Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Unravelling the Limerick
and Sephardic roots of
John Desmond Bernal


Patrick Comerford

The Friends of the Hunt Museum,

The Captain’s Room, the Hunt Museum, Limerick

1 p.m., 11 February 2020


John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971) … one of the most interesting and important Irish-born scientists of the last century

Part 1: Introducing JD Bernal

Earlier this morning, I was celebrating the Eucharist in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and taking part in a chapter meeting in the cathedral.

Each time I go in and out of the cathedral, I notice the Bernal family grave in a quiet corner of the churchyard, facing the south porch and door of the cathedral. Many of you may also know or be familiar with the Bernal Institute on the campus of the University of Limerick.

John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971) is one of the most interesting and important Irish-born scientists of the last century. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of his death, on 15 September 1971. He was born near Nenagh, Co Tipperary 120 years ago, but he had strong family roots in 19th century Limerick.

John Desmond Bernal, crystallographer, molecular physicist, social scientist, committed Communist, campaigner for world peace, and friends of Pablo Picasso, was born in Brookwatson, Nenagh, Co Tipperary, on 10 May 1901. He was the eldest child of Samuel George Bernal (1864-1919) and his wife, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Miller; they had married the previous year..

Samuel George Bernal’s father, JD Bernal’s grandfather, was John Bernal (1819-1898) of Albert Lodge, Laurel Hill, Limerick. Many people thought he was a member of the family of the prominent Victorian politician, Ralph Bernal Osborne (1808-1882), of Newtown Anner House, Co Tipperary, Liberal MP for a number of English constituencies (1841-1868) before becoming MP for Waterford (1870-1874).

But, in fact, John Bernal was born Jacob de Isaac Haim Genese. His ancestors had been Sephardic Jews who lived in Venice from at least the mid-17th century, and before that they had lived in the Ancona area of southern Italy for many generations. The family moved through Amsterdam to London, and Jacob arrived in Ireland in the 1840s from London.

When Jacob de Isaac Haim Genese settled in Ireland, he changed his name to John Bernal and joined the Church of Ireland. He married Catherine Maria Carroll in Dublin in 1841, and she brought up their children as Roman Catholics.

The Bernal family grave near the south porch of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Their son, Samuel George Bernal, was born in Limerick on 22 May 1864. At the age of 20, he ran away from Limerick to Australia in 1884, and worked on a sheep farm. When his father died in 1898, he returned to live in Ireland and at first stayed with his sister Margaret Riggs-Miller at Tullaheady, just outside Nenagh, Co Tipperary.

Brookwatson near Nenagh, Co Tipperary, the childhood home of the scientist John Desmond Bernal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Later that year, he bought the farm in Brookwatson on the Portumna road outside Nenagh, and built the present house. On a visit to continental Europe, he met his future wife, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Miller (1869-1951), in Belgium. Bessie was an energetic, educated and much-travelled woman, the daughter of an Irish-born Presbyterian minister from Co Antrim, the Revd William Young Miller of Illinois. She became a Roman Catholic before they married on 9 January 1900.

They were the parents of five children, three sons and two daughters:

1, John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971), born in Nenagh on 10 May 1910, died in London on 15 September 1971.
2, Kevin O’Carroll Diaz Bernal (1903-1996), who continued to run the family farm. He was born Nenagh on 22 January 1903, married Margaret Mary Sinnott (1913-1995) and died on 17 January 1996.
3, Catherine Elizabeth Geraldine (1906- ), born Nenagh.
4, Fiona Laetitia Evangeline (1908-1908), died at the age of nine weeks.
5, Godfrey Francis Johnston Bernal (1910-2005), born Nenagh, married Ellen Marie Rose McCarthy, died January 2005.

There was less than two years in age between the brothers John Desmond and Kevin, and as boys they were very close for many years. At first, they both went to the local convent school, but they later went to the Church of Ireland national school in Barrack Street, Nenagh.

However, the young John Desmond was a devout Catholic throughout his school days.

Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where JD Bernal was an undergraduate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1910, Samuel Bernal decided to send his two eldest sons to Hodder Place and Stonyhurst, a Jesuit-run public school in Lancashire. At Stonyhurst, John would recall, he worked his way through the school library each Sunday after Mass.

After a short time at Bedford, he went on to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1919 for an undergraduate degree in Natural Science.

There he developed a strong interest in the developing science of X-ray crystallography. At Cambridge too he became an active Marxist, beginning a lifelong commitment to Communism.

From Cambridge, he joined WH Bragg in his research at the Royal Institution (RI) in 1923. In 1927, he became the first lecturer in structural crystallography at Cambridge, and he was appointed the assistant director of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1934. However, he was refused fellowships at Emmanuel College and Christ’s College and tenure by Ernest Rutherford, who is said to have disliked him.

Bernal remained at Cambridge until 1937, when he became Professor of Physics at Birkbeck College, University of London, and head of the newly established department of crystallography.

His research included the first X-ray diffraction pattern of a protein and ground-breaking work on the structure of viruses and proteins that lead to the foundation of molecular biology. This development fundamentally changed the focus of biochemical research and the understanding of biological activity as it made it possible to examine the 3-D chemical structure of the component species.

At Birkbeck, he founded the Biomolecular Research Laboratory in 1948, and it later became the internationally renowned Crystallography Department. As Professor of Physics at Birkbeck College, London, and later as Professor of Crystallography, he presided over a centre of excellence that was celebrated worldwide.

Bernal would identify new fields to explore but then leave them to trusted colleagues. He wrote several books, published 224 scientific papers and almost 400 articles, lectured regularly on scientific and political topics worldwide and was involved in the foundation of UNESCO.

During World War II, Bernal worked on operational research, contributing to the planning of the D-day landings and the US honoured him with the Medal of Freedom in 1945. Later, he was interested in rebuilding Britain and initiated research into the structure and properties of metal hydroxides and the silicate components of cements.

Bernal had a reputation as a selfless supporter of young scientists, and his peers referred to him affectionately as ‘Sage.’ Two of his former students, Dorothy Hodgkin and Max Pertuz, received Nobel prizes for pioneering work in protein crystallography for the first structural determination of vitamin B12 and haemoglobin, respectively. In addition, one of Max Perutz’s students, Francis Crick, received the Nobel Prize for unravelling the structure of DNA.

It is remarkable that Bernal never received a Noble Prize, although two or three of his students did. Conventional wisdom has it that he spread himself too wide and was too involved in other matters to achieve this ultimate accolade.

Bernal was driven by a belief that science and technology would improve the living standards of humanity if properly focused and he was a campaigner for peace and demilitarisation in the years after World War II. Although he had supported the Allied war effort and was involved in planning the Normandy landings, he was often ostracised in the West, with both the US and France refusing him visas in later years.

Over half a century, he met many world leaders including Nehru, Khrushchev, Mao and Ho Chi Minh. He was the first president of the Cambridge Scientists Anti-War Group, president of the World Peace Council and drafted the constitution for the World Federation of Scientific Workers.

‘Bernal’s Picasso’ … when art and science met in an anti-war protest

An interesting story is told of Bernal’s meeting with Pablo Picasso in 1950. Picasso had come to England to attend a peace conference that Bernal was instrumental in organising.

When the British government refused visas to the delegates from Eastern Europe, the conference was cancelled and some of those present retired to Bernal’s flat in London for a ‘peace party.’ That evening, Picasso painted a mural on the wall of the flat in Torrington Square. The house was demolished later, but the mural survived and is now on display in London as part of Wellcome Collection, and is known as ‘Bernal’s Picasso.’

Bernal became disillusioned with the Soviet Union after the invasion of Hungary in 1956, but he never renounced his socialist beliefs. He was to remain a thorn in the side of Western governments until the end of his days.

He married Alice Eileen Sprague in 1922, a day after receiving his BA at Cambridge. They had two sons, Mike (1926-2016) and Egan (born 1930). He was also the father of two children with the artist Margaret Gardiner (1904-2005) and a daughter with the writer Margaret Heinemann (1913-1992).

