04 April 2019
How Robert Comerford from
Waterford became a wealthy,
powerful merchant in Spain
I am writing later at the weekend in two church magazines, the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory) about my visit to Santiago de Compostela earlier this year [6 February 2019].
This visit, and my visit to Waterford last month, stirred my interest in the story of Robert Comerford, a Waterford merchant who moved to La Coruña in northern Spain in the late 16th century, where he developed many links with life in Santiago but also continued to maintain his connections with his family in Waterford after he became one of the richest merchants in the Spanish port city in the 17th century.
As the Spanish port closest to Ireland, La Coruña had an established nucleus of Irish traders in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Irish merchants active in La Coruña included the powerful family of the Waterford-born merchant Robert Comerford (1560-1623), whose commercial activities included an active trading connection with Bayona, and his family played an important role in providing a banking service to various members of the Irish community.
The Comerfords were one of a number of Waterford merchant families with long-established commercial links with the Iberian Peninsula. In the 1580s, Robert and his brothers were among the leading Waterford merchants trading with Bayona in Galicia.
The historian Dr Ciaran O’Scea of University College Dublin identified him as a brother of the Waterford-born, Oxford-educated Jesuit theologian, Nicholas Comerford (ca 1541/1545-ca1599), who was living in Porto in 1578 and in Bayona in 1589. This would mean Robert was a son of the Waterford merchant Patrick Comerford, twice Sheriff of Waterford (1574, 1577) and twice Bailiff of Waterford (1572, 1575).
Robert Comerford moved from Waterford to La Coruña at a young age, and his rise to a position of power and influence within the town’s commercial life over a period of 30 years is a complicated story.
He had arrived by 1586, following in the footsteps of his brother, Nicholas Comerford, who was living in in Lisbon ca 1577-1580, and who became unofficial adviser to the Council of War on Irish clerics in Ferrol during the 1580s.
Robert became the consul for the Irish Merchants in La Coruña and was employed by the Inquisition in Santiago in its routine visitation of foreign ships, and he was entretenido to the Spanish king from the 1590s. He also assisted in organising the freight of theological and liturgical books back to Ireland. His son would later follow in his footsteps, acting as both interpreter and familiar for the same tribunal.
In the late1580s or early 1590s, and became a major supplier to the Spanish navy in both La Coruña and Ferrol. This enabled him to play an important role during the Nine Years’ War as a go-between for the Spanish military authorities in Galicia and the Irish confederates.
He may also have become consul to ‘foreign nations’ in La Coruña, a position that gave him considerable influence and power within the foreign merchant community.
La Coruña had a pivotal place on trade routes between Spain and Ireland, with the Irish community playing a key role in the transformation of economic activities in the city in the opening decades of the 17th century. The principal impetus for the city’s transformation was the presence of the navy and foreign commercial activity set up to cater for the navy’s needs. Comerford was the principal architect of this transformation and later came to dominate the town’s commercial life.
This connection with the navy opened the door for Robert Comerford, who was living in Galicia by 1586. He stated in 1603 that he had been employed by Philip II to seek out pilots who had good knowledge of the coasts of Ireland, England, and Flanders for the navy. Presumably, as a result of this activity, he moved to La Coruña, where he was then able to expand his commercial activities.
He was already living in the town with his wife and children in the Pescadería when Sir Francis Drake’s attacked La Coruña in 1589 after the failure of the Spanish Armada. The following year, in a clear attestation of his religious orthodoxy, Robert was appointed interpreter by the Inquisition in its inspections of foreign merchant ships, and in 1615 he was officially confirmed in his role as consul of the German, Flemish, Scottish and Irish nations in the town.
Between 1586 and 1610, he also dealt in sardines, oil, and cereals. He also freighted a number of ships in the opening decade of the 17th century to carry cargoes of fish to Cadiz and Alicante. He also functioned as a banker, giving loans to various interested parties. In 1590, he lent 350 ducats to one notary so that he could buy another notary’s business.
Between 1605 and 1610, Comerford gave seven loans of between 175 and 1,500 reals each. On top of these, were many cash payments for goods of between 400 and 7,000 reals. The larger amount was paid by a group of merchants in Cadiz in 1607. Seven years before this, he was named on a list of the 73 richest citizens who lent money to the governor. In this list, he figures as one of the town’s five richest citizens, and only one of these lent substantially more than he did.
In the second decade, the amount of liquid cash appears to have declined as he was heavily investing in the supply of hemp along Galicia’s northern coastline. Robert supplied this directly to the navy in 1592, but by 1610 his principal clients were the inhabitants of Ferrol and the other small costal ports who presumably used it to make ropes and other related products for the navy. By then, he was effectively acting as an intermediary for smaller businesses and individuals, and appeared to have a near monopoly over the supply of hemp.
