01 November 2020

Genealogical fantasies satisfy
needs for a sense of belonging

The ‘Bridge of Sighs’ at Saint John’s College, Cambridge … an obscure family connection was uncovered in an Irish bar in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Genealogy and family trees are always dependent on collective imaginations and identities. In any family tree, some ancestors are counted in and some are counted out. Even if we knew all our ancestors from 600 years ago, it would be impossible to include 1 million people in any one family tree.

Dr Adam Rutherford points out in his new book, How to argue with a racist, that in every generation back through time the number of ancestors you have doubles. Over a 500-year period, I have 1,048,576 ancestors. By 1,000 years ago, I have an impossible number of 1,099,511,627,776 ancestors – that is, over a trillion people, a number that is about 10 times the number of people that ever existed.

And so, all genealogists make choices that are based on the needs of a family or an individual to provide a colourful illustration of their sense of identity with community and place across generations and down through the centuries.

One rainy afternoon, as I whiled away an hour or two in an Irish bar in Crete, I found myself rummaging through the bookshelves and an eclectic collection of books bought for decoration rather than broadening the minds of the clientele.

Stuck in one shelf, side-by-side, was Thomas Baker’s two volume History of the College of St John the Evangelist, Cambridge, published in Cambridge in 1869. Many of the pages had not been cut since they were published, indicating they had not been read too carefully by their owners over the previous century and a half.

Unusual books to find in a bar in Crete … and unopened since 1869 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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In those idle moments in McGinty’s Irish Bar in Georgioupoli, I took down both volumes, knowing there held family memories and stories. Here were the college records of Henry ‘Comberforth’ (1499-1586), later Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral (1555). He graduated BA (1533), MA (1536) and BD (1545), and went on to become a Fellow of Saint John’s College and a Proctor of Cambridge University. He was still a Fellow of Saint John’s in 1542.

Here too was Henry’s brother, Richard Comberford, often confused by later genealogists with my direct ancestor, Richard Comerford of Ballybur Castle, Co Kilkenny. Richard was admitted to Saint John’s in 1534, was a Fellow in 1538, and was the Senior Bursar in 1542-1544.

Richard Comberford and his brother John both leased lands at Much Bradley in Staffordshire from Saint John’s College. Perhaps these appear to be absurd links for someone to become engrossed with during a holiday on a Greek island. But the leases on the lands in Much Bradley pushed the family connection back a generation earlier than I had realised.

They were discoveries of the type that would delight Aunt Dot in The Towers of Trebizond, where she says ‘Cambridge was our university’ and she describes her family’s High Church Anglicanism approving ‘the improvements in the chapel of St. John’s College, Cambridge under Dr. Beale.’

Dave Hartley and Clare Walshe decided I should take the books home with me, and revel a little longer in their unread stories.

Saint John the Evangelist at Saint John’s College, Cambridge … Aunt Dot in ‘The Towers of Trebizond’ approved of ‘the improvements in the chapel’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The O’Hanlon clan and clergy titles

It seems Victorian and Edwardian clergy in the Church of Ireland were all too susceptible to genealogical claims and deceptions. I came across not just one but two rectors who were near contemporaries and who claimed the curious title of ‘The O’Hanlon,’ an ancient title for the head of a Gaelic Irish clan. Yet, despite their claims, they do not seem to share any close ties of kinship.

The Revd Dr Alexander Patrick Hanlon (1814-1898), who called himself ‘The O’Hanlon,’ was born at Miltown Malbay, Co Clare, the son of Patrick Hanlon, a local Roman Catholic farmer, and was ordained deacon in the Church of Ireland in 1846 by the Bishop of Killaloe and priest in 1847.

During the Famine, he was praised for his ‘unremitting’ and ‘constant’ work with local people and for his ‘genuine charity.’ He freely distributed milk, bread and medicine, working with orphans and the elderly, and it was said: ‘Not a house in which fever is to be found (and they are the greater in number), but he visits in person.’

He seems to have been considering an appointment to Dingle during the vacancy in 1864, when his wife suffered an epileptic attack while bathing in Dingle Harbour and died soon after. Hanlon continued to work with the Irish Society and the Irish Church Missions, and in 1889 was feted at a garden party in Dugort organised by the Achill Mission. He died in Tallow, Co Waterford, at the age of 84 in 1898.