John Desmond Bernal suffered a stroke in the summer of 1963, followed by a second stroke in September 1965. He retired in 1968, and died on 15 September 1971.

The Bernal Institute at the University of Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

His legacy was the development of crystallography as a central tool across the sciences.

The Bernal Institute at the University of Limerick is named after John Desmond Bernal, who remains one of the most influential and interesting Irish-born scientists of the 20th century.

The Genese/Bernal family tree … it is nine generations from Shmuel Genese (ca 1650-1703) of Venice to John Desmind Bernal (1901-1971) © Patrick Comerford 2020

Part 2: Tracing the Bernal family

John Desmond Bernal’s grandfather, John Bernal (1819-1898), was a Limerick auctioneer and a city councillor. He was a member of the city council for over a quarter a century as a councillor for the Dock Ward. He had auction rooms in George Street and later at 9 Thomas Street in Limerick. When he died on 17 September 1898, he was living at Albert Lodge in Laurel Hill.

As his funeral moved from his home at Laurel Hill to Saint Mary’s Cathedral along George Street (now O’Connell Street), all the city businesses remained shut as a mark of respect. The Mayor of Limerick, Michael Cusack (1834-1907), attended in full regalia, along with the mace and sword bearers and all the members of the City Council.

Canon James Fitzgerald Gregg (1820-1907), who officiated at the funeral, was later Dean of Limerick (1899-1905).

At least three generations of the Bernal family are buried with John Bernal in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, as well as his wife Catherine Maria Carroll, who had died over 17 years earlier in 1881. They had been married in Dublin in 1841, and they had a large family of 11 children – eight daughters and three sons.

The women’s balcony above the entrance to the synagogue in Córdoba … Abraham Nuñez Bernal was burned alive by the Spanish Inquisition in Córdoba in 1654 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In her biographical notice of Bernal, the Nobel chemist Dorothy Hodgkin provides considerable detail about the Bernal family, tracing the earliest records back to Spanish accounts of a family of Sephardic Jews. She begins with a Bernal who was an apothecary who travelled with Columbus on his third voyage to America in 1502.

Abraham Nuñez Bernal was burned alive in Cordoba by the Spanish Inquisition in 1654. His brother is supposed to have fled first to Holland and then to England.

A descendant of this family includes Ralph Bernal (1783-1854), a prominent Whig politician, and his son, also Ralph Bernal MP, who married a wealthy Irish heiress, Catherine Isabella Osborne (1819-1880), daughter of Sir Arthur Osborne, and became Ralph Bernal-Osborne (1808-1882). A Liberal MP, he lived at Newton Anner, near Clonmel, Co Tipperary, and they were the grandparents of Osborne Beauclerk, 12th Duke of St Albans.

These connections may have given the Bernal name a note of political and aristocratic distinction around Co Limerick and Co Tipperary, and they help to explain why JD Bernal and his family emphasised their descent from the Bernal family. But the original name of JD Bernal’s grandfather, John Bernal, was Jacob de Isaac Haim Genese.

The Ponte de Ghetto Vecchio leads into the Campo de Ghetto Novo in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Although the Genese family is virtually forgotten in Limerick today, they are one of the many interesting Sepahrdi families on these islands. The family first came to London from the Jewish Ghetto in Venice in 1749, and for long have been members of Bevis Marks Synagogue, which opened in 1701, making it the oldest working synagogue on these islands.

The Genese family in Venice were silk merchants, upholsterers and house furnishers, and were living in the Ghetto Novo in Venice from the mid-1600s.

A family tradition once proposed that the Genese family were Sephardic refugees who fled to Italy from the Inquisition in Portugal and took their name from Genoa. However, it is now generally accepted by Jewish genealogists that the family had lived in the Italian peninsula for many centuries before they first appear in Venice in the 1640s.

It is now thought the name is derived from the town of San Ginesio, about 60 km south-west of Ancona, where there was a Jewish community with a continuous presence for 2,000 years.

