03 May 2016

Another 1916 anniversary – the day my
grandfather was sent home from the war

Stephen Edward Comerford (1867-1921) … sent home from Thessaloniki 100 years ago on 3 May 1916 (Photograph: Comerford Family Collection)

Patrick Comerford

For many years, I could never answer that very Irish question: “Where was your grandfather in 1916?”

I never knew either of my grandfathers, nor did I have Comerford first cousins. Family traditions were handed on by a widowed and a maiden aunt, two half-sisters who lived in my grandmother’s house in Terenure in southside Dublin.

But I was an adult before I first saw a photograph of my paternal grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford. He died shortly after my father’s second birthday, and so I never knew what my grandfather looked like.

When I set out to find out more about him – and where he was in 1916 – I discovered the tragic story of his lonely death in 1921. He was then living in Rathmines in suburban south Dublin, and he was buried in Saint Catherine’s churchyard in Portrane, Co Dublin, close to his in-laws, the Lynders family.

Stephen was born at 7 Redmond’s Hill, between Camden Street and Aungier Street, Dublin, on 28 December 1867. He was the fourth son and fifth and youngest child of James Comerford (ca 1817-1902) [See James Comerford], an arts-and-crafts stuccodore and architect from Bunclody, Co Wexford, whose works included the design of the Irish House on the corner of Wood Quay and Winetavern Street, and the Oarsman in Ringsend.

Stephen was baptised soon after in Saint Andrew’s Church, Dublin. His sponsors or godparents were Thomas Roche and Margaret Dowdall. In 1884, at the age of 16, he was apprenticed to his father “to learn his Art” from 1 June 1884 for seven years, according to an indenture dated 23 June 1888, signed by James Comerford and Stephen Comerford and witnessed by John Hartigan and Isaac Hill.

Stephen was living at 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue, Ranelagh, when his father, James Comerford, died there in 1902 at 85. A year later, in 1903, Stephen’s young wife, Anne (Cullen) died in the same house at the age of 32.

The hospital in Portrane, where Stephen Comerford worked on George Ashlin’s new chapel and hospital in the early 1900s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As a widower with three small children under the age of three, Stephen commuted between Ranelagh in suburban south Dublin and Portrane, in rural north-east county Dublin, where he stayed with the Lynders family while working on the interior design and decoration of George Ashlin’s new hospital and chapel in Portrane and the new church being built in Donabate in the opening years of the 20th century.

While staying with the Lynders family at the Quay House in Portrane, Stephen fell in love again. He married my grandmother, Bridget Lynders, in Saint Patrick’s, the newly-built parish church in Donabate in 1905, and they had more children.

Stephen and Bridget (Lynders) Comerford on their wedding day in Donabate in 1905 (Comerford family collection)

A stucco plasterer, he worked on many of George Ashlin’s Dublin churches and on Ashlin’s hospital in Portrane. He was a member of the Society of Stucco Plasterers of Dublin and a founding member and member of the council of the Regular Stucco Plasterers’ Trade Union of the City of Dublin in 1893. He was the Dublin branch secretary of the union in 1899, when the union organised a Parnell commemoration demonstration, and in 1902, when he took part in an Irish-language demonstration. In 1903, the union changed its name to the Operative Plasterers’ Trade Society of Dublin.

The census returns for both 1901 and 1911 show that Stephen could read, write and speak Irish and English.

Stephen lived at 2 Mountpleasant Villas, Ranelagh (1899), 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue (1900-1905), 2 Mountpleasant Villas (1905-post 1907), 102 South Lotts Road, Ringsend (ca 1909), 2 Old Mountpleasant (ca 1909-ca 1913, this house is now incorporated in ‘The Hill,’ Ranelagh), and 7 Swanville Place, Rathmines, Dublin, from 1913 until his death in 1921.

Meanwhile World War I broke out in 1914. Within a year, Stephen Comerford joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers – “the Toffs and the Toughs”– on 14 July 1915. And within days, as a private in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, he was sent to the Greek island of Lemnos and on to Gallipoli and Suvla Bay. He was among the few survivors evacuated to Thessaloniki. In the severe Greek winter, many of them suffered frostbite, dysentery and other sicknesses.

The Liberation of Thessaloniki in October 1912 … Stephen Comerford was stationed here before being discharged on medical grounds in 1916

In the summer’s heat of 1916, more came down with malaria and were evacuated from Thessaloniki. Stephen was discharged 100 years ago on this day, 3 May 1916, three days after the Easter Rising ended, and was sent back to Dublin.

On the same day he was discharged, the first three leaders of the Easter Rising were executed in Kilmainham Jail, Dublin: Thomas Clarke, Patrick Pearse, Thomas McDonagh and Edward Daly.

In the days that followed immediately after, 12 more key leaders of the 1916 Rising were executed: Joseph Mary Plunkett, Michael O’Hanrahan and Willie Pearse (4 May), John MacBride (5 May), Eamonn Ceannt, Con Colbert, Sean Heuston and Michael Mallin (8 May), Thomas Kent (9 May), Sean MacDiarmada and James Connolly (12 May).

The medals Stephen Comerford was decorated with during World War I

Stephen Comerford returned to a Dublin that would become deeply polarised in the weeks and months that followed. He too had been deeply traumatised by his war-time experiences, and received the usual medals soldiers were decorated with at the end of World War I.

His records give his regimental number as 9062, and the theatre of war is which he first served as (2B) Balkans. His medals were:

● Victory, Roll B/101 B2, p. 131;

● British, Roll B/101 B2, p. 131;

● 1914-1915 Star, Roll B/10B, p. B81.

No 7 Swanville Place, Rathmines … Stephen Edward Comerford (1918-2004) was born here in 1918 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Malaria was life-threatening but life-saving – for a few months at least. The war ended on 11 November 1918 and a month later, on 14 December 1918, his youngest child – my father Stephen Edward Comerford – was born in Rathmines. But his health continued to deteriorate, no more children were born, and he died alone in hospital at the age of 53 on 21 January 1921.

Stephen and Bridget (Lynders) Comerford are buried in Saint Catherine’s Churchyard, Portrane; behind is the grave of her parents, Patrick and Margaret (McMahon) Lynders (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

My grandfather was buried in Saint Catherine’s Churchyard, the old Church of Ireland churchyard in Portrane, close to other members of the Lynders family. His gravestone incorrectly gives his age at death as 49.

My widowed grandmother, Bridget (Lynders) Comerford, continued to live in Rathmines until about 1935. She then moved to 5 Ashdale Park, Terenure, and in the 1940s worked as private secretary to William Norton (1900-1963), leader of the Irish Labour Party (1932-1960) and secretary of the Post Office Workers’ Union (1924-1948). She died at her home in Terenure on 25 March 1948, seven weeks after Norton became Tanaiste in the first Inter-Party Government. She was buried with her husband in Saint Catherine’s Churchyard, Portrane.

My father was the only one of Stephen Comerford’s seven children to have children himself. So malaria saved my grandfather’s life, however briefly, and ensured that he had grandchildren. His only reward was those three war medals – but even these were lost in the various family moves between Rathmines, Terenure and Rathfarnham. His lonely hospital death was filled with sadness, typifying how those soldiers were forgotten by those who sent them to war and their stories not handed on in their families.

I might never been born had my grandfather not been there, contracted malaria and been sent home from Thessaloniki on this day 100 years ago, 3 May 1916.

[For Stephen Comerford’s wartime story see: Wearing a poppy so my grandfather’s story might not be lost]

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