10 February 2022

The judge from a Co Clare
family who was once sacked
from ‘The Irish Times’

Drumcreehy Churchyard, near Ballyvaughan, Co Clare … the burial place of many members of the Comerford, Blake-Forster and Comyn families (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

During last weekend’s visit to Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, and Kinvara, Co Galway, I was searching for the mausoleum in Drumcreehy churchyard of Henry Comerford (1796-1861), JP, of Merchant’s Road, Galway, and Ballykeel House, Kilfenora, Co Clare.

Henry Comerford is buried in Drumcreehy churchyard in Bishop’s Quarter, near Ballyvaughan, overlooking Galway Bay on one side, and overlooked by the Burren on the other side.

He is buried in the Comerford mausoleum with his grandson, Captain Francis O’Donnellan Blake Forster (1853-1912), and Francis’s wife, Marcella (Johnson), the eldest daughter of Robert Johnson of Arran View, Doolin, Co Clare, and the heiress of Admiral Sir Burton Macnamara.

Marcella Comerford’s fascinating descent from the Macnama family of Ennistymon House – now the Falls Hotel in Ennistymon – led me to yesterday’s story about the distant yet fascinating family links with the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas through his wife Caitlin Macnamara.

But as I explored the stories of the Blake Forster family and other related families in this part of north Clare, I also came across some interesting stories about the Comyn family, who were intermarried on many occasions over the generations with the Macnamara family, as I pointed out yesterday, and were related too to the Comerford and Blake Forster families. And here lies another fascinating family story that also has a humorous link with The Irish Times.

Francis O’Donnellan Blake Forster died in on 27 June 1912, Marcella died on 26 June 1917, and they are buried in the Comerford mausoleum in Drumcreehy churchyard. Their daughter, Marcella Margaret (1894-1961), married Judge Michael Comyn KC (1871-1952). They met when he stood for election for Sinn Fein in 1919, and they married in 1924. He was a former civil servant, a barrister, a Fianna Fáil Senator (1928-1936) and a Circuit Court judge. When Michael died in 1952 and Marcella died in 1961, they too were buried in Drumcreehy churchyard.

They were the parents of two daughters, Marcella and Eleanor Rose. But this evening’s family tale is about their nephew, Sir James Peter Comyn (1921-1997), the Dublin-born barrister who was drummed out of The Irish Times and later became an English High Court judge.

Members of the Comyn family commemorated on a plaque inside Drumcreehy Church, near Ballyvaughan, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Marcella’s husband, Michael Comyn, and his brother James Comyn were both prominent barristers and nationalists in Co Clare in the early decades of the 20th century. The two brothers were once political and legal advisers to Éamon de Valera, who at one point used James Comyn’s home in Dublin, Beaufield House, as a safe house.

However, the Comyn brothers fell out with de Valera shortly before he came to office in 1932, and Michael Comyn was passed over for appointment as Attorney-General of the Iris Free State

James Comyn’s son, Sir James Comyn, was later considered by many to be ‘the finest all-round advocate at the English bar,’ and was became a judge in the High Court of Justice in 1978, serving on the bench until he retired in 1985.

He was born at Beaufield House in Stillorgan, later the Beaufield Mews, a celebrated restaurant in south Dublin, on 8 March 1921. When the Comyn brothers fell out with Eamon de Valera, young James Comyn was taken out of school at Belvedere College in Dublin, and was sent by his father to the Oratory School in England.

He later recalled his father taking him to visit Edward Carson in London shortly before his death in 1936 and hearing from Carson’s own lips that he had never wanted partition and was still against it. He also recalled how Éamon de Valera sent for him in 1939 while he was an undergraduate at Oxford to question him on British attitudes and to suggest that he might consider joining the Irish diplomatic service.

Comyn read law at New College, Oxford. During his undergraduate days, he spent six months as a trainee journalist with The Irish Times, when RM Smyllie was the editor. However, he was obliged to abandon journalism when an obituary Comyn wrote of a cardinal concluded: ‘His Eminence was unmarried.

Comyn was demoted to the racing department. ‘God knows how you'll ever turn out, Comyn,’ said an enraged Smyllie as they eventually parted company.

At Oxford, Comyn defeated Roy Jenkins for the presidency of the Oxford Union in 1940, winning by four votes. After suffering the first of several breakdowns through his life, he briefly worked for the BBC’s Empire Service during World War II.

He was called to the English bar by the Inner Temple in 1942, the Irish Bar in 1947, and the Hong Kong Bar in 1969.

He began his pupillage in 1944 with Edward Holroyd Pearce KC, later a law lord, and joined his chambers at Fountain Court. Comyn practised in London and on the Western circuit, supplementing his earnings by teaching banking, a subject of which he knew nothing. On one occasion, he rose in Lambeth County Court to cross-examine a female defendant in an eviction case. Just as Comyn began by saying ‘Madam,’ the defendant opened her bag, took out a dead cat, and threw it at him. The judge’s reaction was to tell the defendant: ‘Madam, if you do that again, I’ll commit you.’ Comyn won the case.

Comyn took silk in 1961, and acquired a large practice as a senior, appearing in many high-profile cases. In 1964, he won damages for libel for the former safe-breaker Alfie Hinds against a Scotland Yard inspector by convincing the jury that Hinds was in fact innocent. In 1970, he successfully defended the Labour MP Will Owen, who was accused of providing information to the Czechoslovak intelligence services.

He defeated the government’s attempt in 1975 to obtain an injunction against the publication by The Times of the ‘Crossman Diaries,’ the diaries of a former minister, Richard Crossman.

Comyn was Recorder of Andover in 1964-1971, commissioner of assize for the Western Circuit in 1971, and a Recorder of the Crown Court in 1972-1977. He was elected a bencher of the Inner Temple in 1968, and chaired the Bar Council in 1973-1974.

Comyn refused an invitation by Lord Hailsham to join the bench, but was nominated again by Lord Elwyn-Jones in 1977. He was appointed a High Court judge in 1978, and was knighted. He was assigned to the Family Division, and moved to the Queen’s Bench Division in 1979. He had a reputation for leniency in sentencing, and was nicknamed ‘Probation Comyn.’

A plaque in Drumcreehy Church, near Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, commemorates Sir James Comyn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Comyn presided over an unsuccessful libel action by a member of the Unification Church (‘the Moonies’) against the Daily Mailin 1980-1981, the longest libel trial in England up to that time. His Irish background made him the target of the IRA, and in 1981 the Provisional IRA burnt his house in Tara. Recurring bouts of depression led to his early retirement, on grounds of ill health, in 1985.

In retirement, he divided his time between England and Ireland, wrote a number of books, including memoirs, light verse, and books on famous trials. He also bred Friesian cattle. He died of pneumonia in Navan Hospital on 5 January 1997 at age 75, and was buried in the old family plot in Drumcreehy churchyard. He married Anne Chaundler, a solicitor, in 1967, and they were the parents of two children, Rory and Kate.

Lady Comyn died in 2018, aged 92, and she too is buried in Drumcreehy churchyard.

Sir James Comyn … once an Irish Times journalist who knew the wrath of RM Smylie

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