In Comberford – but had I found the family’s origins?
Genealogical Society of Ireland,
Dún Laoghaire Further Education Institute,
Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin
8 p.m., Tuesday 10 February 2015
The origins of the Comerford family in Co Kilkenny are confused and it is difficult to disentangle the historical realities from the myths and legends that have accrued over the centuries and that have been given credibility by reputable historians and accepted by many members of the family.
The legendary origins may have been embellished in the 17th century, and were certainly accepted by the 18th century, when they were given credibility by the genealogist, Sir William Betham (1779-1853). They were accepted in the 19th century by Charles ffrench Blake-Forster (1851-1874), the romantic Victorian historian whose mother was Mary Josephine Comerford, in The Irish Chieftains, or, a struggle for the Crown (1872). These myths were repeated in the 20th century, when they were accepted uncritically by Edward MacLysaght (1887-1986) in More Irish Families (1982), so that they are now pedalled by every shop and website business offering heraldic scrolls or cheap histories of Irish family names.
This legend says that the Comerford family was of Norman origin, coming to England with William the Conqueror in 1066, and then to Ireland in 1189.
Blake-Forster says Sir Fulco de Comerford, with 20 men-at-arms, and four knights of his own kindred, accompanied William the Conqueror to England in 1066, and was ancestor of the Comerford or Comberford family in Staffordshire.
A later Sir Fulco de Comerford and Sir Henry de Comerford are said to have come to Ireland with Prince John in 1189. Fulco returned to England but Henry remained in Ireland. Henry married a sister of Hugo de Lacy, and was ancestor of the Irish Comerfords, including the Comerfords, Barons of Danganmore.
It is a colourful, romantic legend, embellished and rewritten over the centuries. So colourful, it captivated me as a teenager, and when I was only 17 or 18 I set out to visit Comberford, between Lichfield and Tamworth, in Staffordshire in pursuit of the Comerford or Comberford family trail.
Little did I realise then that I was following in the footsteps of my great-grandfather, James Comerford (1817-1902), who had tried to do something similar about 70 years earlier.
I visited Comberford village, was warmly welcomed at Comberford Hall, sketched and transcribed the Comberford monuments in the Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, dined in the Moat House, the Comberford family’s former mansion in Lichfield Street, on the banks of the River Tame in Tamworth, and visited the sites of another former family home, Wednesbury Manor, on the edges of Birmingham.
I was made to feel like a returned emigrant, a son of the soil. Little did I realise then that my great-grandfather had trekked through the same places shortly before he died, and was made equally welcome.
I felt so at home, that I was invited to become a freelance contributor to the Lichfield Mercury, and I had a life-changing experience in one of the churches there too – all back in the 1970s, over 40 years ago.
I pored over the sources for the history of the Comberford family in archives and libraries. But I began to doubt the historicity of the stories that linked the Comerford families of Co Kilkenny with the Comberford family of Comberford, that small hamlet between Lichfield and Tamworth.
Four early clues helped to sow those doubts:
1, The spelling of the name:
All the primary sources or early documents relating to the history of the Comerford family in Co Kilkenny spell the name “Quemerford” … it is only in the 16th century that the spelling begins to acquire a consistency as Comerford. It seems to be the wrong evolution of a name, from Comberford to Quemerford to Comerford, and a jarring sequence of changes.
2, Notes by a Kilkenny historian:
Dublin Castle … George Dames Burtchaell worked in the Ulster Office of Arms and had a particular interest in Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
George Dames Burtchaell (1853-1921), from Graiguenamanagh, Co Kilkenny, was an eminent Irish genealogist who worked as Athlone Pursuivant and then Deputy Ulster in the Ulster Office of Arms in Dublin Castle, and he had a particular interest in Co Kilkenny.
Putting an 18th century Comerford family tree that Burtchaell once worked on in Dublin Castle under the camera, I uncovered a pencilled and initialled note he had scrawled across the first folio, declaring forcibly: “All this is pure and unadulterated rubbish. [… illegible] GDB.”
The pedigree allows for ten generations and 220 years between a fictitious Allen de Comberford, who is said to have died in 1504, and Joseph Comerford, who registered the pedigree in 1724, or an average of 22 years for each generation, which is highly improbable and totally unbelievable. Indeed, on closer scrutiny, the pedigree asks the reader to accept an unbelievable and impossible average of less than 15 years for each generation over a more restricted span of 177 years.
Burtchaell makes a number of other pencilled annotations, giving some accurate details missing from the registered pedigree, but adding marginal notes that say things such as: “No such man,” and “No such marriage.”
In his Genealogical Memoirs of the Members of Parliament for the County and City of Kilkenny (Dublin, 1888), Burtchaell is the first historian in print to question the claims of Staffordshire origins for this family. He points out on p. 19:
“The family of Comerford is said to have come from Cumberford in Staffordshire, but the spelling Quemerford was used consistently by the family in Ireland until at least the 16th century, indicating the sources for the family’s origins must be sought elsewhere. The family in Co Kilkenny formed several branches, the principal being those of Ballybur and Danganmore. The family of Callan and Inchiolaghan, from the Christian name Fowke, or Foulke, appears to be closely connected with a branch that was long settled in the city of Waterford.”
However, notice the obvious missing gap for an historian. He says: “the sources for the family’s origins must be sought elsewhere.” But he never looked for these sources.
3, Carrigan: the evidence from silence
The surviving fraction of the wayside cross dedicated to Richard and Mary Comerford inserted in the north-west corner of Grange Church by William Carrigan and Michael Comerford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
In his four-volume History and Antiquities of the Diocese of Ossory, Canon William Carrigan (d. 1924) makes no mention of the connections between the Comerford families of Co Kilkenny and Comberford in Staffordshire.
Carrigan was a meticulous historian, and he was involved with Bishop Michael Comerford, a school-friend from Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny, in founding the Ossory Historical Society. He was aware of the bishop’s interest in the family history, and could not have been unaware of those claims. But he compiled his four-volume history after Burtchaell wrote his history of Kilkenny MPs.
If Carrigan listened to Burtchaell, and if Carrigan does not rely on these myths, then I had to doubt those myths too.
4, Heraldic evidence:
I am not quite convinced of the wisdom of making historical arguments from the evidence of heraldry. But the oldest Comerford heraldic arms on a grave or memorial are those on the grave of Judge Gerald or Garret Comerford, who died in 1604, in the ruins of Saint Mary’s Church, Callan, Co Kilkenny.
It is only later that we find the Comberford arms from Staffordshire used in Kilkenny, on the grave of Thomas Comerford, who died in January or February 1627 or in 1629, and was buried in Saint Mary’s Church, Callan. But his monument may be of a much later date, perhaps even the early 18th century. It has a more stylised, Renaissance style than, for example, the heraldic monuments from the early 17th century in Saint Mary’s churchyard in Kilkenny, and has similar wording to a plaque erected in the Comberford chapel in Tamworth in 1725. So it may have been part of an effort to construct evidence for links between the two families.