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The French Church, Portarlington … William Hanlon was born in Portarlington in 1849 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

His younger, near contemporary, the Revd William Hanlon (1849-1916), also claimed the title of The O’Hanlon. He was born in Portarlington, the son of a local doctor. He was the Rector of Rector of Innishannon, Co Cork (1879-1916), when he assumed the title of ‘The O’Hanlon’ in 1907. He also claimed to be the Hereditary Standard Bearer of the King in Ulster. In the pedigree he compiled to support his claims, Hanlon said his lineal ancestor had given Saint Patrick the site in Armagh for his first cathedral.

It all sounds like myth and fable – and probably is. Both men ignored the minor detail in the family trees that the last person before either of them to have been accepted generally as the head of the family was the rapparee Redmond O’Hanlon.

After the Caroline Restoration, Redmond O’Hanlon installed himself as clan chief and called himself ‘the Count.’ He was declared an outlaw in 1674 and became a rapparee around Newry and Carlingford Lough. A £200 reward was offered for his apprehension. He was shot at night in 1681 and his severed head was put on display at Downpatrick prison.

Family lore says his son, also Redmond O’Hanlon, exhumed his body, and reburied him in the Church of Ireland churchyard at Conwal Parish in Letterkenny, Co Donegal.

Saint Thomas’s Church, Dugort … Alexander Hanlon was feted by the Achill Mission at a tea party in Dugort in 1889 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A fake Limerick title in Lichfield

Spurious claims to family titles were not confined to Victorian clergy in the Church of Ireland. The Roman Catholic population of Staffordshire had a long history of English Recusancy. But the demographics of Catholic Staffordshire changed with the arrival of French prisoners of war, followed by new Irish arrivals seeking work. In 1841, Father John Kirk described his congregation in Lichfield as ‘very poor’ – one of the few exceptions was Lady Fitzgerald, a widow living near Lichfield.

Lady Fitzgerald’s name stood out as I read Michael Greenslade’s Catholic Staffordshire: she could hardly be a poor, Irish, Famine migrant. I was surprised, with a little further research, to find that her husband, Sir James Fitzgerald, was no true baronet, although his claimed title has interesting links with the part of Co Limerick where I live.

In all, four titles of baronet were given to members of the Fitzgerald family. The oldest of these was given in 1644 to Sir Edmond Fitzgerald of Clenglish Castle, now Springfield Castle, near Dromcollogher, Co Limerick. His son, Sir John Fitzgerald, was the patron of the poet Dáibhí Ó Bruadair (1625-1698). He was linked with the Titus Oates plot and was deprived of his title in 1691. No more was heard of these Fitzgerald baronets, or Sir John’s four brothers who might have claimed their father’s title.

However, a fanciful family tree was produced in 1780, without any convincing dates, biographical details or supporting evidence, claiming a Sir Maurice Fitzgerald moved from Co Limerick to Castle Ishen, Co Cork, but decided not to use the title of baronet because of his poverty. It goes through six generations of only sons for almost a century, until Sir Richard Fitzgerald, who claimed the title as sixth baronet in 1780.

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Springfield Castle, Co Limerick … stands on the site of the caste owned by Sir Edmond Fitzgerald in the 1640s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Castle Ishen Fitzgeralds had no links with the Springfield family, yet their claims to the title were facilitated by Ireland’s leading genealogical authority, Sir William Hawkins. Those claims were dismissed in 1829 by Sir William Betham, a successor of Hawkins. He found that the Castle Ishen family was descended from another, different Sir Edmond Fitzgerald, who was knighted but was never a baronet.

Yet Sir Richard Fitzgerald convinced society he was the sixth baronet. His only son, Sir James Fitzgerald, who called himself the seventh baronet, married Bridget Anne Dalton, whose mother claimed she was the last lineal descendant of Sir Thomas More.

Their only son, Sir James Fitzgerald (1791-1839), married Augusta Henrietta Fremantle (1803-1863), a daughter of one of Nelson’s admirals. They lived at Maple Hayes Hall, near Lichfield, although James was living at Wolseley Hall when died on his way to Nice in 1839.

The widowed Augusta died in 1863, and their children returned to Ireland. Some family members became nuns, and the claimed family title, if it ever existed, died out with the death of Sir Gerald Richard Dalton-Fitzgerald (1832-1894), the ‘tenth baronet.’

Perhaps you and I have as much right to this title as anyone else who used it.

The doorway of Holy Cross Church, Lichfield … the widowed Lady Fitzgerald stood out from the poorer parishioners in the 1840s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This two-page feature was first published in November 2020 in the ‘Church Review,’ the Dublin and Glendalough diocesan magazineCanon Patrick Comerford blogs at www.patrickcomerford.com

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