25 February 2019

Columbus said it was Heaven on Earth
Did Venice give its name to Venezuela?

Gondolas moored at the Doge’s Palace in Venice … but did Venice give its name to Venezuela (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

As the current crisis Venezuela continues to unfold, I have wondered why its name sounds like Venice. After all, why would a former Spanish colony in Latin America acquire a name from the most beautiful city in Italy?

After my visit to Venice three months ago [November 2018], my curiosity deepened.

For the past 20 years, Venezuela has been known officially as the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, since a new constitution was adopted in 1999. Before that, the official names have been Estado de Venezuela (1830-1856), República de Venezuela (1856-1864), Estados Unidos de Venezuela (1864-1953), and again República de Venezuela (1953-1999).

But where does the name Venezuela come from?

During his third voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus sailed near the Orinoco Delta in 1498, and landed in the Gulf of Paria. Amazed by the great off-shore current of fresh water that deflected his course eastward, Columbus wrote to the Spanish monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand saying he must have reached Heaven on Earth.

A year later, according to the most popular version, an expedition led by Alonso de Ojeda visited the Venezuelan coast in 1499, accompanied by the Italian-born navigator, Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) from Florence.

Vespucci is said to have commented that the houses on stilts in the area of Lake Maracaibo reminded him of Venice, and so he named the region Veneziola, or ‘Little Venice.’ The name Venezuela is said to be the Spanish version of Veneziola.

However, another account attributes the name to Martín Fernández de Enciso, a member of the crew with Vespucci and Ojeda. In his Summa de geografía, he claims the crew found indigenous people who called themselves the Veneciuela.

Two decades later, the territory now known as Venezuela was colonised by Spain in 1522.

In 1811, it became one of the first Spanish-American territories to declare independence, when a national assembly declared Venezuela independent on 5 July 1811. However, this independence was short-lived, and Spanish forces were in control once again a year later.

The area was finally liberated by Simon Bolivar in 1821. But at first, Venezuela was incorporated into a larger, federal republic state known as Gran Colombia, which from 1819 to 1831, Gran Colombia included the territories of present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela, and parts of northern Peru, western Guyana and north-west Brazil.

However, as Gran Colombia begin to break up and Venezuela gained full independence in 1830.

It is believed nearly 12% of Venezuelans live abroad with Ireland becoming a popular destination for students.

But there is another curious historical link between Ireland and Venezuela that has been brought to life by research by William FK Marmion. He has unearthed the story of Brigadier-General Michael (Miguel) Marmion (1736-1818), who was born in Dundalk, served as Governor of part what is now Venezuela, and died in Cuidad Bolivar in 1818.

Marmion was an officer in the Spanish Army from 1770 to 1799, and a colonial governor until he retired in 1800. His records in the Spanish Military Archives in Segovia list him as ‘noble’ and ‘distinguished’ birth. He was probably born in 1736, and a very young age he was brought to Spain in 1746 by a ‘noble relative’. He enrolled in the Spanish Military Academy in Barcelona in 1758, and he graduated as a sub-lieutenant of engineers in 1762. He went into the regular Spanish Army given his graduation from the Military Academy primarily for engineers.

After time in different regiments in Spain, including one in Mallorca, he left for the colony of ‘New Granada’ in South America in late 1768 as a captain. Earlier that year, he had married Tomasa Villamayor, the daughter of a Spanish colonel.

The separate Captaincy General or Kingdom of Venezuela was formed in 1777, and Marmion worked from the capital, Santiago de Leon de Caracas, now known as Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. But he spent much of his time in the Spanish colony of Guyana. He was promoted lieutenant-colonel in 1779, colonel in 1789, and served as Governor of the colony from 1785 to 1790.

He then served as the Chief Engineer in all the Spanish colonial areas dependent upon Caracas, travelling to several islands, as well as Florida and Cuba.

He was promoted brigadier-general in 1794 and retired in 1800 at the age of 64. He never returned to Spain or to Ireland, and instead lived on in what is now Venezuela. He died without surviving children in 1817 or 1818; his wife appears to have died before him.

Patrick and Thomas Marmion from Dundalk claimed they were his close relatives and wrote to Spanish officials inquiring about any estate he may have left. But by the time they wrote, Venezuela was no longer under Spanish rule, having become part of Gran Colombia shortly after his death.

Several of Marmion’s signed reports relate to disputes with the British and the Dutch about the boundaries of Guyana, and there is a school named after him in what is now Ciudad Bolivar in Venezuela.

I missed Comerford’s Lot
the first time round, but
then found it by accident

On the banks of the River Suir at Comerford’s Lot in Golden, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

Quite naturally my interest in Comerford family history means I take an interest not only in the genealogical details of different branches of the Comerford family, but I am interested too in places and shopfronts that bear the Comerford name.

Apart from the two places that provide separate origins for families with this name – Comberford, between Lichfield and Tamworth in Staffordshire, and Quemerford, near Calne in Wiltshire – these names crop in many places across these islands.

I have found myself photographing pubs and shop front with the name Comerford in different towns and villages, including James Comerford’s pub in Mooncoin, Co Kilkenny, the former Comerford shopfront in Barrack Street, Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, Comerford’s drapery on the Main Street in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, and Comerford’s Pub in Doonbeg, Co Clare.