The two coats-of-arms are so different that they point to two different, separate, unrelated families. Yet it was not Garret and Thomas who were distantly related, but the Comerfords of Kilkenny and the Comberfords of Staffordshire.
A legend continues
James Comerford (1817-1902) … visited Comberford, Tamworth and Wednesbury (Photograph: Comerford Family Collection)
My great-grandfather, James Comerford, was attached to this legend all his life, and shortly before his death in 1902 he produced a small booklet describing his visits to Comberford, Tamworth and Wednesbury, using as his bookplate the Comberford family coat-of-arms, perhaps in imitation of his contemporary, the book collector, James Comerford.
The plaque commemorating the Comberford family erected by Joseph Comerford in 1725 in the Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
But the legend was enhanced by many before him:
1, The Revd Dr Nicholas Quemerford or Comerford (ca 1541/1545-ca 1599) was a prominent Jesuit theologian from Waterford and once a candidate to become Archbishop of Cashel in succession to Miler Magrath. He sometimes uses the spelling Comberford when he is a student at Oxford, but this may have been caused by confusion with his English contemporaries in Oxford, rather than his own choice.
2, Bishop Patrick Comerford (1586-1652) of Waterford and Lismore, an Augustinian who was also titular Prior of Kells, used a coat-of-arms that was a crude adaptation of the Comberford arms in Staffordshire. Perhaps he was aware of the sufferings of his clerical contemporary, Canon Henry Comberford, Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral, who was jailed for his persistent Roman Catholicism in the reign of Elizabeth I, and identified with those Comberfords, who were, however briefly, a prominent recusant family in his lifetime.
3, The legend is then perpetuated with the monument to Thomas Comerford in Callan, whatever date we give it and whatever its provenance.
4, Later, the myths are consolidated in pedigrees constructed by Joseph Comerford, who also erects a curious monument in the Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, in 1725. This is why I suggest he may have also erected the monument to Thomas Comerford in Callan.
Joseph Comerford embellished his claims with a double descent through a 16th century intermarriage between the Comberford family of Staffordshire and the Comerford family of Co Kilkenny that was simply not possible.
Looking for Richard Comberford
In my initial work, I found it impossible to reconcile the spellings, the impossible descents, and the short years for each generation in his pedigree. But the blatant misrepresentation came in the supposed marriage between Judge Richard Comberford (ca 1512-post 1547), a brother of Canon Henry Comberford of Lichfield Cathedral and the second son of Thomas Comberford who died in 1532, and his wife Dorothy Fitzherbert.
However, Richard Comberford was, in fact, the ancestor of the Bradley branch of the family. He was born ca 1512. With his brothers, Canon Henry Comberford and Humphrey Comberford, Richard Comberford was educated at Cambridge (BA 1534, MA 1537, Fellow of Saint John’s, 1534).
A senior barrister, he held one of the highest judicial posts as the King’s Remembrancer from about 1547, and his wife Isabel Biggs was an unusual woman, for in 1530 in Lichfield, as “Dame Isabella Cumberforde,” she was admitted to membership of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John the Baptist, while her brother-in-law, Humphrey Comberford, was Master of the Guild, which was the effective civic government of Lichfield until it received its charter as a city from Queen Mary I.
Richard and Isabel Comberford had a son and two daughters, and their descendants were later prominent 17th century Quakers in Staffordshire.
However, Joseph Comerford’s pedigree registered in 1724, and the pedigree compiled at the College of Heralds in London in 1786 for the Countess of Crequy, make the fantastic claim that Richard Comberford moved to Ireland and became Lord of Ballymacken and Danganmore, Co Kilkenny, through his marriage to Mary, daughter and heiress of Allen de Comerford, last Baron of Danganmore, said to have died in 1504, and niece of Edmond Comerford, Bishop of Ferns, who died in 1509.
As Richard Comberford was still living in Staffordshire in 1547, such a marriage is an impossibility, for this would leave us with 12 generations between Richard’s death, many years after 1547, and Joseph Comerford’s death in the 1729 – an average of less than 15 years for each generation over a span of less than 180 years.
As Burtchaell says, there was no such marriage, and there was no such person as Allen de Comerford, last Baron of Danganmore. Indeed, despite the perpetuation of these myths even by Edward MacLysaght, there never was a title of Baron of Danganmore.
With such bizarre impossibilities, it is natural to ask why this pedigree should be given any consideration at all. Yet pedigrees that exaggerate the ancestral claims of the “Old English” families were commonplace in south-east Ireland from the 16th century on, and similar fanciful genealogies were constructed, for example, for the Grace, Langton and Shee families of Kilkenny.
The dual marriage between the Comberford and Comerford families in the 16th century was now ruled out, and the legends and myths about Comerford origins collapsed like a house of cards. I realised that the origins of the Comerford family of south-east Ireland are not to be found in the Staffordshire family of royalists, recusants and Quakers. Where were they to be found?
Back to the sources:
In Quemerford – but had the family’s origins been forgotten?
There is a good rule for historians: seek primary sources. And it is a good rule for genealogists to seek to trace your family tree for yourself. Do not accept as fact anything you have been told without seeking to test it and to verify it.
I went in search not of the earliest use of the Comberford name in Ireland, but of the earliest use of the name Quemerford in England and where it might have its origins.
I found the village of Quemerford in Wiltshire and a family whose name, de Quemerford, survived until the family became prosperous in Co Kilkenny. It was a more than interesting coincidence that this family dies out in Wiltshire at the same time as we find its first presence in Co Kilkenny.
How did the family come to Co Kilkenny?
Quemerford House, at the heart of Quemerford village, on the outskirts of Calne (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
So, how did the family come to Co Kilkenny?
Despite the widespread acceptance of the fanciful claims of Joseph Comerford and others, the first members of the Quemerford or Comerford family in Co Kilkenny came from this village of Quemerford, on the outskirts of Calne, between Chippenham and Marlborough, in Wiltshire.
Over 100 years ago, AEW Marsh, the historian of Calne (AEW Marsh, A History of the Borough and Town of Calne, Calne and London: 1903), identified a notable movement of people from Calne to Ireland at the end of the 13th and thw beginning of the 14th century. William de Dene was Sheriff of Wexford (1241-1245) when he witnessed three of Walter Marshal’s charters to Dunbrody Abbey. Later, he was Seneschal of Ossory (ca 1255-ca 1260), and Justiciar of Ireland (1260-1261). He fought at the Battle of Callan in 1261 and died that year, perhaps from his wounds. Soon afterwards, his widow Roesia de Longespee married William de Calne, and they were living in 1302.
From 1283 for some years, William de Calne and his wife Roesia nominated people to look after their interests in Ireland while they were in England. William constantly varied his lawyers, and they were men with surnames drawn from placenames in Calne and the immediate hinterland, including Nicholas of Calne, Henry of Cumpton, Philip of Quemerford or Cummerford (sic) and Walter of Lacock, showing, as Marsh observes, “that there was then quite a little colony of people from Calne and the neighbourhood settled in Ireland.”