The Scuola Italiana or Italian synagogue in the heart of the Ghetto in Venice … the Genese family were members of this synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Scuola Spagnola in Venice was founded around 1580 by Spanish and Portuguese speaking Jews (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The family were members of the Scuola Italiana in Venice, rather than the Spagnola Synagogue. This would indicate clearly that they were descended not from refugees from Spain or Portugal in the late 15th century or later but had Italkim (Italian-rite) origins.

Shemuel Ginesi (ca 1650-1703) and his wife, Benvenida (ca 1645-1707), lived in the Ghetto in Venice and were buried in the Jewish Cemetery in the Lido.

Their son, Emanuel or Mandolino Ginesi, was a community official in Venice in the first half of the 1700s. His son, David Genese, was living in the Ghetto Nuovo in Venice in September 1739.

David Genese was the father of Isaco or Isaac Genese (Gienese, Ginesi or Guinese), who arrived in London from Italy about 1749, perhaps having first moved to Amsterdam, where there was a large Sephardi community, descended from Spanish, Portuguese and Italian families.

Bevis Marks Synagogue … the only synagogue in Europe that has held regular services continuously for more than 300 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

This move to London coincides with a time when Italian Jewish families – including the D’Israelis, the Anconas and the Sanguinettis – were arriving in larger numbers and changing the make-up of the Bevis Marks Community. Until 1715, the members of the synagogue were almost wholly Spanish refugees or Amsterdam-Spanish migrants, and then from 1715 to 1739 overwhelmingly refugees from Portugal.

A year later, in 1750, Isaac Genese and Sarah de Isaac Lopez were married in the Spanish and Portuguese or Bevis Marks Synagogue in London.

Bevis Marks Synagogue is close to the heart of the City of London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Isaac Genese and Sarah were the parents of six children:

1, a daughter who died in infancy in 1757.
2, Rachel Sarah who died unmarried in December 1817.
3, David Genese, who married his first cousin Benevenida de Abraham Mendoza, a sister of Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836), the celebrated boxer of the Georgian era. David died in 1784, and has no known descendants.
4, Siporah, who married David de Moses Nabaro.
5, Samuel Genese (born 1767) who married Rebecca de Emmanuel Capua in 1790, and they were the parents of four children who died in childhood, two Rachels, Deborah and Isaac, and seven other children:

1a, Samson de Samuel Genese.
2a, Sarah, who married Joseph de Israel Benseraf.
3a, Emanuel Mordecai Genese, who married Sara de Joseph Tolano.
4a, Hanna, who married Isaac de Abraham Haim Garcia.
5a, Samson Genese, who married Abigail de Haim Daniel Dias.
6a, Rebecca.
7a, Esther.

6, Samson de Isaac Genese (born 1769), who married Esther de Abraham Bernal in 1791, a member of a well-known Sephardic family of Spanish descent.

The youngest son, Samson de Isaac Genese (born 1769), married Esther de Abraham Bernal, which is how the Bernal name was introduced to the family. Samson and Esther were the parents of seven children:

1, Isaac Haim Genese (1793-1858), who married Esther Jacobs and later moved to Ireland.
2, Rachel, who died young.
3, Abraham de Samson Genese, who died unmarried in 1859.
4, Samson Genese (junior), who married Hannah Simons. They have many living descendants.
5, Samuel Genese (1805-1888), who married Rachel Levy (1821-1871). They have many living descendants.
6, Simha.
7, David de Samson Genese (1807-1874), born 1807, and has many living descendants. His son, Joseph de David Genese (born 1851), had 11 children, the youngest born in 1886.

The eldest son, Isaac Haim Genese (1793-1858), married Esther Isaacs in London in 1817. They were the parents of five children, including:

1, Jacob de Isaac Haim Genese, later known as John Bernal (1819-1898).
2, Samuel Genese (born 1820). In 1846, he took over running a snuff and tobacco shop at 34 Grafton Street, Dublin. He married and had at least three children, a son Samson Genese and two daughters, including a daughter Hannah. The two daughters were still running the shop in Grafton Street in 1885. He married Margaret Kelly in Saint Mary's Church (Church of Ireland), Donnybrook, Dublin, in 1847.
3, Abraham (Bobby) Genese, who died in Limerick in 1847.
4, Rachel Genese (ca 1832-1902); her nephew Samuel Bernal was present at her death at Ormond Quay, Dublin, in 1902.