By 1613, his principal clients appear to have been sailors and inhabitants of the small coast towns. He also sold to members of Real Audiencia and sold oil or sardines for French or Irish merchants in the town or in Bilbao or Bayona. Many of the Irish merchants based in Bayona also appear to have worked for him or at least kept him in continual supply from Ireland.
Besides the recruitment of Irish and English pilots for the Spanish navy, he was an important link in the chain of correspondence between the governor of Galicia, the Conde de Caracena, and the leader of the Catholic revolt in Ireland, Hugh O’Neill during the course of the Nine Years’ War (1593-1603). Many letters from the governor were sent to Ireland via some of Robert Comerford’s boats to France.
Even after peace with England in 1604, he continued to be well regarded by the military authorities in La Coruña owing to his supply of information regarding the shipping of contraband to Galicia.
Robert Comerford also bought houses and lands in and around the town. In 1608, he bought three houses in the Pescaderia, and when his wife died in 1629 she left six houses in the same area to one of her daughters.
Within the Irish community, he played an important role as an intermediary between the ‘Old English’ merchants and clerics and the Galician regional and military government. He was part of a financial network that supplied loans to a wide variety of people, and employed members of other ‘Old English’ families.
In many ways, he was representative of those ‘Old English’ Catholic merchants who benefited considerably from Spain´s new-found role as an Atlantic power.
Robert Comerford married Catalina Lynch, probably one of the Lynchs of Waterford who also traded with Bayona, although little is known about her background.
While she played an active role in her husband’s business dealings, it is significant that in nearly 50 years living in Spain she never learned to sign her name. Her family would appear to have been of higher social standing than that of her husband as she was always referred to as doña, whereas he was never called don. Her family seems to have been closer to the Gaelic milieux than that her husband’s.
One of the fundamental differences between the ‘Old English’ families, such as the Comerford and Lynch families, and the ‘Old Irish nobility in La Coruña was the ‘Old English’ families’ easy access to money, while the ‘Old Irish’ families were almost totally dependent on payments from the king, usually several years in arrears. In addition, many ‘Old English’ families or their descendants owned houses in the city, while few ‘Old Irish’ families did.
There were negative connotations with Robert Comerford´s merchant status and his consequent quest for social respectability, which expressed the friction between the ‘Old English’ merchant class on one hand, and the ‘Old Irish’ and Hiberno-English nobility on the other. In 1615, a dispute was settled between Elena Geraldine, wife of Theobald de Burg, and Catalina Lynch over words said by Elena that cast negative aspersions on ‘the honour, status, and rank’ of Catalina and her husband.
Significantly, all Catalina’s daughters and granddaughters insisted on using the Lynch name long after they had acquired another surname.
Unlike the Gaelic Irish, the Lynch-Comerfords were in a position to improve their family’s social prestige through endowing Mass foundations.
Robert Comerford had close connections with John FitzThomas FitzGerald, a brother of the ‘Súgan’ Earl of Desmond. FitzGerald, who claimed the title of Earl of Desmond, escaped to Spain in 1603 after the Desmond Revolt, with his wife, a daughter of Richard Comerford of Danganmore. In Spain, he was known the Conde de Desmond.
In 1616, Robert Comerford had 720 reals belonging to the Earl of Desmond in his possession. When FitzGerald died in Barcelona, Robert Comerford was an executor of his will.
Robert Comerford provided the ransom for two members of the Irish community who had been captured by the Turks in 1620.
By the time he died in 1623, Robert was one of the most important merchants in La Coruña. He was certainly one of the biggest foreign merchants, to judge by the volume of his correspondence, and the number of houses he owned.
Before he died, Robert Comerford arranged that ‘one sung Mass with response and holy water’ should be said on the feast of Saint Peter the Martyr in the Dominican convent every year, and that 1,000 reals would be distributed in Masses for his soul.
For her funeral in 1629, Catalina Lynch requested that 100 Masses be said between the day of her burial and the honoras at the end of the year.
Catalina Lynch’s legacy of mass foundations and their continued remembrance long after her death marks her out from the other Irish women. On her death, she asked to be buried in a Dominican habit in her husband’s grave in the chapel of Saint Catherine of Siena in the church of the Dominican convent. She stipulated that 17 Masses be said in her and her husband’s memory every year. One Mass was to be said on All Souls’ Day, and the other on the Feast of Saint Catherine. The other 15 were to be said to the ‘Glory of the 15 Mysteries’ on the Day of Our Lady (25 March) and if not on another day, one Mass on Easter Day, one on Ascension Day, three on Pentecost Sunday, and the five remaining Masses on the first five Fridays of Lent.
