13 March 2023

Colonel Thomas Comerford:
the life in the Indian army
of a revolutionary’s brother

Colonel Thomas Comerford and Edith Donaldson on their wedding day in Bombay on 10 October 1921 (Photograph courtesy Roger Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Colonel Thomas James Comerford (1894-1959) was a polo-playing army officer in the Indian army who played crucial roles in both World War I and World War II. He was born into the landed gentry and minor aristocracy of Co Wexford and Co Wicklow, and his mother’s family was deeply involved in politics in Co Wexford. Yet, the story of Thomas and his elder sister shows how many Irish families were deeply divided politically and socially during the War of Independence and the decades that followed.

Thomas James Comerford was the elder son of James Charles Comerford (1842-1907) of Ardavon House, Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, and Eva Mary Esmonde (1860-1949), who were married on 24 August 1892 in Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church, Kilanerin (Killinierin), outside Gorey, Co Wexford. This church was designed by Pugin and Ashlin and the Esmonde family of Ballynastragh were major benefactors of the church, where are listed on a plaque together with other benefactors.

James Charles Comerford of Ardavon House, who is described at his wedding as ‘Gentleman’, was the principal shareholder in Rathdrum Mill. He was a friend and political ally of his neighbour, Charles Stewart Parnell. When the Land League organised a demonstrative day of action on 15 December 1881 in support of Parnell by calling on people to plough and manure his fields at Garrymore, near Rathdrum, and at Avondale, Comerford gave his mill workers in Rathdrum and Laragh the day off to take part.

The Comerford mill in Rathdrum burned down in June 1885, but was rebuilt and the business was flourishing a year later in June 1886 when the Comerfords hosted a visit by British and Irish millers.

At the time of their wedding, Eva Mary Esmonde was living at Borleigh Manor, then the home of Major General Thomas James Quin. She was a daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Esmonde VC (1829-1872) and a niece of Sir John Esmonde (1826-1876), 10th Baronet, of Ballynastragh, Gorey, Co Wexford, and Glenwood, Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, Liberal MP for Waterford (1852-1876).

Colonel Thomas Esmonde was an officer in the 18th Royal Irish Regiment during the Crimean War. He only 26 when he was the first officer to enter Sebastopol on 18 June 1855 after the siege. He was decorated with the Victoria Cross for his part in the Battle of Sebastopol. Later, Colonel Esmonde became Aide de Camp to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Abercorn, and Deputy-Inspector General of the Royal Irish Constabulary. He died in Bruges on 14 January 1872 after a riding accident at the age of 43, and is buried in the Central Cemetery. His grave was restored by volunteers of the Victoria Cross Trust in 2017.

Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Esmonde, VC (1831-1872), father of Eva Mary Comerford (Photograph courtesy Roger Comerford)

When James and Eva Comerford married in Co Wexford, the witnesses at the wedding were his brother, William Comerford (1838-1893), who died a year later, and her sister Matilda (‘Milly’) Mary Josephine Esmonde (1862-1937).

James Charles Comerford died on 3 October 1907, aged 64, and is buried in Three Mile Water, Ennisboyne, Co Wicklow, with the Ellis family of Kilpoole, Co Wicklow. At the time of her death in 1949, Eva Comerford was living at St Nessan’s, Sandyford, Co Dublin, and she too was buried in Ennisboyne.

James and Eva Comerford were the parents of four children: Mary Eva (Maire) Comerford (1893-1982); Colonel Thomas James Comerford (1894-1959); Dympna Helen Mulligan (1897-1977) and Alexander E Comerford (1900-1966) of Malahide, Co Dublin.

James Charles Comerford (1842-1907) of Ardavon House, Rathdrum … a contemporary of Charles Stewart Parnell, and father of Máire Comerford

Although their father died in 1907 when they were still in their teens or childhood, the Comerford children grew up in Co Wexford and Co Waterford in relative prosperity, provided by their father’s land and business interests in Co Wicklow and their family connections in Co Wexford.

Their uncle, Alexander Comerford (1844-1895), was a corn merchant in Liverpool, and lived at Greenfield House, Hoole, Chester. He was a gentleman jockey, he was the owner of Woodcock and other steeplechasers. He made his last appearance on a racecourse at the Tanatside Hunt Meeting, held at Llanymynech, on 30 April 1895, when he fell on Colonel Sandbach’s Sorcerer in the Maiden Steeplechase won by Beauty. He died on Sunday 26 May 1895, after he was thrown from a four-year-old horse he was schooling at Sealand Shooting Range, Chester, and landed on his head the previous afternoon. Their aunts were the only friends of Charles Stewart Parnell’s daughter, Anna, as she grew up in Rathdrum.