Isaac Genese was widowed when he moved from London to Ireland with his five surviving children around 1840. Louis Hyman, in his The Jews of Ireland, suggests he lived for a short time in Waterford, and other sources say he lived in Dublin. He set up an auctioneer’s business and later ran a bookshop and tobacconists.

Sometime before 1848, Isaac Genese married his second wife in Dublin and they had at least two further children:

1, Robert Genese (born 1848).
2, Caroline Genese (1850-1901), who married … Murtagh, and has descendants.

John Bernal ran his business from No 9 Thomas Street, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Isaac Genese’s eldest son, Jacob de Isaac Haim Genese (1819-1898), was born on 29 April 1819. He changed his name to John Bernal, and with his brother Abraham (Bobby) Genese he moved to Limerick in the 1840s. Here they set up a business as auctioneers in Thomas Street and lived in Sexton Street.

The Jewish Cemetery on Fairview Strand, Ballybough … Ireland’s oldest Jewish cemetery and one of the earliest Jewish burial grounds on these islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When Bobby Genese died in 1847, he was first buried by his brother in a Christian cemetery. But the Jewish community was upset, his body was exhumed, and he was brought to Dublin for burial in the Jewish Cemetery in Ballybough.

Jacob Genese or John Bernal had joined the Church of Ireland, and he married Catherine Maria Carroll in Dublin in 1841. They lived at Albert Lodge on Laurel Hill Avenue, Limerick, and he became a successful auctioneer, businessman and active politician in Victorian Limerick as John Bernal.

Catherine Bernal, who raised their children as Roman Catholics, died in Limerick on 26 February 1881. Both Maria and John are buried in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, in a raised area beside the south porch. They were the parents of 12 children, three sons and nine daughters.

1, Catharine (1845-post 1875), married Dr Jeremiah O’Donovan in the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, on 24 February 1873.
2, Esther (1846-1875), died in Limerick, aged 29.
3, Dr Robert Arthur Bernal (1850-1876), of Albert Lodge, Laurel Hill Avenue, Limerick, and the Royal Navy. He married Catherine Elizabeth Donnelly (1856-1920) on 18 September 1875, in Saint Andrew’s Church, Dublin. He died 5 October 1876. They were the parents of a daughter, Catherine Elizabeth Mary Frances (Assherson), who was born in Dublin on 14 March 1877. Catherine (Donnelly) later married: (1) Charles Patrick Magee and (2) Eustatius Louis Emile Brand. She died in Cape Town in 1920.
4, John Theodore Bernal (1851- ).
5, Mary Gertrude (1851-1925), married William Patrick Ryan (1851- ) and they had a large family.
6, Grace (1855-1871), died at the age of 16.
7, Margaret Josephine (1856-1930) married Thomas John Ryan, later Thomas John Riggs-Miller, of Tyone House, Nenagh, at Saint Michael’s Church, Limerick, in 1877.
8, Clara Elizabeth (born ca 1863), married Thomas Greenwood in Saint Michael’s Church, Limerick, in 1884.
9, Samuel George Bernal (1864-1919).
10, Aimee Rachel (1866-1937), born Albert Lodge, Limerick, 10 July 1866. She died 11 November 1937. She married Robert Ward in Saint Michael’s Church, Limerick, in 1889 and they had a large family.
11, Frances Esther, died on 17 March 1894, and buried at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.
12, Emily, married Albert Pfaff in Saint Michael’s Church, Limerick, in 1889; she died on 28 July 1912.

Albert Lodge later became part of the FCJ convent at Laurel Hill, Limerick, and was renamed Maryville

Albert Lodge was later sold by the Walker family and to the Faithful Companions of Jesus (FCJ nuns) or Laurel Hill Nuns and became known as Maryville.

