Tuesday, 31 March 2020

The ‘Comerford Crown’ is
lost in France, but it inspired
a symbol of Irish identity

The ‘Comerford Crown’ or ‘Ikerrin Crown’ … bought by Joseph Comerford in 1692 and later kept in his château in Anglure

Patrick Comerford

Online discussions on recent days about anemones, poppies, the Anemone Coronaria, the relics of Saint Corona, the patron saint of resisting all epidemics, in Aachen Cathedral, and the treasures of Torah crowns in synagogues throughout Europe, have all been prompted by the choice of the word corona for the Corona virus.

The word cornona means ‘crown,’ and the corona viruses, including Covid-19, have been given their name because of the crown-like spikes on their surface, or because scientists thought they resembled the corona of the sun in an eclipse.

But all these online discussions also set my wondering during idle moments in recent evenings about the fate of the ‘Comerford Crown.’

The ‘Comerford Crown’ or ‘Ikerrin Crown’ is a long-lost archaeological artefact probably dating from the Bronze Age that was owned by the Comerford Family from its discovery in 1692 in Ireland. It was later taken by Joseph Comerford, Marquis d’Anglure and soi-disant Baron of Danganmore from Ireland to his château in the Champagne region, and may have been lost by the family during the Reign of Terror in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

Château d’Anglure … it gave Joseph Comerford an estate and a French title

Joseph Comerford is one of the most enigmatic members of the family. His origins and place in the family tree have been obscured by his own obfuscation: the family pedigree he registered in Dublin was a self-serving exercise in vanity, aimed at asserting his claim to nobility that would underpin the French aristocratic title he acquired when he bought a château and petit domain in Champagne. The plaques he erected in the Comerford chapel in Saint Mary’s Parish Church, Callan, Co Kilkenny, and the Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Parish Church, Tamworth, were proud but vain efforts to link the Comerford family in Co Kilkenny with the Comberford family of Comberford Hall in the Lichfield and Tamworth area of Staffordshire.

Although Joseph Comerford claimed on these monuments that his family had been brought low by the ravages of civil wars in Ireland and in England, he appears to have remained in Ireland for some years after the defeat of the Jacobites in the 1690s, without any obvious social, political or financial disadvantage. While he eagerly craved acceptance in French aristocratic circles, the title he acquired has never continued in use in the Comerford family.

Joseph Comerford, the eldest son of Edward Comerford of Clonmel, was sworn a freeman of the City of Waterford, on 10 December 1686. He subsequently was commissioned a captain in the Earl of Tyrone’s regiment of foot, a Waterford regiment (despite its name) in the army of James II.

However, despite the terms of the Treaty of Limerick following the defeat of the Jacobite cause, Joseph Comerford was still living in Ireland in 1692. In that year, he bought the ‘Ikerrin Crown,’ an encased gold cap or crown weighing about 5 oz, that was discovered 10 ft underground at the Devil’s Bit, Co Tipperary, by turf-cutters, and he saved it from being melted down.

Soon after, Joseph moved to France, and as Joseph de Comerford of Clonmel, he received letters of naturalisation in France in January 1711. In exile in France, he was made a Chevalier of St Louis, bought the Anglure estate on the banks of the River Aule in Champagne, including the Château d’Anglure, and claimed the title of Marquis d’Anglure. Joseph Comerford may be the Baron d’Enguemore who appears in Reitstrap’s Armorial.

However, he returned to Ireland at the beginning of the 18th century, when he was living in Cork, and he had moved to Dublin by April 1724, when he registered a fanciful family pedigree at the Ulster Office of Arms in Dublin Castle.

At this time, or soon after, Joseph Comerford probably erected the monument to his great-grandfather, Thomas Comerford, in Saint Mary’s Church, Callan, Co Killenny, and the plaque in the Comberford Chapel in Tamworth, Staffordshire, which is dated 1725.

The plaque erected by Joseph Comerford in the Comberford Chapel in the North Transept of Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Joseph Comerford returned to France soon after, and on 28 November 1725, as Joseph de Comerford, he gave the Anglure estate, including ‘the grounds and seigniories of Mesnil and Granges,’ 3 km west of Anglure, to his nephew, Louis Luc de Comerford.

When he died in 1729, Joseph Comerford’s will was proved in Paris. Another will, dated 19 May 1729, went to probate in Dublin that year. He was buried in the chapel at the Château d’Anglure not under the title of Marquis d’Anglure but as Baron d’Anglure et Dangermore.

Joseph Comerford and his wife Margaret (née Browne) had an only daughter, Jane Barbara. But there was no male heir to inherit his claims and titles. Instead, he designated his brother, Captain Luc Luke Comerford as his heir. In default of male heirs, Joseph settled his estates in Champagne on the heirs male of his brother Luke Comerford, and in default of such heirs male on his kinsman, Major-General John Comerford, and his male issue.

