31 July 2023

Two Comerford Lawler
brothers and their cousin,
Jesuit priests from Bunclody

The Mall House on the Mall, Bunclody, Co Wexford … once the home of the Comerford Lawler family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Two Comerford Lawler brothers from Bunclody, Co Wexford, Father Brendan Comerford Lawler and Father Donald Comerford Lawler, and their first cousin, Father Ray Lawler, were prominent Jesuits priests and teachers, closely identified with the life of Clongowes Wood College and Milltown, and with Jesuit mission work in Hong Kong, Australia and Zambia.

Today (31 July) is the feast of Saint Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. In recent days, I have been writing on this blog about two other Jesuits from the Comerford family: the Revd James Comerford (1885-1963), from Ballinakill, Co Laois, a Jesuit missionary in India and whose mother was from Clonegal, Co Carlow, about 5 km outside Bunclody; and the Revd Richard John Comerford (1911-1970), a Jesuit priest and teacher who spent most of his ministry and teaching career in Sydney, and who was descended from an Irish family that emigrated to New South Wales in the 1830s.

These five Jesuits were contemporaries or near contemporaries and their paths crossed regularly throughout their lives, from Clongowes Wood to Tullabeg, from Rathfarnham Castle and Milltown Park to Hong Kong and Sydney, from Bunclody to Dublin, at ordinations and at family funerals.

Milltown Park, Dublin … Brendan Comerford Lawler was secretary of the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy and Lecturer in Philosophy and Logic (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

1, The Revd Professor Brendan Comerford Lawler SJ, MSc, LPh, STL (1909-1993):

The Revd Professor Brendan Comerford Lawler SJ, MSc, LPh, STL (1909-1993), was born in Newtownbarry (Bunclody), Co Wexford, on 29 October 1909, the son of Peter Paul Lawler (1862-1914) of Bunclody and his wife Victoria Mary (née Derham) Comerford (1873-1971), formerly of Dublin Street, Skerries.

The Comerford name, inherited by Brendan and his brothers, came from their paternal grandmother. Brendan’s paternal grandparents were Denis Lawler (1831-1892), of Rathvilly, Co Carlow, and Bunclody, Co Wexford, and Anne (Comerford) Lawler (ca 1832/1834-1911), of Bunclody.

Denis and Anne (Comerford) Lawler were married in Bunclody on 17 September 1858 and were the parents of ten children, six sons and four daughters:

1, Michael Lawler (1859-1909), born 10 May 1859, died 3 July 1909.
2, Mary Lawler (1860- ), born 6 August 1860.
3, Peter Paul Lawler (1862-1914).
4, Anne Lawler (1863-1942).
5, (Dr) William Comerford Lawler (1865-1935).
6, Kate Lawler (1867- ).
7, John Lawler (1868-1939).
8, Denis Lawler (1870-1941).
9, Edward Joseph Lawler (1872-1873), born October 1872, died 23 March 1873.
10, Sarah Anne Lawler (1873- ), born 23 November 1873.

Denis Lawler died in Newtownbarry on 9 July 1892; his widow Anne (Comerford) Lawler died in 1911. Their third child and second son:

Peter Paul Lawler (1862-1914) of Bunclody, was born 29 July 1862. He married Victoria Mary Derham (1873-1971) of Dublin Street, Skerries, in Saint Francis Xavier Church, the Jesuit church on Gardiner Street, Dublin, on 3 July 1907. Peter Lawler died 3 May 1914; Victoria Lawler lived until she was 97 and died in Dublin in 1971. They were the parents of:

1, Desmond Joseph Comerford Lawler (1908-1980), born 12 April 1908, the Mall House, Bunclody; he lived at the Chase House, Carrigduff, Bunclody, and died in 1980.
2, (Revd) Brendan Comerford Lawler (1909-1993).
3, (Revd) Donald Joseph Comerford Lawler (1911-1984).

Brendan Comerford Lawler was born in Newtownbarry (Bunclody), Co Wexford, on 29 October 1909. His early education was at Clongowes Wood College, the Jesuit-run boarding school in Co Kildare and he entered the Society of Jesus or Jesuits on 1 September 192 6at Saint Stanislaus College, the Jesuit novitiate at Tullabeg, near Tullamore, Co Offaly, known affectionately as ‘the Bog’.