Meanwhile, the third son and seventh child in this family, Samuel George Bernal (1864-1919), who was born in Limerick on 22 May 1864, bought a farm in Brookwatson in 1898 and built the family house. On 9 January 1900, he married Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Miller (1869-1951), daughter of the Revd William Young Miller of Illinois, an Irish-born Presbyterian minister. She became a Roman Catholic before they married in 1900. Samuel Bernal died in Nenagh on 18 September 1919.

Samuel and Bessie Bernal were the parents of five children, three sons and two daughters:

1, John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971), born Nenagh 10 May 1910, died in London 15 September 1971.
2, Kevin O’Carroll Diaz Bernal (1903-1996), born Nenagh 22 January 1903, married Margaret Mary Sinnott (1913-1995) and died 17 January 1996.
3, Catherine Elizabeth Geraldine (1906- ), born Nenagh.
4, Fiona Laetitia Evangeline (1908-1908), died at the age of nine weeks.
5, Godfrey Francis Johnston Bernal (1910-2005), born Nenagh, married Ellen Marie Rose McCarthy, died January 2005.

A family tree links JD Bernal with the boxer Daniel Mendoza, the two Sipple sisters who married two Comerford brothers, the actor Peter Sellers and many families linked with Bevis Marks Synagogue in London © Patrick Comerford, 2020

Part 3: A genealogical excursus

As we have seen, many people thought he was a member of the family of the prominent Victorian politician, Ralph Bernal Osborne (1808-1882), of Newtown Anner House, Co Tipperary, Liberal MP for a number of English constituencies (1841-1868) before becoming MP for Waterford (1870-1874).

In her biographical notice of Bernal, the Nobel chemist Dorothy Hodgkin said John Desmond Bernal was a direct descendant of a Spanish family of Sephardic Jews. She began with a Bernal who was an apothecary who travelled with Columbus on his third voyage to America in 1502.

Abraham Nuñez Bernal was burned alive in Cordoba by the Spanish Inquisition in 1654. His brother is supposed to have fled first to Holland and then to England.

A descendant of this family includes Ralph Bernal (1783-1854), a prominent Whig politician, and his son, also Ralph Bernal MP, who married a wealthy Irish heiress, Catherine Isabella Osborne (1819-1880), daughter of Sir Arthur Osborne, and became Ralph Bernal-Osborne (1808-1882). A Liberal MP, he lived at Newton Anner, near Clonmel, Co Tipperary, and they were the grandparents of Osborne Beauclerk, 12th Duke of St Albans.

These connections may have given the Bernal name a note of political and aristocratic distinction around Co Limerick and Co Tipperary, and they help to explain why JD Bernal and his family emphasised their descent from the Bernal family. But the original name of JD Bernal’s grandfather, John Bernal, was Jacob de Isaac Haim Genese.

I have been able to trace JD Bernal back in the direct male line in a genealogical tree that shows nine generations, from father to son, from Shmuel Genese, who was living in the Ghetto in Venice in the late 17th century, and I have shown how their synagogue membership in Venice shows the Genese family were of Italian Jewish (Italkim origin rather than a family of Sephardic Jews who fled the Inquisition in Italy.

We have to go back to Bernal’s great-great grandmother, Esther de Abraham Bernal, who married Samuel de Isaac Genese in the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London.

The family in Limerick can be traced through parish records, mainly in Saint Michael’s Church, and through gravestones, including the family graves at the South Porch in Saint Mary’s Cathedral.

But tracing the family before it came to Ireland was more difficult. Louis Hyman, in the standard reference work, The Jews of Ireland (Shannon, 1972), says JD Bernal’s ancestors first settled in Waterford, rather than Limerick, and makes no connection with the Genese family, who had businesses in Limerick and Dublin.

So, how did I come across this fascinating family of ancient Jews, with a long lineage, and who moved from Ancona, to Venice, to Amsterdam, to London, to Dublin and to Limerick?

They are a family that marries into some of the most eminent Sephardic families of Europe, with names like Lopes, Mendoza, Isaacs, Castro, Tubi, Nunes Martinez, Crespo and Levy.

I have to admit, I came across the family almost by accident.