Captain Louis-Luc Comerford of Sézanne, north of Anglure, became Seigneur d’Anglure as heir to his uncle Joseph. He appears to have sold the Anglure title and estate in the mid-18th century. According to an advertisement dated 12 June 1752, a quarter of a century after Joseph Comerford’s death, Anglure was associated with the title of a barony from ‘time out of memory’ and with the title of Marquis d’Anglure which was created in 1657.

Louis-Luc de Comerford, who was financially ruined, sold his estates, including Anglure, Mesnil and Granges-sur-Aube, and Belle-Assise, to Jean de Cabanel and retired to Sézanne, north of Anglure, where he lived in dire poverty.

After Louis-Luc Comerford died, his next brother, Captain Pierre-Edouard Comerford, used the title of Baron Dangermore, but he made no pretensions to the Anglure titles. This branch of the Comerford family survived into the early 19th century, but died out in 1813 with the death of Captain Joseph-Alexandre-Antoine Comerford (1757-1813).

Since then, the titles have never been assumed or claimed by any member of the family. But what happened to the ‘Comerford Crown’ that Joseph Comerford has saved from being melted down and had been taken by him to Anglure?

The eventual fate of the ‘Comerford Crown’ remains a mystery. The crown appears to have survived in safe hands for long time after Joseph’s death. In his Histoire d’Irlande (1758), the Abbé MacGeoghegan, suggested it was still preserved in Anglure.

Some accounts say the crown may have been melted down for its intrinsic value during the Reign of Terror in 1793.

However, others claimed that the crown had survived the Reign of Terror. A contributor to the Dublin Penny Journal in August 1832 claimed that the crown was then still preserved in the Château d’Anglure. However, Dr Czernicki, whose father bought the Château d’Anglure in 1832 from a Monsieur Tissandier, said: ‘I never heard anyone speak about the piece of antiquity that you refer to.’

The ‘Comerford Crown’ is not the only Bronze Age ‘hat’ recorded in Ireland. In the late 17th century, a second, similar gold crown or vessel was found nearby at the Bog of Cullen, Co Tipperary. Known locally as the Golden Bog, due to the sheer quantity of artefacts recovered from its depths in the 17th and 18th centuries, this morass appears to have been an important ritual site in the Late Bronze Age.

Unfortunately, very few of the objects found in the bog have survived to the present day and the gold ‘crown’ is no different. It was bought in 1744 by a Limerick jeweller, Joseph Kinshalloe, who melted down the artefact to produce 6 ounces worth of gold. Another gold ‘crown’, described rather unusually as shaped like a shell, was also discovered at Kilpeacon, Co Limerick, in 1821. Regrettably, this object was melted down too for bullion.

The original function of these elaborate gold objects remains uncertain. If they were indeed crowns, then they were probably worn with an inner head-dress or lining that has not survived. They probably belonged to people of high status who wore them during specific ceremonies or rituals.

Another theory suggests ‘hats’ like these adorned wooden statutes or totems that may have depicted local deities. But it has also been argued that these precious items are not in fact crowns, but instead gold bowls or vessels, as with some of the artefacts from the Eberswalde hoard in Germany, which appear too small to fit a human head.

The ‘Comerford Crown’ inspired the design of the ‘Milesian Crown’ on the frontispiece to Dermod O’Connor’s translation of Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Eirinn in 1723. This crown was based on the ‘Comerford Crown,’ and it was used to represent the crown of the provincial kings of Ireland.

Professor Elizabeth FitzPatrick of NUI Galway suggests that because the ‘Comerford Crown’ was found in Munster it inspired the 18th century illustrator of Brian Bóruma ‘to add it to the Munster king’s royal paraphernalia’. Scholars point how that it is notable that the ‘Comerford Crown,’ and not the British crown, was placed above the harp in this image.

Over three decades later, the Abbé MacGeoghegan, James MacGeoghegan (1702-1763), in his Histoire d’Irlande (1758), described this gold crown as being in the shape of a bonnet, and added: ‘This curious part of antiquity was sold to Joseph Comerford and must be preserved in the Castle of Anglure, where he had bought the estate.’

By the early 19th century, the shamrock and the harp were the most widely used symbols of Irish identity. The Galway historian, Dr Emily Cullen of NUI Galway, shows how the harp came to be fused with the imperial crown of England, the cap of liberty, the sunburst and the ‘Comerford Crown’ or ‘Milesian Crown’ as one of the principal emblems of Irish identity.*

This ‘Milesian Crown,’ based on the ‘Comerford Crown,’ was fused with the harp in an emblem used in 1840 to illustrate the frontispiece to Edward Bunting’s third edition of The Ancient Music of Ireland. This frontispiece consolidated the iconic appeal of the Milesian Crown.

Bunting’s emblem of the ‘Milesian Crown’ is based on the 1723 illustration in Dermod O’Connor’s translation of Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Eirinn, which, in turn, is based on the ‘Comerford Crown.’