Philip de Quemerford, sometimes recorded as Philip of Cummerford, was one of these lawyers or agents from Calne. He was living permanently in Co Kilkenny from the beginning of the 14th century, and was attorney to John de Earleye in 1302. He was fined for an unknown sum along with others at Kilkenny in 1326. According to the Estreats of Kilkenny, on the Thursday after the feast of the exaltation of the Holy Cross in September 1326, Philip de Quemerford was fined for an unknown sum along with others at Kilkenny.
The last mention of the Quemerford family in the Calne area of Wiltshire is on 17 March 1344, the Wednesday after the feast of Saint Gregory the Pope, in the 18th year of the reign of Edward III, when Nicholas de Quemerford made a grant at Calne to Robert de Huggerford of all his lands and tenements in Quemerford in return for an annual rent of 20 shillings.
Within a few generations, we find William de Quemerford holding lands in Callan on lease from James Butler, the fourth Earl of Ormond, in 1411. In November 1411, he held lands on lease in Callan from James Butler, 4th Earl of Ormond (the “White Earl”), whose son, James Butler, the fifth earl, was also given the title of Earl of Wiltshire … so perhaps the connections with Wiltshire, however loose, continued for a century or more.
For generations, members of the Comerford family in Callan and the surrounding area appear to have supplied the family lawyers, deputies or agents who managed the Irish estates of the Butler Ormonds. Many of these Comerfords are buried within Saint Mary’s Church, Callan, or in the adjoining churchyard, and Thomas Shelly once mused that the church “seems to have been considered by the Comerfords as their family church.”
Identifying the branches of the Comerford family:
The legends of the Comerford family have also made it difficult to identify and separate the different branches of the family.
Thomas Shelly and others recall a tradition, whose origins or antiquity I have been unable to trace. This says three women from the Comerford family, described as “The Shaughrans,” provided an unnamed Bishop of Ossory with funds to defray the costs of building the nave and two side aisles of Saint Mary’s Church, Callan.
Shelley gives no source or references for this myth, and it appears that Saint Mary’s was built or rebuilt in its present form in the 15th century. But, according to this legend, each woman “gave equal shares of their fortunes for this purpose, stipulating that each should have a distinct portion erected on her behalf; and to this cause is attributed the form of the structure of this portion of the building, which is peculiar to itself.”
The only bishop in the Comerford family to have immediate associations with Saint Mary’s, Callan, was Edmund Comerford, the last pre-Reformation Bishop of Ferns and Dean of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. Bishop Edmund may have started his monastic career as an Augustinian in Callan. He became Rector of Saint Mary’s, Callan, and Prior of Saint John’s, Kilkenny, in 1498. In a fashion that was typical of late mediaeval pluarlists, Edmund remained Rector of Callan while he was Dean of Saint Canice’s (1487-1509) and Bishop of Ferns (1505-1509).
However, there is no evidence to associate Edmund with the building of Saint Mary’s. Nor is there any historical evidence of these three Comerford women. On the other hand, Saint Mary’s was the traditional burial place for many branches of the Comerford family in this area, and their graves and monuments in Saint Mary’s provide interesting insights into the power and influence of the Comerford family in this part of Co Kilkenny in the period immediately after the death of Bishop Edmund Comerford.
Indeed, the myths and legends that have been created by and about the Comerford family, the pedigrees created by Joseph Comerford, and the monuments erected over their graves and tombs in Callan have often disguised and made it difficult to disentangle the different branches of the family.
I have identified and disentangled many branches of the family, including these eleven:
1, Ballybur, Co Kilkenny;
2, Danganmore, Co Kilkenny;
3, Ballymack and Callan, Co Kilkenny;
4, Castleinch, Co Kilkenny, and Waterford City;
5, Coolgreany, Co Kilkenny;
6, Bunclody, Co Wexford;
7, Urlingford, Co Kilkenny, and Galway City;
8, Rathdrum, Co Wicklow;
9, Skerries and Balbriggan, Co Dublin;
In addition, I should also refer to the name Comiskey and questions about the origins of the Comerford family of Dundalk, Co Louth.
1, Comerford of Ballybur:
Ballybur Castle, ancestral home of the Comerford family of Ballybur, Kilkenny City and Bunclody (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Richard de Quemerford, fl 1434-1457, of Maioweston, Callan, who held his lands from James Butler, 5th Earl of Ormond and 1st Earl of Wiltshire, at a chief rent of 16 pence, and who was in possession of them in November 1434. He was a witness in Waterford on 24 April 1457 to a Butler grant involving lands in Co Carlow.
Richard appears to have been the ancestor of the Ballybur branch of the family, and many other branches, including Ballymack, Garryduff, a major branch in Callan, and branches in Danganmore, Coolgreany, Kilkenny City and Bunclody.
A generation or two later we find:
1, Edmond Comerford, Bishop of Ferns;
2, Philip Comerford;
3, Richard Comerford ‘senior’ (ca 1462-ca 1532) of Ballybur (see below);
4, Thomas Comerford, priest, living in 1515.
Bishop Edmond Comerford was the last pre-Reformation Bishop of Ferns and Dean of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. An Augustinian friar, he was an unashamed careerist and pluralist, and he accumulated church benefices and offices, including being Rector of Saint Mary’s, Callan, and Prior of Saint John’s, Kilkenny. Papal documents at the Lateran in Rome show he was living with a woman who had, in effect, been his wife, and their son, William, who was ordained to the priesthood, was later the first post-Reformation Dean of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny.
Bishop Edmond Comerford died in office on Easter Day, 8 April 1509. He appears to have been a brother of Richard Comerford ‘Senior’ (ca 1462-ca 1532), who inherited Ballybur, Co Kilkenny, in the late 15th or early 16th century, through his marriage to Ellen Freny (or French), daughter and co-heir of Patrick fitzFulk Freny, and heiress to property in Co Kilkenny and Co Wexford.
They had a large family, including at least six sons. The eldest son, Richard ‘Roe’ Comerford, inherited Ballybur Castle soon after 1532 and was the ancestor of the Ballybur branch. It appears his identity has been conflated with that of Judge Richard Comberford of Lichfield and Comberford, who was claimed (impossibly) as the direct ancestor of the Comerfords of Co Kilkenny. The second and third sons, Edward and James, lived in Ballymack; the fourth son, Edmund, lived in Garryduff, Co Tipperary, and the fifth and sixth sons, Patrick and Nicholas also lived in Ballymack.
So you can see by the early 16th century, the Comerfords of Ballybur had enough sons to be possible ancestors of many of the Comerfords living in Co Kilkenny today.