He was a student at Rathfarnham Castle while he was studying science (biology) at University College Dublin in 1928-1932, receiving his MSc in biology. is contemporaries at Rathfarnham Castle and UCD included the Revd Richard John Comerford (1911-1970), an Australian-born Jesuit priest and teacher who would spend most of his ministry and teaching career in Sydney.

Brendan Comerford Lawler moved on from Rathfarnham to study philosophy in Valkenburg, Holland (1932-1935, LPh) and theology in Innsbruck (1935-1938, STL), and he was ordained in Innsbruck on 17 July 1938. He spent those years close to the drama of the rise of Hitler and the Anschluss of Austria. In those years, Innsbruck was also the centre of ‘kerygmatic theology’ and of the liturgical and catechetical renewal spearheaded by JA Jungmann. Soon after Brendan left Innsbruck, the Jesuit house in Sillgasse was turned into Gestapo headquarters. By then, Brendan was safely back in Ireland pursuing further studies.

He was back at Rathfarnham Castle in 1939-1940, spent a year as Professor of Cosmology and Biology at Tullabeg (1940-1941), and then pursued private studies while living in the Jesuit community at 35 Lower Leeson Street, Dublin (1941-1943).

He returned to Tullabeg in Autumn 1943 as Professor of Cosmology and Biology (1943-1962), and during that time he was also Rector (1953-1959). From 1962 to 1968, he was at Loyola House on Eglinton Road, Dublin, as Socius to the Jesuit Provincial.

He returned to academic life in Milltown Park in 1968 as secretary of the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy (1968-1992), Lecturer in Philosophy and Logic, and Assistant Registrar (1982). I got to know him there, and I was a student at the Irish School of Ecumenics in 1982-1984, when it was still based in Milltown Park.

While Brendan was at Milltown, his widowed mother, Victoria Comerford, who was living nearby at 4 Palmerston Villas, Rathmines, died in Harold’s Cross Hospice on 9 May 1971 aged 97.

His natural humour and spirit of companionship blossomed in Milltown. There he organised what came to be called ‘Saturday Theology’, a successful programme of lectures for extra-mural students. Over a period of 20 years, this introduced countless people to the thinking of Vatican II.

His early interest in the scriptures bore fruit in his book Epistles in Focus, for many years the only scholarly book on scripture by a member of the Irish Jesuit Province. During his final years in Milltown he also published in Milltown Studies, including ‘The Star of Implication’ (Milltown Studies, No 5).

He retired to Cherryfield Lodge, the Jesuit retirement home in Ranelagh, in 1993. With the onset of Parkinson’s, he moved to the Royal Hospital, Dublin. He died in Our Lady’s Hospice, Harold’s Cross, on 16 June 1993 at the age of 83.

Father Don Comerford took his vows as Jesuit novice in Emo Court in 1930 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

2, The Revd Donald Joseph Comerford Lawler (1911-1984):

Brendan Comerford Lawler’s younger brother, the Revd Donald Joseph Comerford Lawler (1911-1984), was also a Jesuit priest.

Donald Joseph Comerford Lawler was born on 2 March 1911 in Newtownbarry, Co Wexford, the son of Peter Paul Comerford (1862-1914) and Victoria Mary (née Derham).

Don’s early schooling was at the Dominican Convent, Wicklow, before going on to Clongowes Wood College, Co Kildare. He entered the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in Tullabeg on 1 September 1928, and he took his vows as a Jesuit novice on 2 September 1930 at Emo Park or Emo Court, the former home of the Earls of Portarlington and the Dawson family, which had been acquired by the Jesuits as a novitiate earlier that year.

Don was a student at Rathfarnham Castle, Dublin, in 1930-1933, studying physics and chemistry. He received his BSc at University College Dublin in 1933, and then studied philosophy at Tullabeg in 1933-1936.

He moved to Hong Kong in 1936, and was in Aberdeen, Hong Kong, in 1937. After two years studying Cantonese, he taught for two years in Wah Yan College, Hong Kong (1938-1940).

