Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Lily Comerford (1900-1965):
a pioneer in promoting
Irish dancing and folk song

Lily Comerford being interviewed by Des Keogh for RTÉ in 1964 (Photograph: RTÉ archives)

Patrick Comerford

The name of Lily Comerford (1900-1969) has been associated with Irish dancing and Irish folk songs since the 1920s. She was the founder and director of the Irish Folk Dance Society and for 40 years a member of An Comisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha, the Irish Dancing Commission, founded in 1927.

Lily Comerford was born Elizabeth Mary Comerford at 74 Capel Street, Dublin, on 11 January 1900, and was baptised in Saint Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, on 19 January 1900. She was a daughter of John Comerford (1870-1918), who later had a shop at 32 Parnell Street, and his wife Bridget (née McGuinness).

The descent of this family can be traced back to:

Patrick Comerford (? born ca 1802/1807), who married Margaret … They were the parents of:

James Comerford (? born ca 1832/1837) of 33 Lower Church Street, Dublin (1862) and 44 Reginald Street, Dublin, who worked in a distillery. He married Elizabeth White, daughter of Thomas and Margaret White, in Saint Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, on 13 July 1862. They were the parents of:

John Comerford (1870-1918), who was born on 2 May 1870 at Marrowbone Lane, Dublin. He later lived at 44 Reginald Street (1896), 74 Capel Street (1897-ca 1904), Britain Street Great (ca 1911-ca 1916) and 32 Parnell Street (ca1916-1918).

John began life as cycle mechanic, later worked as an engineer, and in his 40s he was running a shop in Parnell Street, off O’Connell Street in Dublin.

John Comerford and Bridget McGuinness were married in the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, on 4 October 1896. She was the daughter of Martin McGuinness and his wife Esther (née Thomas). They were the parents of two sons and four daughters:

1, Esther Josephine, born on 27 September 1897 at 74 Capel Street; she married Michael John Jessop (1895-1944) in the Pro-Cathedral on 7 February 1918.

2, Elizabeth Mary (Lily) Comerford (1904-1969).

3, Martin Comerford, born at 74 Capel Street on 2 October 1902.

4, Patrick Comerford, born at 74 Capel Street on 12 November 1904.

After the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, John Comerford claimed for a total loss of £29 for household goods and damage to his building and the contents at 32 Parnell Street. He claimed his windows had been broken and his shop wrecked during Easter Week. The glass cases had been put in, and the furniture damaged included a mahogany table, six chairs, and a ‘chimney pier glass.’

He also sought compensation for repairs to the roof. However, a claim for £18.10.0 in cash taken from a box was not allowed, and he received a total of £14. Nearby, at No 75A, at the junction of Parnell Street Lower and O’Connell Street, one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, Tom Clarke, owned a tobacconist’s shop.

Seven months after the marriage of his elder daughter Esther, John Comerford died at 32 Parnell Street on 21 September 1918.

Meanwhile, his younger daughter, Lily, was learning Irish dancing at the Maxwell Brewer Academy of Irish Dancing, and traditional set-dances from Cormack O’Keeffe of Cork.

By the early 1920s, she had opened a class for children, and she became the first woman in Ireland to make a career out of dance teaching. Out of her love for children, she started to teach dancing to the local children once a fortnight at a penny a lesson. Her many successes included training champions like Rory O´Connor, the well-known teacher and adjudicator.

At a time when Irish dancing was virtually unheard of outside Ireland, Lily presented skilfully designed and executed team dances in venues such as the Albert Hall and the London Palladium on several occasions.

Her team was invited to the Eisteddfod at Wrexham in Wales in 1933. This festival later gave Lily the idea of forming the Irish Folk Dance Society.

During a tour of Germany in the mid-1930s, Lily Comerford presented one of her ‘spectaculars’ in Berlin. The organisers were impressed by her reputation and invited several leading figures in the Third Reich. Their reports led to Lily Comerford and her troupe being asked to perform before Hitler on 28 September 1934, and it is said he presented her with a civilian decoration.

Her troupe also appeared before Queen Juliana of the Netherlands and Lily was presented to the Dutch monarch.

Other awards that came her way included the much-coveted Feis Atha Cliath Shield, which she held for 10 years. She was an eloquent speaker and an untiring worker with a steely quality.

She married Roy Thomson, a professional pianist, on 20 August 1945. In his own words, this made him ‘Mr Comerford.’

She travelled regularly throughout Europe with her troupe of dancers. She founded the Irish Folk Song and Dance Society in 1951 to develop and promote folklore and to create better understanding between people of all nations through music, song and dance. Since it was founded, Lily Comerford’s name has remained synonymous with the society. In 1958 she was Ireland’s representative to the Federation of International Folk Groups.

Lily Comerford was such a legend in her own time that letters addressed simply ‘Lily Comerford, Post Office, Dublin’ were delivered to her.

RTÉ’s Newsbeat broadcast an interview with her by Des Keogh on 17 September 1964.

Roy Thomson died on 23 November 1968; Lily Comerford died on 9 March 1969, and they are buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold’s Cross.

The grave of Lily Comerford and her husband Roy Thomson in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold’s Cross, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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