Richard ‘Roe’ Comerford was the father of Richard ‘Oge’ Comerford, who was a key ally of the Ormond Butlers in the second half of the 16th century, working on behalf of Thomas Butler, ‘Black Tom,’ 10th Earl of Ormond, as far away as Co Mayo. We know he had at least three sons: Thomas Comerford, who inherited Ballybur; Richard ‘Boy’ Comerford, who was the ancestor of the Comerfords of Danganmore; and William Comerford, a member of Callan Corporation in 1583. So again, the Comerford network is spreading across Co Kilkenny.
By the end of the 16th century, Thomas Comerford of Ballybur Castle was constable of Gowran Castle and owned lands throughout Co Kilkenny, with property in Callan, Kells, Thomastown, and Castlekelly near Paulstown and Shankill, which he acquired from the Ormond Butlers in 1572.
His eldest son, Richard ‘fitzThomas’ Comerford (1564-1637), inherited Ballybur at the age of 24. He is reputed to have built Ballybur Castle, but architectural evidence suggests the castle, which is really a tower house, is much older than this. A prominent judge in his day, Thomas was a Justice of the Queen’s Bench – what we would now call a High Court judge – and Sheriff of the Palatine Liberty of Tipperary (1603).
He was involved in acquiring the Manor of Insula or Great Island in Co Wexford for ‘Black Tom’ and the lands and manors of Tullow, and other lands in Co Carlow, Co Tipperary, Co Kilkenny, and Queen’s County (Laois). More interestingly, Richard was involved in securing the title of the Earls of Ormond to large tracts of land in Co Mayo, including Achill Island and Burrishoole, under Butler family claims that dated back to at least 1281.
Richard was twice married, to Joanna Sweetman of Castle Eve and then Mary Purcell of Loughmoe.
Two monuments in Grange commemorated Richard and Mary, a wayside cross and an altar tomb. The remaining base of the wayside cross was later inserted in the masonry of the north-west corner of the chapel of Grange. This fraction was covered in cement when Carrigan visited Grange in the early 20th century, but is now clearly visible. I have been unable to find the remains of the altar tomb, however, although it was re-erected in 1869 by the Kilkenny historians John Hogan of Ormond House, and William Healy, and the Carlow historian, Dr Michael Comerford, a founder member with William Carrigan of the Ossory Archaeological Society.
Ballybur and the other estates were inherited by his son John Comerford, who is said to have hosted Cardinal Rinucinni in Ballybur Castle in 1645 during the Confederation of Kilkenny.
John forfeited his estates at the Cromwellian confiscations in the 1650s. Those lands included including 390 acres in Ballybur that were granted to Bryan Manseragh, and hundreds of acres in Castlekelly that were divided up between a number of Cromwellian settlers, while the new proprietors at Castlekelly included Sir Theophilus Jones, John Mallocke, Charles Houlecroft, Quarter-Master William Foord, Richard Reddy, Lord Thomas Conway and John Lord Colville.
Carrigan says he was transplanted to Connacht in 1654, and claims “his later history is unknown.” However, in fact, John Comerford was ordered to be transplanted to Inchicronan in Bunratty, Co Clare, in 1656, where he was given 150 acres.
By the time of the Restoration in 1660, John Comerford was back in north Co Kilkenny – if he had ever moved to Co Clare – but failed in his appeals to the Duke of Ormond (whose father was a first cousin of his wife, Grany Kavanagh) to have his lands at Ballymaclaghny and Kellymount returned. In 1664 and 1667 he was described as “late of Balllybur.” He was living in a “cabin” on 200 acres of “coarse mountain land” on his former estate at Kellymount and was “extreme poore, and not able to subsist or maintaine himselfe or his poore wife and family … who are in starveing condition.”
The replies of Ormond to his pleas were the equivalent of today’s official reply: “The contents of your letter have been drawn to the attention of the Minister …” Ormond offered no favours to this side of the family, and that explains the rise and fall of the Comerfords of Ballybur.
His son Garret Comerford (ca 1630-1686), “of Castlekealy”, Co Kilkenny, was born ca 1630, and was named after his uncle, Garret Kavanagh of Borris, and was living with his parents at Kellymount in 1667.
Garret appears to have lived on the generosity of his in-laws, the Shee family, and we find him witnessing a number of Shee family transactions in the 1680s. His will indicates he died in 1686 and that he was buried in Gowran.
Barney Comerford, in his very voluminous but often inaccurate account of the Comerford families, relies on hearsay and anecdote for many of his family trees. He suggests Garret’s son, Richard Comerford, was the first member of the family to live at Coolgreany – a farm that still remains in the Comerford family.
Richard’s eldest son, William Comerford, later moved into Kilkenny City, while another son Michael is buried in Old Kilmyshall, Co Wexford, close to the grave of Eibhlinn a Ruain, while a daughter Margaret is buried in Templeshanbo – the kinship with the Kavanagh family explains this first move a few miles east to the area around Bunclody.
The eldest son, William Comerford (ca 1692?-post 1765), asserted that he was the senior representative of the Ballybur branch of the family. Barney Comerford says William and his father Richard lived at Coolgreany, Co Kilkenny, but Prim and other authorities are correct when they say William lived in Kilkenny City and moved to the Langton House at the Butterslip after his son James married Anne Langton in 1754.
William’s grandson, Michael Comerford, later recalled how William took an oaken chest of title deeds with him to the Butterslip, and on sunny days he would take them out and unfold them. Family members believed they were the title deeds to Ballybur. After his death, they were inherited by his elder son James Comerford, but are said to have been destroyed by James Comerford’s wife, Anne. William Comerford was still alive in 1765.
We have clear records of James Comerford’s life in the Butterslip from his marriage on 27 November 1754 to Anne Langton of the Butterslip, where they continued her father’s business, and where his father came to live with them.
He was involved in civic and church life, taking the Test Oath along with Walter Butler, de jure 16th Earl of Ormond, at the Tholsel in 1775, subscribing to the site for a new Catholic cathedral in Kilkenny, and forming the partnership of Comerford and Murray that loaded the first and only boat that navigated the Kilkenny Canal from the tidewater to the city, discharging its cargo at New Quay. James and Anne were painted by the Kilkenny-born miniaturist, John Comerford (ca 1770-1832), when he was their guest in the Butterslip in 1794, and again in 1797 and 1808.
James and Anne had a large family of 17 children. Barney Comerford confuses one of those sons, Edmond Comerford (1767-1819), a hardware merchant of High Street, Kilkenny, with a later Edmond Comerford (1788-post 1839) of Ballyfoyle. Another son, Michael Comerford (1764-1851), was the source for many of the stories about his grandfather, William Comerford, and remembered seeing the Market Cross being taken down in High Street in 1771. Prim records the people around Ballybur “always looked upon” him as “the lineal representative” of the Comerfords of Ballybur Castle.
The Comerford family represented by James Comerford of the Butterslip continued to be represented in the city through their descendants in the female line in the Madden, Bourke, Dunne, Kenealy and Buggy families. But the death of Michael Comerford in 1851 brought to an end the connections with Kilkenny City of the male line of this branch of the Comerford family.
