Wednesday, 20 August 2014
Clanbrassil Street: the heart of ‘Little Jerusalem’ in
Dublin and home to countless Comerford families
After celebrating the mid-day Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral on Tuesday [19 August 2014], I walked along Patrick Street, past Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and up New Street to Lower Clanbrassil Street and stopped for lunch in the Kurdish Café at No 31 Lower Clanbrassil Street, on the corner with Lombard Street.
I had a large Falafel Salad, with four falafels, a jug of water and a double espresso in a quiet corner. Before leaving I was also offered a full-bodied Arabic coffee, flavoured with coriander and cinnamon.
In the last decade or two, this has area become an interesting melting pot, with not only this Kurdish café but shops, restaurants and cafés selling a variety of Indian, Pakistani and south Asian foods, many of them clearly catering for halal needs.
As a boy in my pre-teen and early teen years, Clanbrassil Street and the labyrinth of streets leading off it offered a certain mystique and intrigue that stirred a young imagination. The area between Leonard’s Corner and Kelly’s Corner, and some of the other nearby streets, was still known as ‘Little Jerusalem.’ This was still the heart of Dublin’s Jewish community in the 1950s and even in the 1960s.
Although the drift to the southern suburbs of Terenure, Rathfarnham and Churchtown was already noticeable in the mid-1960s, it was still an area with small kosher shops, fascia signs in mixtures of English and Hebrew lettering, and small houses that were remembered as the synagogues for tiny congregations even after the new synagogue opened on Rathfarnham Road, a few doors from the house where I was born.
But Clanbrassil Street long predates the arrival of Jewish communities from the Baltics and Eastern Europe.
From the earliest times, this was one of the principal routes south from Dublin to the Wicklow Mountains, while Camden Street, which runs parallel to Clanrassil Street to the east, was the beginning of the main route south to Wexford.
As the area south of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral began to develop in the 18th century, a new street beyond New Street was named after James Hamilton (1730-1798), 2nd Earl of Clanbrassil. His widowed mother had inherited Cypress Grove House in Templeogue, and the developing Clanbrassil Street was on the route from Dublin city centre to Templeogue and Cypress Grove House.
In the 1860s, Frederick William Stokes bought much of the land south-east of Clanbrassil Street, and built new terraces and streets of houses. Victoria Street, originally known as Kingsland Park, was developed from 1865 by Stokes. However, some of the houses on the street remained empty after they were built and when they started being used by prostitutes attracted by nearby Portobello Barracks the street acquired a bad reputation and respectable families moved out. The bad reputation of the street lingered, and its name was changed to Victoria Street; neighbouring Liverpool Road became Portobello Road and Bloomfield Place and Rosanna Place became Windsor Terrace.
Meanwhile, in 1868 a new street was opened to connect Harold’s Cross with Lower Clanbrassil Street. Originally, the new street was to be called Kingsland Street, but, perhaps because of the reputation of Kingsland Park, this name was abandoned and the new street was soon named Upper Clanbrassil Street.
By then, many of the houses in what was now Lower Clanbrassil Street had become tenements, and despite the cramped conditions the cheap rents made them attractive to penniless refugees. The Jewish community began to establish itself in ‘Little Jerusalem’ in the 1870s, and its numbers multiplied with the pogroms throughout the Czarist empire.
Many of the Jewish families who first settled here in the late Victorian era spoke only Yiddish or German, and a large number of them came from what we now call Lithuania, with smaller numbers from parts of present-day Poland, Ukraine and Romania that were then within the Russian empire.
Just like other waves of refugees in successive generations, these Jewish refugees often arrived in Ireland penniless, but with their dignity and integrity intact. All they could afford to rent were rooms in the crowded tenements around Clanbrassil Street, sharing the buildings with other families, but maintaining their religion and their culture.
In Ulysses, James Joyce has Leopold Bloom living at “52 Clanbrassil Street.” Today, this fictional but archetypal Dubliner is commemorated with a plaque on the wall of 52 Upper Clanbrassil Street, which is being refurbished at present.
Two doors away, No 50 Upper Clanbrassil Street was the home of one branch of the Comerford family at the time Joyce was writing Ulysses, which was set in 1904. Bloom holds onto a Christmas card sent by the Comerfords in 1892, and in her soliloquy, his wife Molly recalls having had too many oranges and too much lemonade at a party in 1895 in the Comerfords’ home in Clanbrassil Street – two doors away from Leopold’s birthplace.
But Joyce relied on Thom’s Directory for 1904, and if Leopold Bloom was born at No 52 the house must have been in Lower Clanbrassil Street, although Molly could well have been at a party in the home of any one of the many Comerford families who lived on this street in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Indeed, if this area was once called Little Jerusalem, I mused to myself in the Kurdish Café in the afternoon, Clanbrassil Street just as easily have been called Comerford Street in the late 19th and early 20th century:
25 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
My grandfather’s second oldest brother, Richard (‘Dick’) Comerford (1858-1937), lived here in 1884.
