17 July 2021

A few surprises in
a Kilkenny book with
the stories of 99 lives

Three Comerfords feature on the cover and inside Donal Cadogan’s collection of fascinating biographies

Patrick Comerford

It is always a delight to come across an unexpected reference to my work and acknowledgments of it in a book, even when it has been published some time ago and especially when I have not been aware of it.

This year’s ‘staycation’ or summer road trip has been extended, and two of had a recent overnight stay in Kilkenny. We were staying in the River Court Hotel, and Kilkenny was colourful in the summer sunshine, even for such a quick, 24-hour visit.

Our stay was foreshortened by a call for our second Astra Zeneca vaccinations. But we squeezed in quick visits to some of our favourite places, including lunch in Zuni, a tour of the new Mediaeval Mile Museum in Saint Mary’s Church, a stroll around the food stalls on the Parade, a visit to the former Comerford and Langton family home in the Butterslip, a quick peek into the ‘Hole in the Wall,’ and a browsing the books in the Book Centre on High Street, opposite the Tholsel.

This is one of my favourite bookshops in Ireland, and I generally head first to books of local history and with local history inside the front door before slowly working my way through the other shelves.

So, I cannot explain how, in previous visits, I had not already picked up 99 Lives, Kilkenny Connections by Donal Cadogan, an About Kilkenny Publication, published in 2017.

This is a collection of stories 103 people with connections to Kilkenny and who have made Kilkenny what it is today. There are well-known names such as Alice Kyteler, the woman at the centre of Ireland's first witch-burning; James Hoban, the architect of the White House; George Berkeley was a bishop and Ireland’s best-known philosopher; and Jonathan Swift was the best-known of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

James Mason was a journalist, author and chess player who met his final check mate through his drinking problem. Michael Byrne was the blind fiddler in the crew on the Bounty who was prevented by the mutineers from leaving with Captain Bligh.

Henry Hammond, a blacksmith, made pikes for the 1798 rebellion, and was present at the Battle of New Ross. George Brown died fighting in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, Hubert Butler spoke out against fascism and oppression across Europe, and Ellen Bischoffscheim, Countess of Desart, was the first Jewish member of the Senate.

Mary (Foley) Doyle (1837-1920) was the mother of Arthur Conan Doyle and so Cadogan jokingly calls her the ‘grandmother’ of Sherlock Holmes. Her mother, Arthur Conan Doyle’s grandmother, was Catherine (Pack) Foley from Kilkenny city.

As a young child, Mary Doyle lived on James’s Street, Kilkenny, where her mother ran a school, before leaving for Scotland as a widow in 1847. In Edinburgh, Mary Foley set up a school for governesses in Edinburgh and took in lodgers. One of those lodgers, Charles Doyle, married Mary’s daughter Mary in 1855, and they were the parents of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

In sport, James Nowlan gave his name to Nowlan Park in Kilkenny. James O’Donnell 1860-1942 from Piltown, a member of New Zealand’s first international rugby team. Mabel Esmonde Cahill was Ireland’s only Double Grand Slam tennis winner.

Billy Walsh from Walkin Street had a tough beginning in a pub on Walkin Street and surviving World War II, became one of the leading polo pony trainers in England and in 1985 before he died was presented with a bronze statuette of a polo player and pony by Queen Elizabeth II. He died in 1992 and in 2007, he was posthumously awarded a lifetime achievement award in the Audi Polo awards.

James DR McConnell, who was born on Parliament Street, was a language teacher in Eton, wrote school textbooks and wrote the authoritative history of Eton. In the 1950s, he also wrote best-selling novels. As a thriller writer, he wrote using his middle names, Douglas Rutherford, as a penname and became a household name.

The historian and priest Canon William Carrigan who, despite all his original research, was never able to discover his own exact date of birth. But his four-volume History of the Diocese of Ossory is a valuable source for local historians and genealogists alike.

I should have noticed this book before – three Comerford names feature on the cover and are the subjects of biographical notices: Edmund Comerford was Dean of Ossory and the last pre-Reformation Bishop of Ferns; John Comerford was a celebrated miniaturist in the early 19th century; and Nicholas Comerford was a mapmaker in London in the mid-17th century.

The author has named my Comerford family history website as the primary source for his biography of Edmund Comerford, and cites a paper I wrote for the Old Kilkenny Review in 1999 as the source for his account of Nicholas Comerford.

Naturally, as I read through this book this week, I found other references with Comerford family connections: Nicholas Langton of the Butterslip was the ancestor of Anne Langton who married James Comerford; Cardinal Rinuccini stayed at Ballybur Castle – although this is not mentioned; and Count Thomas O’Loughlin, whose family made their fortunes in the goldmines in Australia, married Kathleen Murphy from Ballybur Castle.

Donal Cadogan, who features regularly on KCLR, has produced a book with many nuggets that would defy even the goldmining efforts of the O’Loughlin family.

● Donal Cadogan, 99 Lives: Kilkenny Connections (Kilkenny: About Kilkenny Publications, 2017), 227 pp, £12.99, ISBN 978 0 9928788-1-8, 978 0 9928788-2-5

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