2, Comerford of Danganmore:
The ruins of Danganmore Castle, once owned by the Comerford family, are incorporated into the Forristal family home (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Danganmore is south of Kells, near Castle Morres, in the parish of Dunnamaggin. The castle is within a tiny cluster of houses, and has belonged to the Forristal family for generations.
Of course, despite Joseph Comerford’s fanciful claims in Ireland, England and France, there never was such a title as the Baron of Danganmore. Danganmore appears to have passed to the Ballybur branch of the Comerford family by the mid-16th century, perhaps through intermarriage with the FitzGerald or Barron family.
Richard ‘Boy’ Comerford (d. 1622), younger son of Richard ‘Oge’ Comerford of Ballybur (died ca 1579/1580) and younger brother of Thomas Comerford of Ballybur, moved to Danganmore Castle by the early 1570s.
He too was a witness to numerous Ormond legal documents, and died at an advanced age in 1624. He is buried against the wall in the north-west chancel of Kilree Church, near the Round Tower, with his wife Joanna St Leger, who had died on 4 October 1622. Margaret Phelan believed their tombstone was carved by Walter Kerin or his son Patrick. The south front of this impressive tomb is carved with at least 20 emblems of the Passion.
They were also commemorated by a wayside cross at Balintee, on the road from Kilree leading to Danganmore, but I failed to find this in a search this summer.
With the Cromwellian defeat of the royalist cause in Ireland, Richard’s son, also Richard Comerford of Danganmore, assisted the escape of the Duchess of Ormond from Kilkenny to Carrick-on-Suir, and then to Clonmel in 1652, and took her to Passage where she left for England. His correspondence with her continued until at least 1658.
He was living at Danganmore in 1658 and 1659, but had died by 1663, when he left his family in strained circumstances with debts on his lands of £300. She petitioned the Duke of Ormond for a discharge of the debts, and in 1671 she obtained a lease for three lives on her late husband’s former farm at Danganmore.
They had no sons, and Danganmore passed through their daughter to the Ryan family, and from them to the Langton family.
The last of the Langtons at Danganmore Castle was Captain Henry Michael Fustinus Langton (1829-1872), who was High Sheriff of Co Kilkenny in 1870. As the owner of Danganmore, he paid a small chiefry to the Marquess of Ormonde as lord of the soil. He gave his address as Danganmore in 1871, and his brother, Francis (‘Frank’) Albert Romuald Langton (1840-1917), a senior civil servant who was Private Secretary to the Postmaster-General.
The members of this branch of the family were the last immediate direct descendants of the Comerfords of Danganmore. Despite claims to the contrary, they managed to hold on to a considerable portion of their lands until the end of the 19th century. Henry Langton’s sale of his interest in the Langton House in the Butterslip in Kilkenny to the Revd Edmund Madden marks an interesting convergence of the interests of the descendants of the Ballybur and Danganmore branches of the family. After selling Danganmore Castle, this Langton family continued to live in England.
3, Ballymack and Callan
The monument to Thomas Comerford of Ballymack in the ruined South Aisle in Saint Mary's Church, Callan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The Ballymack branch of the family is descended from James Quemerford or Comerford (ca 1493 – post 1560) of Ballymack, Co Kilkenny, a younger brother of Richard ‘Roe’ Comerford of Ballybur.
James was a lawyer, the Queen’s Attorney for Waterford in 1558, and Sheriff of Co Kilkenny in the 1540s and 1550s. He was killed in office.
His son Thomas was described as a “perpetual rebel and traitor,” and in 1580 his estates were granted to the troublesome Francis Lovell. But they were recovered five years later by his younger brother, Henry Quemerford (ca 1525-1590).
Henry’s elder son James Comerford of Ballymack, was Sheriff of Co Wexford in 1583, and was the father of the Revd Thomas Comerford (d. 1635) of Ballymack who was still a minor when James died in 1601. He was sent to the newly-founded Trinity College Dublin at the age of 12 and was ordained in the Church of Ireland. He became Chaplain of the Trinity Chapel, a chantry chapel in Callan, and later Vicar of Attanagh and then Vicar of The Rower, Co Kilkenny.
This clergyman’s eldest son was Major James Comerford, a confederate officer in the regiment of Richard Butler of Kilcash, Co Tipperary. His lands were forfeited in 1654, and he moved with his family to the Kilcash area. After the restoration he too tried to recover his lands, but was unsuccessful. His son, Henry Comerford (ca 1644-ca 1699) was outlawed at Kilkenny as a Jacobite on 20 April 1691, but his children continued to live near Kilcash, and may have been descendants in this area.
To go back a few generations with this branch, Thomas Comerford (d. ca 1627/1629) of Callan was the second son of Henry Comerford (ca 1525-1590), who recovered the confiscated lands in Ballymack in 1585.
Thomas is the family member named in the Renaissance monument in the south aisle of Saint Mary’s Church, Callan, with the coat-of-arms of the Comberford family of Comberford, Staffordshire, rather than the Comerfords of Co Kilkenny.
His son Edward (‘Ned’) Comerford, was Sovereign or Mayor of Callan in 1632, and an MP for Callan in 1634-1635 and in 1639-1648. His initials ‘EC’ were on the Callan Mace, which remained in the possession of Callan Town Commissioners until their abolition in the 1940s. He acted as Ormond’s agent as he travelled between Ireland and England over a period of 12 years from 1630 until 1642, when he subscribed to the Oath of the Confederation of Kilkenny.
However, he opposed Cardinal Rinnucini and remained loyal to Charles I and Ormond. His correspondence with Ormond resumed in 1643, and Ormond describes himself in these letters as “your assured loving master.” He continued to serve Ormond as his agent until his death in 1649.
His lands in the Callan area were confiscated in 1653, but the descendants of this branch of the family continued to live in the area in the decades immediately after. One member of this branch of the family was John Comerford (ca 1665-1725), a Major-General in the Spanish army and stepfather of Maria Therese O’Beirne, sometimes known as Maria Therese Comerford, who married the outrageous rake and gambler, the Duke of Wharton.
The general was closely related to Joseph Comerford of Clonmel, the inventor of genealogies who erected monuments in Callan and Tamworth. He went into exile, but not enforced exile, after the Boyne, and bought a château in France. The château at Anglure brought with it the title of Marquis d’Anglure, so long as the purchaser could prove noble birth. And this goes a long way towards explaining why Joseph Comerford exerted so much energy in fabricating his mythical genealogies.
Château d’Anglure … gave Joseph Comerford an estate and a title
The Anglure branch of the Ballymack Comerfords continued to live in France, with their title, in genteel poverty, until at least the beginning of the 19th century, keeping their heads during the French revolution but descending into obscurity under Napoleon. The last member of that branch I can trace died without children in 1813.