While Bunting dedicated this third edition to Queen Victoria, he inserted the Milesian Crown above the harp with the symbol of a wakened nationalism, the sunburst, as a declaration of a separate Irish feudal tradition. Dr Cullen points out that instead of ambiguously employing the radiated ‘Irish crown’ above the harp, Bunting purposefully differentiated the provincial Irish crown from that of the British one, through a distinctive design.

Three years after Bunting’s use of the ‘Comerford Crown,’ the ‘Comerford Crown’ informed the design in 1843 of Daniel O’Connell’s green velvet ‘Repeal Cap,’ which played a crucial iconic role in the construction of his public image.

The artists John Hogan and Henry MacManus used the ‘Comerford Crown’ to design the green velvet ‘Milesian cap’ or ‘cap of liberty’ that they presented to Daniel O’Connell at the ‘monster meeting’ on the Rath of Mullaghmast, near Athy, Co Kildare, in 1843. An advertisement in The Nation for a copy of the cap, which was mass-produced for sale, pointed out, it was modelled upon ‘the old Milesian Crown of Gold, dug up AD 1692, at Barnanely, of the Devil’s Bit, County Tipperary, and brought to France by Joseph Comerford, Esq., afterward Marquis of Anglure in Champagne.’

A year later, this harp and crown became the symbol of Ireland on the membership card of Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association of 1844. On that card, the harp is surrounded by the sunburst and by Irish political figures including Henry Grattan, Henry Flood, Patrick Sarsfield, Owen Roe O’Neill, Brian Boru and Ollamh Fodhla.

Ollamh Fodhla, reputedly the first Milesian king of Ireland, is wearing the ‘Comerford Crown’ or ‘Milesian Crown’ which is also placed beneath the harp in the central image.

The symbols of Ireland in the centre include a sword, shield, wreath of shamrock and the Milesian Crown. Saint Patrick’s head forms the stem of the device, while a smaller shamrock is inscribed ‘Remember 1782,’ a reference to Grattan’s Parliament.

O’Connell’s followers were deeply moved by the idea of an indigenous Milesian Crown. It came to represent a modern-day Irish crown and was symptomatic of its wearer’s brazen audacity. Throughout the mid to late 1840s, Daniel O’Connell was frequently depicted a mocking way in Punch wearing this Milesian Crown.

O’Connor’s illustration of the ‘Comerford Crown’ in 1723 also gave rise to sporadic curiosity about the artefact on the pages of journals in the 19th century. The Dublin Penny Journal claimed the crown was ‘perfectly eastern’ in its ‘style and workmanship’ and ‘unlike everything of the kind used in Europe within historic times.’

Daniel O’Connell wearing the ‘Milesian Crown’ in an image at the west door of Saint James’s Church, Dublin, designed in 1844 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

O’Connell is depicted wearing the crown in an image on the west door of Saint James’s Church, Dublin, designed by Patrick Byrne in 1844. The crown also appears on a head of Brian Boru on the walls of the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle, and as a label stop in the Church of the Holy Cross in Charleville, Co Cork, designed by Maurice A Hennessy in 1898.

It is surprising, then, that the ‘Comerford Crown’ did not appear in the motifs designed for the Irish House on the corner of Winetavern Street and Wood Quay, or the Oarsman in Ringsend, two Dublin pubs designed in the 1890s by James Comerford (1817-1902), when his other depictions include Round Towers, Irish wolfhounds, Erin with a stingless harp, and political figures such as Grattan, Flood and O’Connell.

Dr Cullen argues that the pairing of the Irish harp emblem with the Milesian Crown is a distinctive and neglected development in 19th century iconic discourses. She adds, ‘It is important, however, to update the Comerford Crown story for a variety of reasons, not least because the authority of this crown was challenged by some as just a decorative vessel.’

She points out that the use of the ‘Comerford Crown’ as a symbol to stand in for the history of a provincial Irish king represents ‘an attempted transfer of authority to an indigenous Irish crown, a separate iconographic tradition and, ultimately, the dilution of authority of the British Crown.’

In her conclusions, she says, ‘The fact that there is still a degree of uncertainty about the functions of the Comerford Crown underlines the fact that the harp was juxtaposed with equivocal symbols and, thereby, implicated in speculative narratives that were rendered no less powerful for their ambivalence. Unlike, however, the ‘missing’ Comerford Crown, long transferred to Anglure in France, the Irish harp retains its symbolic authority.’

A crowned Brian Boru on the east wall of the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Further Reading:

* Emily Cullen, ‘From the Comerford Crown to the Repeal Cap: Fusing the Irish harp symbol with eastern promise in the nineteenth century,’ in Visual Material and Print Culture in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, ed Ciara Breathnach and Catherine Lawless (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2010), pp 59-72.

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