I was interested in two brothers, Henry William John Comerford (1874-1958) and Albert Alfred George Comerford (1879-1973), who married two sisters, Rosina Sarah Sipple (1881-1958) and Agnes Violet Sipple (1884-1965).

I maintain a website on Comerford family history and genealogy and these two brothers, Harry and Bert, almost slipped under the radar. They were involved in stage, theatre, showbusiness and early moves at the beginning of the last century, but they used stage names, Harry Ford and Bert Brantford, which disguised their family origins.

Eventually, as I traced their families, I realised that Rosina and Agnes, the two sisters who married these two brothers, were Jewish by birth through their mothers, and although their grandparents were from the heart of the Jewish East End in 19th century London, they were descended from a long line of Sephardic families, associated for many generations with the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, one of the oldest continuously operating Sephardi synagogues in Europe.

Bevis Marks Synagogue, the oldest Sephardic synagogue in Western Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

At some stage in tracing this branch of the family through the East End, Amsterdam and Seville, I also came across the story of Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836), once one of the best-known and most celebrated boxers in sporting history on these islands.

One hunch led to another, as is so often the case in genealogical research, and within weeks of visiting the Jewish quarter in Seville, I ended up tracing a very long-tailed family with links to Jewish communities throughout Europe.

To summarise the connections: the brothers Harry and Bert Comerford married two sisters, Rosina and Agnes Sipple, who were fourth cousins of Samuel George Bernal of Limerick, father of John Desmond Bernal, and fourth cousins too of Peg Marks (1892-1962), the mother of the actor Peter Sellers (1925-1980).

Another view of the Bernal grave in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Part 4: Some recommendations:

So, apart from sharing an interesting story this afternoon, what conclusions or observations have I offer?

1, Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971), one of the most distinguished Irish-born scientists, who has deep family roots in Limerick, where his father Samuel George Bernal (1864-1919) was born, and where his grandfather was a member of the city council. I hope this fiftieth anniversary is marked with an appropriate commemoration next year.

2, The story of the Genese family, with their Jewish roots, and their subsequent membership of the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic church in Limerick, offers an interesting insight into the religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds of people in Limerick that we need to celebrate more consciously in a time when the place of immigrants is questioned and when definitions of Irish identity are in danger of becoming more narrow.

3, Genealogists should never trust what is too easily regarded as ‘accepted wisdom.’ We must always question what is handed on as family story, look for evidence, trust only primary sources, and be willing to look for what other people may hide or forget. The results are rewarding because, in the long run, we find we have the most interesting family connections that make us part of diversity and pluralism not only in Ireland, but throughout Europe.

4, For too long, telling the story of Limerick's Jewish community has been overshadowed by what has been called the ‘Limerick Pogrom.’ It is a story that must not be forgotten, but it is not the only, or over-arching story in the history of Limerick Jews. JD Bernal’s ancestors are an example of the variety of Jewish life in this city. Another example includes Henry Jaffé, who left Limerick in 190 4and was the grandfather of the journalist and popular historian Simon Sebag Montefiore and his brother, the writer and historian Hugh Sebag Montefiore. But their great-great-grandparents, Benjamin and Rachel Jaffe remained in Limerick and were living in Catherine Street in 1911, along with their great-grandparents, Marcus and Leah Jaffe, who also lived on Catherine Street.

Henry Jaffé, who left Limerick in 1904, was the grandfather of the journalist and popular historian Simon Sebag Montefiore and his brother, the writer and historian Hugh Sebag Montefiore. But their great-great-grandparents, Benjamin and Rachel Jaffe remained in Limerick and were living in Catherine Street in 1911, along with his great-grandparents, Marcus and Leah Jaffe, who also lived on Catherine Street.

Or there is Limerick’s last resident rabbi, Simon Gewurtz (1887-1944) from Bratislava, who links the story of Limerick’s Jews with the stories of the Holocaust.

Like other cities in Europe, from Seville, Cordoba and Porto to London, Prague, Bratislava and Krakow, I believe Limerick would be enriched by having a Jewish walking trail … and the story of the Bernal family would be an important part of that route.

Brookwatson, near Nenagh, the childhood home of JD Bernal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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