In her will, she set aside the yearly rent of three houses both inside and outside the town to pay for the upkeep of her daughter Maria in Santiago, and for that of her grave and Mass foundations in the Dominican convent.
In her will, Ana did not specify any Mass foundations although she asked to be buried with her parents in a Dominican habit. She then owned more than three large houses in the Pescaderia, one of the oldest areas in La Coruña. Furthermore, as ‘Protector of the Orphans of Betanzos’ for almost three years, she held a position of social prestige within the local community. Her daughter and her niece were nuns in the convent of Santa Barbara in La Coruña.
Ana had only two daughters left alive when she made her will in 1666. Her niece Teresa, five years later, was the only surviving heir, not only of her own parents but also of her only son and husband. Both of them as well as her only brother had been killed in the king’s service.
Robert and Catalina (Lynch) Comerford were the parents of six children, two boys and four girls. These had 15 children, seven boys and seven girls, from four marriages, and one non-marital union. Their children were:
1, Jorge Comerford. He was a lawyer in both Galicia and Andalucía. He remained in La Coruña, where he continued his father’s business and owned extensive property in 1636. He inherited his father’s position as consul for foreign nations, but he also managed to have the English nation included among his responsibilities. He also held an official post within the Inquisition in Galicia, and he was consul and interpreter to foreign merchants in La Coruña. In the 1630s and the 1650s, he was the only foreigner or son of one to be elected as chief steward of one the town’s confraternities. He and Antonia de Rubrial had a son:
● 1a Nicolas Comerford.
Jorge married … Walsh (?) and they were the parents of:
● 2a, Antonia Jacinto Comerford.
● 3a, Eloisa, who married Francisco Pardo de Lago.
● 4a, … , another child, who married … Serrano.
2, Juan Comerford.
3, Viviana, married Andés López Romero, an alderman. They were the parents of:
● 1a, Antonio Jasper.
● 2a, Pedro.
● 3a, Teresa, married Esteban de Moscoso. They were the parents of a son, Esteban Jacinto.
4, (Sister) Maria, a Dominican nun in the Convent of Saint Clare in Santiago.
5, …, one other child, married … Hore (?) and had a son Andrés.
6, Ana ( -1666). In 1619, she married Pedro Codines Brochero, the town’s Corregidor and a military captain. They were the parents of: Simon Pedro; (Sister) Agata, a nun in the Convent of Santa Barbara in La Coruña; Juan; Jacinta Luisa; Catalina; Ana Maria, who married Joseph de Birusuela.
Robert Comerford, his wife Catalina, two of their daughters, and one granddaughter were buried in the same tomb at the foot of the altar of Saint Peter the Martyr in the church of the convent of Saint Dominic in the ciudad alta in La Coruña.
Two of Robert’s granddaughters also married two of the town’s aldermen later on in the 17th century.
By 1686, Catalina Lynch, her husband Robert Comerford, her daughters Ana and Viviana, and her granddaughter Teresa had all been buried in the same grave. The memory of Cataline (Lynch) Comerford was still strong some 60 years after her death. Masses were still being said for her soul in 1686 on the feast of Saint Peter the Martyr, on the Feast of Saint Catherine of Siena, and All Souls’ Day.
Her granddaughter Teresa set up Mass foundations in her own memory. In her case, she had two perpetual Masses said, one on the Feast of Saint Catherine and the other on the Feast of the Conception of Our Lady.
Sources and Further Reading:
Niall J Byrne (ed), The Great Parchment Book of Waterford (Dublin: Irish Manuscripts Commission), 2013.
Thomas P O’Connor, Irish Voices from the Spanish Inquisition: Migrants, Converts and Brokers in Early Modern Iberia (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
Ciaran O’Scea, ‘The devotional world of the Irish Catholic exile in early-modern Galicia, 1598-1666.’ A later version is published in Thomas P O’Connor (ed), The Irish in Europe, 1580-1815 (Dublin, 2001), pp 27-48.
Ciaran O’Scea, ‘From Munster to La Coruña across the Celtic Sea: emigration, assimilation and acculturation in the kingdom of Galicia (1601-1640),’ Obradoiro de Historia Moderna (Santiago de Compostela) 19 (2010), pp 9-37.
Ciaran O’Scea, ‘The transformation of Gaelic Irish kinship and family structure in exile (1601-1640) – some indicators for future research,’ paper presented to the ‘Flight of the Earls – Imeacht na hIarlaí’ conference, Letterkenny Institute of Technology, 17-19 August 2007. A later version is published in Surviving Kinsale: Irish emigration and identity formation in early modern Spain, 1601-1640 (Manchester, 2015), pp 57-86.