There is Comerford Road in London SE4 is off Brockley Road in the Borough of Lewisham, Quemerford Road in Islington, London N7, and Comerford Way in Winslow in Buckinghamshire. In addition, there is Comberford Road in Tamworth, Comberford Lane between Comberford and Wigginton, Comberford Drive is in Wednesbury, Cumberford Avenue in Birmingham and Cumberford Close and Cumberford Hill in Bloxham, near Banbury, Oxfordshire.

I was aware too of Comerford’s Lot in Co Tipperary, but when I visited Golden, near Cashel, a few months ago, I missed Comerford’s Lot. There were no road signs to tell me where it was, no name plates or plaques telling me where I could find the place.

It was only during an idle moment at the weekend that I noticed I had actually been to Comerford’s Lot and stood on the ground there as I was taking photographs on the banks of the River Suir.

When my photographs are moved to Google Photos and stored in the Cloud, Google not only tracks when these photographs have been taken, but actually specifies where they have been taken, right down to the detail of the townland where I have been standing.

Comerford’s Lot is in the Electoral Division of Golden in Co Tipperary

To be precise, Comerford’s Lot is in the Electoral Division of Golden, in the Civil Parish of Relickmurry and Athassel, in the Barony of Clanwilliam, in Co Tipperary. Other townlands in the parish with similar names include Hoop’s Lot, Sergeant’s Lot and Persse’s Lot.

Among the places I was photographing from Comerford’s Lot was a seven-bay, multiple-storey mill, built ca 1820. It stands close to the banks of the River Suir and was once part of a large mill complex that was powered by the river.

The mill has a hipped slate roof, roughcast rendered walls and square-headed window openings with timber louvres. Although no longer in use, the mill retains its form and structure and is a reminder of the industrial past of Golden.

The seven bay, 200-year-old mill, photographed in Comerford’s Lot at Golden, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

While I was in Comerford’s Lot, I also photographed the splendid 12-arch road bridge over the fork of the River Suir, fist built ca 1500 and rebuilt around 1770. This long bridge stands at an important crossing point of the River Suir, in the centre of the mediaeval settlement at Golden.

Golden takes its name from the Irish An Gabhailín, referring to the fork in the River Suir. The bridge at Golden straddles an island in the River Suir at Comerford’s Lot, and in the past this village was also known as Goldenbridge.

The 12-arch bridge in Golden spans the River Suir and Comerford’s Lot (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The bridge is a prominent landmark in Golden and spans two channels of the River Suir in a curve of graceful arches. It is a technical, architectural and engineering achievement and its considerable age makes it one of the more important bridges in Co Tipperary.

The ruined tower house on the bridge recalls its strategic function in the past. This is a rare, round-plan tower house built by the Butlers of Ormond to defend the river crossing and to protect river traffic. The castle is said to have sheltered 120 men, women and children for 11 weeks during the 1641 rebellion. A well close to the castle is known as Cromwell’s Well.

The bridge also displays a bronze portrait of Thomas McDonagh (1878-1916). However, this Tipperary-born poet seems to have had no connections with Golden.

The tower and bridge are now set within a park that is partly in Comerford’s Lot. This park surrounds the bridge area and offers picturesque views of the River Suir.

The castle ruins and bridge at Comerford’s Lot in Golden, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Golden, in the heart of the ‘Golden Vale’ in Co Tipperary, is about 6 km south-west of Cashel and is made up of two mediaeval parishes, Relickmurry or Religmurry and Athassel, in the Barony of Clanwilliam.

An Augustinian Priory was founded in Athassel in the late 12th century by William Fitz Aldelm de Burgho, for the Canons Regular of the Order of Saint Augustine, and was dedicated to Saint Edmund King and Martyr.

The priory was so rich and so powerful that the Abbot of Athassel sat in the Irish parliament with the bishops as one of the spiritual peers. After the priory was dissolved at the Reformation, the priory and its estates were granted to Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond.

Golden’s most famous person was Father Theobald Mathew (1790-1856), the ‘Apostle of Temperance,’ who was born nearby at Thomastown Castle, the home of the Mathew family, Earls of Llandaff.

Thomastown Castle, now in ruins, was first built in the 17th century by George Mathew, half-brother of James Butler, the 1st Duke of Ormond. It was dramatically altered and enlarged in neo-Gothic style around 1812 with new wings and four slender towers designed by Richard Morrison (1767-1849).

When Edward Comerford was Archbishop of Cashel (1695-1710), he survived as the parish priest of Thurles under the protection of the Mathew family, and lived at Annfield, the home of Toby Mathew.

At the time of Griffith’s Valuation, nobody recorded as living within the townland of Comerford’s Lot. But the name of Comerford’s Lot in Golden may predate those links with the Mathew family, and may date to some grant of land from the Ormond Butlers to the Comerford family.

Obviously, I need to do some more research to discover the origins of Comerford’s Lot.

Comerford’s Lot is a townland in Golden … similar names for neighbouring townlands include Hoop’s Lot, Sergeant’s Lot and Persse’s Lot