The outbreak of World War II in 1939 prevented Don’s return to Ireland for his theology studies, and he was asked to spend another year in Hong Kong. He was then moved to Australia to study theology in Canisius College, Pymble, Sydney, from 1941.

He was ordained on 8 January 1944, in Sydney, Australia, alongside the Revd Richard Comerford, the Australian-born Jesuit who had been a contemporary of Brendan and Don in Rathfarnham Castle and UCD. Their ordination group in 1944 was the first group of Jesuits to be ordained in Sydney.

Don was a chaplain at the end of World War II, and then returned to Ireland in 1945 for further studies. After a year in Rathfarnham Castle (1945-1946), he returned to Hong Kong in 1946, and he took his final vows as a Jesuit on 3 February 1947 in Wah Yan College, Hong Kong.

He was the senior science master in Wah Yan College, Hong Kong, for more than 30 years (1946-1976). The Cantonese form of his name is: 羅明德神父

He was an outstanding and conscientious teacher of physics to the higher forms, and played a role in organising science teaching in the schools in Hong Kong. In Wah Yan, he was also a vigorous sports master.

He suffered his first stroke in 1976. He returned to Wah Yan and took a slight part in community life. He managed to attend his Golden Jubilee dinner for a short period, and concelebrated Mass on extreme invalid terms. After a second stroke, the Columban Sisters cared for him in Ruttonjee Sanatorium.

After another stroke, he was brought to Saint Paul’s Hospital, Causeway Bay. He was brought by hospital plane to Ireland in 1979.

Don stayed first in Saint Vincent’s Hospital and then in Lisheen Nursing Home, Rathcoole, Co Dublin. The care of his elder brother, Father Brendan Lawler, helped to mitigate the hardship of his prolonged illness. He died on 4 December 1984 after a long illness, aged 73.

He was remembered for his ‘crystal clear mind … lithe vigorous body … (and) unquestioning independence.’ It was said he had ‘a sturdy distaste for loose thinking and for conventional expression or manifestation of piety. Eschewing gush, he had an unrivalled grasp of the theological and spiritual principles underlying … Jesuit life.’

Father Ray Lawler was born at River View House, Bunclody, the home of his father, Dr William Comerford Lawler (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

3, The Revd Raymond John Bolger Lawler (1921-2001):

Brendan Comerford Lawler and Donald Comerford Lawler were first cousins of the Revd Raymond John Bolger Lawler (1921-2001), also a Jesuit priest.

Raymond John Bolger Lawler (1921-2001) was born in Newtownbarry, Co Wexford, 28 May 1921. He was a son of Dr William Comerford Lawler, physician and surgeon, of River View, Newtownbarry, and his wife Mary Elizabeth (née Bolger).

Dr William Comerford Lawler (1865-1935) was a son of Denis Lawler (1830-1892) and Anne Comerford (1832-1912). He was born on 13 August 1865. He was married three times. He married (1) Elizabeth McCourt (1867-1909) of 115 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, daughter of Patrick McCourt, in Saint Andrew’s Church, Dublin, on 5 September 1906. She died in Dublin on 23 June 1909. He married (2) Mary Elizabeth Cecilia Bolger (1891-1924), daughter of John Bolger, merchant, of Ferns, Co Wexford, in Dun Laoghaire, Dublin, on 26 April 1919. Their children included:

1, Denis Albert Bolger Lawler (1920-2017), born 28 February 1920, 5 Mount Street Crescent, Dublin. He was a solicitor in Milford, Co Donegal, married and had children. He later lived in Dartry, Dublin, and died 11 April 2017. His funeral took place in Rathfarnham Church of Ireland Parish Church.
2, (Revd) Raymond John Bolger Lawler (1921-2001).
3, William David Bolger Lawler (1922- ), born 9 November 1922 at River View, Newtownbarry, later lived in Canada.
4, Teresa Lawler Joynt (1924-2010), of Barroge, Castletown,Co Wexford, married and had children. She died 25 January 2010 and is buried in Bunclody.