53 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
In 1910, Adelaide Margaret Field, daughter of John and Margaret Field, who lived for a time at 53 Lower Clanbrassil Street, and granddaughter of William Doyle of 53 Lower Clanbrassil Street, married Charles William Comerford of Parnell Place (now Parnell Road, on the south bank of the Grand Canal), and they later lived in Kenilworth Square.
No 53, which was close to the corner of South Circular Road at Kelly’s Corner, was Kilbride’s pawnbrokers during my childhood, and later was an Xtravision shop.
60 Clanbrassil Street:
For a time, this was the home of Thomas Comerford, a plasterer.
Later this was the home of my great-grandfather’s nephew, James Comerford ‘Nephew’ (ca 1839/1841-1903), who was born in Newtownbarry (now Bunclody), Co Wexford. He was a founding member of the Regular Stucco Plasterers’ Trade Union of the City of Dublin in 1893.
61 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
Thomas A Coleman (1865-1950), the architect, of Ashlin and Coleman, was born at 61 Lower Clanbrassil Street in 1865 while his parents, John Coleman and Mary (White) Coleman, lived there. His first cousin, Francis Coleman married my grandfather’s eldest sister, Mary Comerford, in 1889, and their later addresses included 9 Windsor Terrace and 86 Lower Clanbrassil Street (1911).
62 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
This was once the home of Thomas Comerford, a plasterer.
My great-grandfather’s nephew, Thomas Comerford, and his wife Mary Anne (Ludlow) were living at 62 Lower Clanbrassil Street in 1862, 1866 and 1872.
In the 1860s, No 62 was also the home of Thomas Comerford’s sister Elizabeth and her husband Denis Cuddy.
In 1874, this was also the home of another member of the family, Thomas Comerford and his wife Mary Jane (Cusack).
In the 1901 census, No 62 was shared by three families: James and Ellen Comerford and their four children, who lived in one room; my grandfather’s eldest brother, James Comerford, his wife Lena Comerford, and their five children, who were living in two rooms; and the Keegan family were living in one room.
James Comerford died on 2 October 1903, aged “about 62 years,” according to the inquest that day. However, in the 1904 edition of Thom’s Directory used by James Joyce, this house stands out among the tenements as being the home of James Comerford, although he had died the previous year. His widow later lived at 50 Upper Clanbrassil Street.
Later, the Mogerley family ran a butcher’s shop at No 62. The business was founded by Heinrich Mogerley, who arrived from Germany in 1908.
63 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
My grandfather’s second oldest brother, Richard (‘Dick’) Comerford (1858-1937), lived here in 1888. It is now Shop Easi.
64 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
My great-grandfather’s nephew, Thomas Comerford, and his wife Mary Anne (Ludlow) lived at 64 Lower Clanbrassil Street in 1858.
68 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
My great-grandfather’s nephew, Thomas Comerford, and his wife Mary Anne (Ludlow) were living at 68 Lower Clanbrassil Street in 1868.
74 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
In 1887 this was the home of another family member, Thomas Comerford and his wife Anne (Fitzgerald).
75 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
My grandfather’s nephew, Stephen Comerford (1901-1983), a son of Robert Comerford, once lived at 75 Lower Clanbrassil Street.
76 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
Robert Comerford (1855-1925), a nephew of my great-grandfather, was born in Newtownbarry (Bunclody), Co Wexford, and moved to Dublin with his brother Richard and his sister Mary after the death of their father in 1864. He was living at 76 Lower Clanbrassil Street when he died in 1925.
79 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
My grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford (1867-1921), was married twice. He was first married first in Saint Andrew’s Church, Westland Row, Dublin, on 29 November 1899, to Anne Cullen (1868-1903), who gave her address as No 11 Merrion Square, Dublin, the home of Sir Edward Hudson Hudson-Kinahan. She was born on 19 August 1868, the daughter of Thomas Cullen (1808-1871) and Anne (McGurk) of 79 Lower Clanbrassil Street, and was baptised on 21 August 1868 in Saint Kevin’s Church, Harrington Street (sponsors: Patrick Toole, Honor Whelan). Thomas Cullen and Anne McGurk or Magurk were married on 8 January 1843 in Saint Nicholas of Myra Church, Francis Street, Dublin, on 8 January 1843 (witnesses: Eleanor Bergin, ... Cullen), and they were the parents also of a son, James Cullen, born and baptised in 1848.
Anne (Cullen) Comerford had three children, Edmond Joseph Comerford (1900-1905), Mary (1902-1973) and Arthur James Comerford (1903-1987), before she died at 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue on 16 November 1903. She is buried with her son Edmond and her father Thomas Cullen in Glasnevin Cemetery (South Section, JA 6). Stephen Comerford married secondly, on 7 February 1905, in Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate, Bridget Lynders (1875-1948) of The Quay House, Portrane, Co Dublin. They had four more children, Patrick Thomas Comerford (1907-1971), Robert Anthony Comerford (1909-1953), Margaret Catherine (1912-1995) and Stephen Edward Comerford (1918-2004).
