Mary Josephine, married Captain Francis Blake-Forster, JP, of Castle Forster – the name the Blake-Forsters gave to the old French estate in the Doorus Demesne near Kinvara.

Francis and Mary Josephine (Comerford) Blake-Forster were the parents of Charles ffrench Blake-Forster, who became a prodigal but controversial journalist, writer, historical novelist, periodical writer and genealogist.

Forster House, Forster Street, Galway (Google Maps)

Charles Blake-Forster was born in Forster House, Forster Street, Galway, and was proud of his descent from the Comerford family and his long lineage traced through the Blake-Forster and ffrench families, and his grandmother was a sister of the last Warden of Galway, Edmund ffrench.

Francis Blake-Forster, of Ashfield and Knockmoy Abbey, Co Galway, was born at Raford, his grandfather’s home, in 1787. In 1810, he married the Hon Rose ffrench, daughter of Thomas Hamilton ffrench, 2nd Baron ffrench, of Castle ffrench, Co Galway.

Francis and Rose Blake-Forster were the parents of five children – two sons and three daughters. Their two sons were Captain Francis Blake-Forster, JP, of Forster House, Forster Street, Galway, and Ballykeale House, Co Clare, and Robert Blake-Forster of Ashfield.

In 1846, the elder son, Captain Francis Blake-Forster, JP, of Castle Forster, married Mary Josephine, eldest daughter and co-heiress of Henry Comerford, JP of Ballykeale House, Co Clare.

Their elder son, Charles ffrench Blake-Forster, was born in Forster House on Forster Street and was privately educated at home and later in England. On his return from England in his late teens, he began to play a prominent part in public affairs in Galway, and he began writing for local newspapers, including the Galway Vindicator and the Galway Express.

His only full-length published book was The Irish Chieftains, or, a struggle for the Crown, was published in 1872. In this book, he does not give his source for ‘an ancient vellum Ms’ that contained the family tree of the Comerfords and it has never been traced.

He became a town councillor in Galway, a member of the local Board of Guardians, and he was only 23 when he became High Sheriff of Galway in 1874. As High Sheriff of Galway Town, he presided at three Parliamentary elections in 1874.

Sadly, later that year he died of a brain haemorrhage, brought on by overwork, at his father’s house in Forster Street, Galway, on 9 September 1874. He was 23 and unmarried, and was buried in the family vault at Bushypark Church, on the Galway-Oughterard road.

On Thursday afternoon, I walked part of the length of Forster Street, but failed in my searches to find Forster Street House which stands at 48 Forster Street.

This large house was designed and built around 1850 by William Forster, and it occupies a prominent position overlooking Lough Atalia. I understand it is imposing and attractive house on one of the main approaches to the city centre.

Having failed, during this week’s visit, to find the house on Forster Street where Charles ffrench Blake-Forster was born in 1851, I headed back through the city to the Spanish Arch on the banks of the River Corrib.

Comerford House, beside the Spanish Arch in the heart of Galway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Galway City Museum, behind the Spanish Arch, opened ten years ago in 2007. Until then, the City Museum had been housed in Comerford House, beside the Spanish Arch.

William JV Comerford was also a well-known local historian in Co Galway, and he believed his branch of the Comerford family was descended from the Comerford family of Inchiholohan, Co Kilkenny. His historical papers included: ‘Some notes on the Borough of Tuam and its records, 1817–1822,’ in the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society. He was a founding member of the Old Tuam Society in 1942. He moved to Comerford House, beside the Spanish Arch, Galway, in the 1950s, but when he retired in the 1970s he moved to Dublin, where he died.

Comerford House was built beside the Spanish Arch around 1800. The best-known tenant of the Comerfords in this house was the sculptor Clare Sherridan, a cousin of both Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Shane Leslie. She is said to have had romantic interludes with Trotsky, Mussolini, Ataturk and even Charlie Chaplin, and after her conversion to Roman Catholicism she used one large room in the house as her private chapel.

The house as later donated to Galway Corporation and from 1976 to 2004 it housed Galway City Museum, before the museum moved to a new building.

Today, as I found it in 2010, Comerford House is still suffering sadly from neglect, crumbling and decaying, and in need of restoration. The square-headed door opening which is now closed up without any respect or dignity, has fluted flanking piers with plinths, one pier retaining a finial comprising acanthus leaves and barley-sugar cone.

Behind Comerford House and alongside it are the extensions to Galway’s old city walls, built in 1584. For many years, the Spanish Arch was known as the Blind Arch, and its present name is only a recent innovation, perhaps an attempt to enhance Galway’s romantic, Latin reputation.

Across the open space in front of the Spanish Arch and Comerford House stands a small monument dedicated to Christopher Columbus. Local lore claims Columbus visited Galway and that looking out to the Atlantic from this spot he was inspired to set out on the voyage that led to his discovery of America.

My voyage of discovery on Thursday afternoon was incomplete. I have to return.

Local lore claims that on a visit to Galway Christopher Columbus was inspired to set out on the voyage that led to his discovery of America (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)