As a young woman, their mother, Eva Mary Comerford, was three times tennis champion of Ireland. She was a first cousin of three baronets: Sir Thomas Grattan Esmonde (1862-1935), the Irish Parliamentary Party MP for South Dublin (1885-1892), West Kerry (1892-1900) and North Wexford (1900-1918), and later an independent Senator (1922-1934); and Sir Laurence Grattan Esmonde (1863-1943).

The Comerford children grew up as the second cousins of three baronets: Sir Osmond Thomas Grattan Esmonde (1896-1936), Cumann na nGaedheal (Fine Gael) TD for Wexford (1923-1927-1936); Sir John Lymbrick Esmonde (1893-1958), MP for North Tipperary (1915-1918) and Fine Gael TD for Wexford (1937-1944, 1948-1951); and Sir Anthony Charles Esmonde (1899-1981), Fine Gael TD for Wexford (1951-1973).

Ardavon House, Rathdrum, Co Wicklow … home to generations of the Comerford family

The stories of the two elder Comerford children show how divided Irish families were at the time of the 1916 Rising.

The elder daughter, Mary Eva Comerford (1893-1982), of St Nessan’s, Sandyford, Co Dublin, is better known as Máire Comerford, a Republican activist and journalist. She was raised in Co Wexford and Co Waterford. She first became active in politics as a Redmondite in Wexford Town, but then took part in the 1916 Rising. She ran a farm in Co Wexford before working as a journalist with The Irish Press from 1935. She is buried at Mount Saint Benedict outside Gorey, Co Wexford.

Maire Comerford’s elder brother, Colonel Thomas James Comerford (1894-1959), was born James Thomas Comerford in Ardavon Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, on 1 November 1894, but was known throughout his life as Thomas James Comerford.

He too was raised in Co Wexford and Co Waterford, and probably went to school in Clongowes Wood College, Co Kildare. He was 19 when World War I broke out, and he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Irish Regiment in September 1914.

He was on active service at the Souvla Bay landing (Gallipoli), and was temporarily with the 6th Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers, from 7 to 16 August 1915. He was badly wounded in the mouth and chest and was not declared fit for active service until December 1915.

He later told his son that he was in Dublin while his sister Máire was involved in the Easter Rebellion in 1916.

The army moved him to France and from 22 July 1916 he was involved in the latter part of Battle of the Somme with the 13th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, and then in Belgium at the Battles of Messines, Langemark, Menin Road, Ploegsteert and Wytschaate.

He became a captain in the 18th/19th cavalry, moved to the Indian Army in November 1917 and spent the next 30 years in India.

Thomas Comerford and Edith Isobel Donaldson were married in Bombay on 10 October 1921. She was a daughter of John Donaldson KC and Elizabeth Anne (née Munro) of 4 Dartmouth Square, Dublin, and Knocknagor, Banbridge, Co Dublin.

During the 1930s, Thomas Comerford was a noted polo player in India, playing polo for the Blue Birds in the Delhi Low Handicap Polo Tournament in 1930 and for the Wild Geese in 1932.

As Major TJ Comerford, he was gazetted on 3 September 1939 as Remounts Officer at the headquarters of the Northern Command of the Indian Army in Rawalpindi (now Pakistan). The northern command encompassed the North-West Frontier Provinces, Waziristan District, Kashmir State, the Punjab (less Districts of Rohtak and Gurgaon) and the Punjab States including the Punjab Hill States (less Khairpur, Tehri (Garhwal), Pataudi, Dujana and the Bawal District of the Nabha State).

Remount referred to the provision of fresh horses for military purposes. The word refers to both the animals themselves and the means by which they were provided. In many cases, remounts were horses provided to replace horses killed or injured in battle. Comerford was active organising supplies for the Chindits throughout World War II.

He was promoted from major to lieutenant-colonel on 16 June 1941, and he was Deputy Director of Remounts in the Indian Army from 1944 to 1946.

Colonel Thomas Comerford and his wife Edith retired to England when India and Pakistan achieved independence. His mother, Eva Mary Comerford, died at St Nessan’s, Sandyford, on 5 September 1949.

Thomas Comerford was 65 when he died on 1 January 1959 in West Malling, Kent; Edith died on 9 September 1990. They were the parents of a son and a daughter. Their grandson is Roger Comerford.

Saint Nessan’s, Sandyford … Eva Mary Comerford, died at St Nessan’s, Sandyford, on 5 September 1949

A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (20)

Samuel Johnson’s birthplace in Breadmarket Street, Lichfield, now the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

He wrote in The Rambler No 67 (6 November 1750):

Hope is necessary in every condition. The miseries of poverty, of sickness, or captivity, would, without this comfort, be insupportable; nor does it appear that the happiest lot of terrestrial existence can set us above the want of this general blessing; or that life, when the gifts of nature and of fortune are accumulated upon it, would not still be wretched, were it not elevated and delighted by the expectation of some new possession, of some enjoyment yet behind, by which the wish shall at last be satisfied, and the heart filled up to its utmost extent.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

An artist’s impression of the interior of the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)