The descendants of other branches of this Comerford family of Ballymack and Callan were numerous. They include Edward Comerford, who was Archbishop of Cashel from 1697 to 1710. Today, there are no remains of any Comerford house in Ballymack. Nevertheless, I am confident there are many descendants of these branches throughout the south-east of Ireland to this day.
4, Castleinch and Waterford:
The Comerfords of Ballymack and Callan should not be confused with the Comerfords of Castleinch and Waterford, who also had many connections with Callan.
The Quemerford or Comerford family was involved in the civic, mercantile, social, political and ecclesiastical life of the City of Waterford from the early decades of the 15th century.
The branch of the family connected with Inchiholohan or Castlinch for up to 170 years – from the first half of the 16th century until the end of the 17th century – was closely related to the Waterford branch of the family. We know this from the predominance of a small number of personal names such as Foulk, Garret (Gerald) and George, and the family’s property, commercial and political interests in both New Ross and Waterford, which competed with each other for the place as Kilkenny’s commercial port.
Foulk Quemerford or Comerford, (?ca 1408-1452), of Waterford, was the first member of this branch of the family. He seems to have been a son of William de Quemerford, living in Callan, Co Kilkenny, ca 1406-1428, and a brother of Richard de Quemerford of Callan (living in 1434), ancestor of the Ballybur, Ballymack and Danganmore branches.
Foulk was a Bailiff of Waterford in 1438-1439, and the Mayor of Waterford in 1448-1449. As Mayor of Waterford, he was attacked with a dagger before the council by John May, a former bailiff. In 1452, with Peter Forstall and 31 other citizens of Waterford, Foulk was killed in a battle with the O’Driscolls who had landed at Tramore at the invitation of the Le Poers.
Foulk was probably a brother of Thomas Comerford of Waterford, who was involved “with divers others” in capturing Thomas Hore, Abbot of Dunbrody, Co Wexford, in 1449, on the night before he was due to travel to Parliament, and taking the abbot as a prisoner to Waterford, capturing his goods and chattels.
Despite this lawlessness, for the next few generations members of this branch held many of the high civic offices in Waterford, and many of them also worked as lawyers for the Ormond Butlers.
One member of this family was Philip Comerford, Mayor of Waterford in 1570 and merchant of Callan. He was buried with his wife Ann in Saint Mary’s, Callan, and Carrigan says his grave was the earliest English inscription recorded on a monument in Callan.
The most powerful and influential member of this branch of the family was Gerald (or Garret) Comerford (ca 1558?-1604), who is also buried in Saint Mary’s, where his monument is the most impressive of the Comerford graves or tombs in Callan.
Garret’s successful career was helped by being a third cousin of the Earl of Ormond and a brother-in-law of the Chief Justice. He was the Attorney-General for Connacht (1585), an MP for Callan in 1585, he was involved in negotiations and battles on behalf of the Elizabethan administration with the pirate queen Grace O’Malley, and witnessed one of the dramatic shipwrecks of the Spanish Armada off the Mayo coast.
At the end of his career, he became a member of the Council of Munster, Second Justice of Munster, Chief Justice of Munster and Second Baron of the Exchequer of Ireland.
Throughout this career, however, Garret continued to live at his Co Kilkenny manor in Inchiholohan or Castleinch, and continued to work on behalf of the Ormond interests. He died in 1604 and was buried in the north aisle of Saint Mary’s Church, Callan. His altar tomb was sculpted by Kerrin and displays emblems of the passion and crucifixion.
Although Garret was actively engaged in enforcing the Elizabethan Anglican reforms in both Mayo and in Kilkenny, three of his sons were Jesuits: the Revd Richard Comerford (1579-ca 1625), who became Rector of the College of Salamanca (1621-1624); the Revd James Comerford (1583-1640), who returned from Spain to Ireland in 1630, and died in Waterford; and the Revd Thomas Comerford (1583-1636), Professor of Theology at Compostella, who also died in Waterford.
Another son, Nicholas Comerford of Kilkenny City, was the King’s Gaoler in Kilkenny, and was the father of Nicholas Comberford (ca 1600-1673) of Stepney, London, an influential member of the Thames School of cartographers. He charted the coast of Carolina, the south Atlantic, the north Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the west and east coasts of Africa, part of Brazil, the Indian seas, and the English Channel. The spelling he commonly used for his surname has also compounded the difficulties in tracing the origins of his family.
A cope used by Bishop Patrick Comerford and now on display in Waterford Heritage Museum
The most prominent member of the Waterford branch of the family was Patrick Comerford (1586-1652), an Augustinian friar, who was titular Prior of Kells and Bishop of Waterford and Lismore (1629-1652). Early in his career, Patrick was involved in a failed attempt to ransom his brother who had been captured by pirates and taken to Morocco. Patrick paid the ransom, but his brother died of the plague soon after landing in Spain. The bishop went into exile after Cromwell captured Waterford, and is buried in Nantes Cathedral. His ornate vestments are on display in the museum in Waterford.
5, The Coolgreany branch:
Barney Comerford identified Nicholas Comerford (1767-1819), the youngest and unmarried brother of Michael Comerford, the last family member to live in the Butterslip, with a younger Nicholas Comerford (1780-ca 1870), who lived in Coolgreany House near Castlewarren, Co Kilkenny.
There is some confusion here, but perhaps the Coolgreany branch of the family was descended from the Comerfords of Ballybur and the Butterslip.
His children included Monsignor Pierce Comerford (1818-1905), a missionary in Mauritius who sent back Dodo bones to the RDS, now in the Natural History Museum, Dublin; Bridget (Mother Mary Teresa) Comerford (1821-1881), a pioneering missionary with the Presentation Sisters in California; and her sister, Kate (Mother Mary Bernard) Comerford (1830-1911).
Because of Barney Comerford’s confused identification of two Edmond Comerfords, we cannot be sure of the descent of this family. But their descendants include: Pierce Comerford of Coolgreany House, who played on the Dublin team that won the All-Ireland Football final in 1898; Canon James Comerford, who taught French in Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny, and was later Parish Priest of Mullinavat and of Ballyragget; the Comerfords of Pigeon Park; the Manning family of Manning Travel; and the Egan family of Corduff Stud.
6, Comerford of Bunclody:
The home of the Comerford family for generations in Newtownbarry … now Bunclody Post Office (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
At the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, one line of the Comerford family of Ballybur moved from Kilkenny to the area around Newtownbarry (Bunclody), in north Co Wexford. This move probably came through the family links of Garret Comerford of Ballybur, who was a second cousin of Eibhlinn A Ruain Kavanagh, celebrated in song, poetry and myth, who is buried in Kilmyshall Cemetery, near Bunclody.
The ancestor of the main line of this branch of the family was Edmond Comerford (ca 1722-1788), a younger son of William Comerford, who moved into the Butterslip, and a younger brother of James Comerford who married Ann Langton.
Following the move to the Bunclody/ Templeshanbo area, generations of Comerfords were buried in Kilmyshall Cemetery and the Church of Ireland churchyard in Templeshanbo.