Mary Elizabeth (Bolger) Lawler died on 23 October 1924, aged 33. William Comerford Lawler married (3) Josephine Mary Bolger (1896-1971), Mary’s sister and a daughter of John Bolger of Ferns, in Monkstown, Dublin, on 23 February 1927. Josephine Comerford died 3 November 1971.

The second son of William Comerford Lawler:

The Revd Raymond John Bolger Lawler was born in Bunclody on 28 May 1921. Later in life, when he was preaching at the funeral Mass of his neighbour and schoolfriend, Dr Tom Murphy, former President of UCD, in 1997, he jokingly described Bunclody, where they were both born, as the ‘back of beyond.’

At the age of four, Ray too was sent to the Dominican Convent, Wicklow, as a boarder. He was 11 when he was sent to Clongowes Wood College, where he figured prominently at cricket and rugby. Little did he realise that he would spend almost half of his life there as teacher, prefect of studies, higher line prefect, and finally as third line Spiritual Father which he was when he died at the age of 80.

Ray entered the Jesuits at Saint Mary’s, Emo, Co Laois, on 7 September 1938. He was a student at Rathfarnham Castle, studying arts at UCD (1940-1943), and receiving a BA honours in Latin and French at UCD. He then studied philosophy in Tullabeg (1943-1946), while his cousin Brendan was Professor of Cosmology and Biology. He spent two years at the Jesuit community in the Crescent, Limerick (1946-1948), a year at Clongowes Wood College (1948-1949), and studied theology in Milltown Park (1949-1953).

He was ordained priest in Milltown Park on the feast of Saint Ignatius Loyola, 31 July 1952.

After a further year at Rathfarnham Castle (1953-1954), he returned to Clongowes Wood College (1954-1962), teaching Latin and French and Religion, and he took his final vows as a Jesuit on 2 February 1956. He was Prefect of Studies in Clongowes in 1956-1962.

When an official visitor from Rome to the Irish Jesuit Province made changes in personnel, Ray was moved to Belvedere College, Dublin, for two years (1962-1964). He returned to Clongowes in 1964 again as higher line prefect (1964-1968) and as a teacher (1968-1981).

He was an excellent teacher of French, coached rugby and played cricket regularly for the local club, North Kildare. He was a regular sight on the college golf course and competed frequently in Naas Golf Club.

At 60, Ray had a sabbatical in Toronto, Canada, in 1981-1982. This was followed by two years in Zambia teaching French and Scripture to Jesuit novices in Lusaka (1982-1984). As he left for Zambia, the school secretary said , ‘If there were a university degree for gentleness, I think that Father Lawler would have a PhD’. His character was summed up in the phrase ‘a lovable and loving person.’

When he returned to Ireland, he spent a year in Tullabeg as Director of the Spiritual Exercises (1984-1985), followed by 10 years at Gardiner Street Church as parish chaplain (1985-1995). His uncle Peter Paul Lawler had been married in the same church in 1907.

When Ray was 74, he returned to Clongowes Wood as the third line spiritual father (1995-2001), and he also assisted in chaplaincy in Cherryfield, the Jesuit retirement home near Milltown Park.

He enjoyed good health to the end. He preached on Mandy Thursday to the past pupils who were on retreat in Clongowes and played golf on Good Friday afternoon. He died in his room in Clongowes on Holy Saturday following a massive heart attack, on 14 April 2001 at the age of 80.

Although his funeral took place during school holidays, the college chapel was full for his funeral Mass. Members of his family and students of the school carried his coffin along the Third Line gallery. Present and past pupils formed a guard of honour in a moving tribute to a priest who had come to mean so much to so many young people over so many years.

Psalm 138 (139) was his favourite and he often quoted the lines: ‘It was you who created my being … I thank you for the wonder of my being, for the wonders of all your creation.’ The Psalm ends with the words: ‘See that I follow not the wrong path and lead me in the path of life eternal.’

Clongowes Wood College, Co Kildare … part of the lives of Brendan, Don and Ray Lawler

This posting is now available on the Comerford Genealogy site as part of the series of Comerford Profiles HERE

For a posting on Comerford missionaries, visit HERE

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