86 Lower Clanbrassil Street:
My grandfather’s eldest brother James Comerford and his family were living at No 86 in 1909-1911, and his sister Mary and her husband Francis Coleman were living there by 1911. Francis was a first cousin of Thomas A Coleman (1865-1950), the architect, of Ashlin and Coleman, who was born at 61 Lower Clanbrassil Street in 1865.
Also living at No 86 were Isaac Joffe, a 58-year-old Jewish shopkeeper from Russia and his Russian-born Jewish wife, Hannah (56).
William Comerford, an heraldic engraver, was living in 1873 in another house in Lower Clanbrassil that I have yet to identify.
3 Upper Clanbrassil Street:
For a time this was the home of James Joseph Comerford and his family. He was the eldest son of my grandfather’s eldest brother, James Comerford of 62 Lower Clanbrassil Street.
50 Upper Clanbrassil Street:
This became the home of James Comerford’s widow, Ellen, and her children, soon after 1904, and they lived there from before 1910 until late in the 20th century.
Although my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford (1867-1921), never lived in Clanbrassil Street, his first wife Anne Cullen (1871-1903), was a daughter of Thomas Cullen, salesman, of Clanbrassil Street, and their son, Arthur James Comerford (1903-1987), believed he was born in Clanbrassil Street.
In the short space of a half century or little more, immediate members of this one branch of the Comerford family had addresses at least 15 houses in Lower and Upper Clanbrassil Street. Many more lived at different times in the same era in houses in the warren of streets off Clanbrassil Street, in Little Jerusalem, in Portobello and around Charlemont Street. If I add to that their in-laws, their cousins and their nieces and nephews, it must have been impossible for any of them to walk along Clanbrassil Street any time of night or day without meeting and greeting another member of the Comerford family.
Little did I realise in the late 1950s and early 1960s that I was walking in their shadows.
By the first half of the 20th century, Lower Clanbrassil Street was at the heart of the Jewish community. The boundaries of Little Jerusalem, if they were ever delineated, might be said to stretch from Clanbrassil Street to Donore Avene on the west, Windsor Terrace along the banks of the Grand Canal to the South, to the west side of Richmond Street and Kelly’s Corner, from there east to the junction with Charlemont Street, north behind the west front of Harcourt Street, then back through Pleasant Street, heading west towards the junction with Clanbrassil Street.
The shopping area of along Lower Clanbrassil Street and throughout Little Jerusalem included numerous Jewish shops and businesses, kosher butchers, a kosher bakery in Lennox Street, and a ritual slaughterhouse in Vincent Street, and there was a women’s dispensary and a Jewish school in Bloomfield Avenue, with the Chief Rabbi’s home and office nearby. Although there were large synagogues on the South Circular Road and Adelaide Road, there were smaller synagogues in Walworth Road (now the Irish Jewish Museum), Saint Kevin’s Parade, and many of the other small side streets. The Jewish cemetery was a little further out in Dolphin’s Barn
In 1932, Clanbrassil Street was Dublin’s main Jewish shopping street. In 1943, 23 kosher shops were trading here, and there were 16 by the end of the 1950s. But the number had dropped to nine by the end of the 1960s, only five were open by the end of the 1970s, and two in the 1980s.
By then, the old planners had already taken the heart out of the area, In 1953, Dublin Corporation notified all the residents of Clanbrassil Street of plans to remove 16 ft from the buildings on the west side of the street to make way for a new road.
However, their plans were constantly changed, postponed, delayed and deferred. Properties quickly last value, the street went into decline. Lower Clanbrassil Street fell into ruin in the 1960s and the 1970s as, one-by-one, businesses, pubs and shops closed or were demolished.
After World War II, many Jews from Little Jerusalem moved to Manchester, London, New York and Israel. Increasing prosperity and the decline of Clanbrassil Street meant those who remained in Dublin moved to areas like Terenure, Rathfarnham and Churchtown. There was only one surviving kosher shop on Lower Clanbrassil Street in the 1990s. The last to close was Ehrlich’s butcher shop at No 35, which opened in 1952 and finally closed in May 2001.
In a similar fashion, as members of the Comerford family found new prosperity in 20th century Dublin, the families of stuccodores and plasterers became surveyors and architects, and moved out to suburbs like Rathmines, Rathgar, Harold’s Cross, Terenure and Rathfarnham.
But, perhaps, the planners’ old nightmares are being turned around and becoming new dreams. New waves of immigration have brought new life and a new taste for diversity to Little Jerusalem. Rubinstein’s old butcher shop at No 31, on the corner of Lombard Street, is now the Kurdish Café.
I bumped into no Comerfords and noticed no members of the Jewish community in Clanbrassil Street as I sipped my coffee in the Kurdish Café yesterday. But I dreamt of how the children and the grandchildren and the grandchildren of Muslims in this area would be integrated into Irish society over the next century or century and a half.
Last updated: 3 September 2014; 29 January 2015.