In the 19th century, Bishop Michael Comerford (1831-1895) was a prominent member of this branch of the family. He was educated at Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny, and he took care in restoring the monuments of his ancestor, Richard Comerford of Ballybur Castle, in Grange Church. He was known both as a bishop and a local historian, and was involved in founding local history societies in Kilkenny and Carlow, and in restoring the gravestones and monuments to members of the Ballybur branch of the family.
He was a cousin and a contemporary of my great-grandfather James Comerford (1817-1902), a celebrated arts-and-crafts period stuccodore, whose most celebrated and extravagant work of architecture and stucco plasterwork was the frieze on the Irish House in Dublin. It was his privately-published history of the family, in which he describes himself as describing himself as “a descendant” of the Comberford family, that continued, for me, the myths of descent from the Comberfords of Staffordshire.
7, Comerford of Urlingford:
Comerford House, near Spanish Arch, Galway … donated to Galway City by the Comerford family and for a time the home of the Galway City Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
This branch of the family claimed descent from the Castleinch branch, although Barney Comerford says they originated in Virginia, Co Cavan.
James Comerford (1816-ca 1905) was a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, based first in Johnstown, Co Kilkenny, and then in Urlingford, Co Kilkenny.
Prominent members of this family included William James Valentine Comerford, a solicitor in Tuam, and a local historian in Co Galway. He moved to Comerford House, beside the Spanish Arch, Galway, in the 1950s, but when he retired in the 1970s he moved to Dublin, where he died. His eldest son, Henry Comerford, a Galway solicitor, was the author of the standard reference books on fisheries legislation and was also a member of the Radio Eireann Players.
Other members of this family include the brothers Major James Comerford, Chief of the Dublin Fire Brigade during World War II; Father Mick Comerford of Rockwell College; Father Frank Comerford (1920-2012), a Spiritan missionary; and the newly-appointed Judge Francis Comerford.
Comerford House, WJV Comerford’s home in Galway, stands beside Spanish Arch in Galway, and was the original home of the Galway City Museum from 1976. The new museum, which opened in 2006, stands on a site behind Comerford House, which was donated to the city council by the Comerford family for community purposes.
The house was built ca 1800 as a private house. In recent years, it was home to the Comerford family and the Greenwood family. Clare Consuelo Sheridan (1885-1970), the sculptor, journalist and writer, lived at Comerford House between 1948 and 1954. She was a first cousin of Sir Winston Churchill and of Sir Shane Leslie, and is said to have sculpted Churchill while the former British prime minister painted her. She was famous too for her sculptures of Lenin and Trotsky. Her works in Galway include the Madonna of the Quays, which has been moved from the Spanish Arch to the city museum, and the larger-than-life crucifix in the Church of Christ the King in Salthill, outside Galway.
She wrote extensively about her travels in Russia, and lived an interesting and hectic life that is said to have included romantic interludes with Trotsky, Mussolini, Charlie Chaplin and even Kemal Ataturk. She was also the subject of a full-blooded biography by her cousin, Anita Leslie of Oranmore Castle, Co Galway.
8, Comerford of Rathdrum
The Comerford family of Ardavon House, Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, founded Rathdrum Mill, beside Rathdrum Bridge, in the mid-19th century. Rathdrum Mill finally closed in 1935. Ardavon House occupied a prominent site at the northern end of the town, facing the junction of the Main Street with the roads to Lowtown and to Clara, Laragh and Glendalough; at the southern end of the Main Street, in a similar position, is the Church of Ireland Parish Church of Saint Saviour’s.
Ardavon House was burned a few years ago and has been a sad burned-out shell ever since, covered in graffiti, with its doors and windows blocked. Yet the house, with its imposing portico, remains a surprising element in Rathdrum’s townscape, sitting right next to the heart of the town, yet remaining aloof in its secluded grounds, hopefully awaiting refurbishment.
Members of this Comerford family were close friends of Charles Stewart Parnell, and the family become associated with Co Wexford through inter-marriage with the Esmonde family. The most prominent members of this branch of the family in more recent times were the Republican activist, author and journalist Maire Comerford and her nephew, the film-maker Joe Comerford.
This branch of the Comerford family is said to have originated in Ballinakill, Co Laois, between Abbeyleix, Ballyragget and Castlecomer, and close to the border of Co Laois and Co Kilkenny.
The Comerford links with Ballinakill date back to the mid-16th century, when the Revd Peter Comerford, probably a member of the Comerford family of Waterford and Castleinch, Co Kilkenny, was the Rector of Dysert Galen (Ballinakill), Co Laois, in the Diocese of Leighlin. He was presented by the Crown to the Rectory of Maghnan de Galen on 26 October 1550.
However, the late Maire Comerford, in conversations with me in the early 1970s, expressed the tradition that this branch of the Comerford family was related to the Comerfords of Bunclody (Newtownbarry), Co Wexford.
9, Comerfords of Skerries and Balbriggan:
Two Comerford families lived in the neighbouring north Co Dublin fishing towns of Balbriggan and Skerries in the 18th and 19th centuries. I have no information about their origins, but they may have been closely related to each other. In Balbriggan, the Comerford family was closely identified with the cotton industry, founded by the Hamilton family, while the Comerfords of Skerries, who may have been related to their Balbriggan neighbours, were tenants of the Hamilton family of Holmpatrick, and were closely identified with the boat-building and fishing trades.
Balbriggan owes its rise from a small fishing village to a place of manufacturing and commercial importance to George Hamilton. In 1780, he introduced cotton manufacture by building of two large cotton mills, powered by a sophisticated mill race. They were the equal of any contemporary mills in England. The Lower Mill was promoted by George Hamilton of Hampton (ca 1731-1793), Baron of the Exchequer, but was soon sold to Messrs Comerford and O’Brien. The second mill, the Upper Mill, was supervised by Joseph Smyth and was in production by 1783.
This exciting industrial innovation was described by the Revd William Bruce, who visited Balbriggan on 27 and 28 August 1789, and wrote: “[T]he town which has an appearance of great prosperity, all the machinery in the town belongs to O’Brien and Comerford …” All was not rosy in this economic boom town of Balbriggan, though. In common with most towns in the Industrial Revolution, child labour was exploited, and Bruce, in his description of the factory belonging to O’Brien and Comerford, mentioned that 100 children were employed there.
The Balbriggan firm of O’Brien, Comerford and Clarke opened a warehouse in High Street, Belfast, in 1788 under the direction of William Martin, and for a few years supplies of plain goods from the factory at Balbriggan, and of printed stuffs from the print-field at Palmerston, Co Dublin, were offered there at “Dublin prices.” This facility for purchasing these products may explain why the only known example of 18th century Irish printed linen and cotton that survives in Belfast, in the Municipal Museum and Art Gallery, is a piece of the firm’s well authenticated “Volunteer Furniture” pattern.
However, the firm’s collapse in 1793 was spectacular. Drennan’s letter from Dublin to his brother-in-law says: “Comerford and O’Brien failed for exactly £67,000, and might have done so for £200,000 as their credit was great the day before … Last year, at this time, their goods were carried away as fast as they could load them, and now, for some time, not a blade [bale] is sold.”
The cotton mills of Balbriggan soon recovered from the financial collapse suffered by Comerford and O’Brien, but went into decline once again in the 1830s. Meanwhile, the fishing trade was also important in Balbriggan, and in 1825-1826, Thomas Comerford of Balbriggan was the owner of a boat, the Bee, with a crew of seven.
By 1829, Balbriggan harbour was employing 863 men. But, like the cotton industry, the fishing trade began to decline in Balbriggan too, and by the mid-1830s Balbriggan had lost its prosperity. Nevertheless, members of the Comerford family continued to live in Balbriggan and the neighbouring north Co Dublin fishing port of Skerries for a number of generations.
10, Comerfords of Galway:
In the 19th century, another Comerford family in Galway, probably the same family as the Comerfords of Balbriggan, became closely involved with the tragic events that unfolded in Co Clare and in Co Galway as consequences of the Great Famine.
Henry Comerford and Isaac Comerford were prosperous merchants and magistrates in Victorian Galway. Henry is associated with one of the tragic disasters during the famine. He was the owner of the St John, a Galway brig whose shipwreck in 1849 was one of the most tragic events during the mass exodus from Ireland in the aftermath of the Great Famine. The loss of the St John off the coast of Massachusetts led to almost 100 deaths. The survivors among the crew included the first mate, Henry Comerford and the captain, Martin Oliver, who returned to Galway.
Martin Oliver is still remembered in Galway, where a Galway hooker has been named after him and is one the central exhibits in the Galway City Museum, close to Comerford House.
In the immediate aftermath of the Famine, Henry Comerford faced another disaster arising from his speculation in lands and estates in the Galway and Clare area. He bought Duras House and 2,700 acres in Kinvara from Sir William Gregory for £23,000.
To buy the Kinvara properties, Henry got a bank loan in Dublin on the strength of the rents that he would receive once he owned the estate. He then doubled and even trebled existing rents. The events that followed were disastrous, and “the comparatively short interval of about twenty years witnessed the ruin of over a thousand homesteads in one parish” on the Comerford estate. He was resolute in his evictions and had wrecked the economy of Kinvara by the time he died in 1862.
His brother Isaac Comerford inherited some of Henry’s estates and raised the rentals of Kinvara from £335 to £1,150. However, by 1866, he was adjudged a bankrupt and his assets were seized on behalf of Todd Burns and Company, Mary Street, Dublin, for monies owed.
As the local historian, Monsignor Fahey, put it a generation later: “[T]he machines were overworked, and the geese that laid the golden eggs were done to death, and the comparatively short interval of about twenty years witnessed the ruin of over a thousand homesteads in one parish.”
11, Comerfords of Cork:
Anthony Hope Hawkins (1863-1933), author of ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’, was the son of the Revd Edwards Comerford Hawkins (1827-1906), of Saint Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, and through him was descended from the Comerford family of Wexford and Cork
A prominent merchant and shipping family in Cork, involved in the transatlantic trade in the 18th century claimed descent from the Comerfords of Co Wexford, and were also related to the Hennessey family of Cognac fame.
I refer to them briefly out of interest because the Comerford name was passed down through them to the Revd Edwards Comerford Hawkins (1827-1906), Vicar of Saint Bride’s, Fleet Street, London (1883-1904). His son, Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins (1863-1933), is best known today as Anthony Hope, the author of The Prisoner of Zenda.
Comerford of Dundalk, Co Louth:
In addition, I should also refer to the name Comiskey and questions about the origins of the Comerford family of Dundalk, Co Louth.
The name Comiskey is a Gaelic Irish surname, and despite the efforts of some teachers to foist it on unsuspecting Comerfords, it has no genealogical association with the Comerford family.
No Comerfords became Comiskeys, although some Comiskeys became Comerfords. Just as many Gaelic Irish surnames have been given English sounding equivalents, some Comiskeys on the Cavan/Louth borders adopted the name Comerford.
It is from these families that I think the Comerfords of Dundalk may be descended. They included the Young Irelander Patrick Comerford, who was Dundalk’s first town librarian, John Comerford who fought in the Papal Brigades against Garibaldi, and Edward Comerford, the organist of Waterford Cathedral, who died in 1894.
Some recent Comerfords:
If I was to put all these branches of the family into context I might also have named some recent Comerfords such as:
1, Andy and Martin Comerford, the Kilkenny hurlers;
2, Judge James Comerford from Co Kilkenny, who was once one of the AOH organisers of the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in New York.
3, Chris Comerford, businessman.
4, George Comerford, an Australian bushranger who came to a violent end.
5, James Comerford, Victorian book collector and antiquarian associated with the Bosworth Crucifix.
6, Cristea Comerford, White House chef.
7, Jane Comerford, the Australian-German Eurovision singer and songwriter.
8, Paddy Comerford and Ignatius Comerford of the Cork theatre.
9, Jim Comerford, an Australian trade unionist.
10, Marie Comerford, mother of the Warrington bombing victim Johnathan Ball … she died some years ago of a broken heart.
Perpetuating the myth – my great-grandfather’s small publication, shortly before his death (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
What about the links with Comberford and the Comberford family?
I suppose they are ones of affection and adoption. We were never related, but why should DNA get in the way of a good genealogical and historical story? And I still go back to Comberford, Lichfield and Tamworth a few times each year, and get a warm welcome.
My great-grandfather, James Comerford (1817-1902), perpetuated these myths when he visited Comberford, Tamworth, Wednesbury and Lichfield in August 1900 or 1901, describing himself as “a descendant” of the Comberford family. In the Comberford Chapel in Tamworth, he took detailed notes of the Comberford plaque erected in 1725; at Comberford Hall, he visited the Peel family.
He collected his findings in a small, seven-page pamphlet, that was privately published in a small print run on 26 November 1902, and bound with it photographs of the Moat House and Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth. Shortly afterwards, he added a bookplate similar to that of James Comerford, the London book collector and antiquarian, and additional handwritten notes.
The surviving copy of this publication is in Tamworth Library, along with a pencilled page of notes recording the details of his visit that August day. The binding of this slim volume may have been a final tribute by his family to James Comerford, who died 18 days later in Dublin, on 14 December 1902.
All these ties of affection amount to bonds of kinship, and so I include the Comerford, Quemerford and Comberford families in my one, single, one-name study.
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture in Dún Laoghaire Further Education Institute (DFEi), Cumberland Street, Dún Laoghaire, on 10 February 2015, was part of the monthly lecture programme organised by the Genealogical Society of Ireland.
Updated: 3 September 2021 with a photograph of Ballykeel House, Kilfenora, Co Clare