03 May 2016
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]
It was only a 10- or 15-minute drive yesterday afternoon [2 May 2016] from Beaumaris to Bangor on the opposite side of the Menai Strait, where I visited Saint Deiniol’s Cathedral, which has been a place of worship since the sixth century.
The Diocese of Bangor includes the island of Anglesey, as well as most of Caernarfonshire and Merionethshire, and a small part of Montgomeryshire. Originally, this was the diocese in the Welsh Kingdom of Gwynedd, and tradition says it was founded around 546 by Saint Deiniol.
The site of the cathedral was originally the home of Saint Deiniol’s monastery, built around 525 on land given to him by the King of Gwynedd, Maelgwn Gwynedd. Saint Deiniol is said to have been consecrated a bishop by Saint David, making him the first Bishop of Bangor. However, the monastery was sacked in 634 and again in 1073, so that nothing remains of the original building.
In 1102, the Synod of Westminster took measures to restore Bangor Cathedral, but the earliest part of the present building was built when Bishop David was bishop (1120-1139). He received financial support from the King of Gwynedd, Gruffudd ap Cynan, who was buried by the high altar when he died in 1137. This 12th century cathedral was cruciform in shape in the Norman style, and about 130 ft in length. King Gruffudd’s son, Owain Gwynedd, was also buried here, as was his brother, Cadwaladr.
Giraldus Cambrensis describes the liturgy here in 1188 when the Archbishop of Canterbury celebrated Mass. But the cathedral was destroyed again in 1211, this time by the army of King John of England during a raid into Gwynedd. Later in the 13th century, the original apse was removed and the choir was extended to its present length.
When King Edward I of England invaded Gwynedd in 1282, The church was badly damaged. Two years later, in 1284, the Dean and Chapter of Bangor were given £60 as compensation for the damage. During this period, extensive rebuilding was carried out under the first Bishop Anian, and the transepts and crossing were rebuilt, while the nave was rebuilt in the late 14th century.
The cathedral was said to have been burnt to the ground in 1402 during the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr, but there is no contemporary evidence for this.
Extensive rebuilding was carried out from the end of the 15th century. The present arcade and clerestory were built from 1510 on and were completed in 1532. A Latin inscription over the tower doorway records that Bishop Thomas Skevington built the tower in 1532, although it was not complete when Skevington died in 1533.
Rowland Meyrick, the second son of Meyric ap Llewelyn, was the first Bishop of Bangor following the Reformation (1559-1566). He was buried in the cathedral, but his monument has long disappeared.
Some restoration work was carried out on the cathedral in the 18th century, £2,000 was spent on repairs in 1824, and the interior was altered and refitted in 1825 at a cost of a further £3,252.
The building as we see it today is the result of extensive work carried out by George Gilbert Scott, beginning in 1868. Scott’s design originally called for a high central tower and spire. However, this was never completed after cracks appeared, raising fears about the subsidence of the foundations, and the tower was left as a low structure.
In 1879, £11,000 was spent on the restoration of the nave, chapter house and central tower.
In 1966-1967, the stump of Scott’s central tower was finished off with battlements, a pyramidical cap and a tall weather cock. Major restoration of the outside stonework and roofs began in 1987 and continues.
Bangor Cathedral can boast of a rich and varied library. Its greatest treasure is Bishop Anian’s Pontifical, which dates from the early 14th century. It is written on vellum with illustrations inlaid with gold leaf and bordered in blue, green and black.
A pontifical is a book containing the texts of liturgical ceremonies performed by the bishop, such as ordinations, benedictions, confirmations and the consecration of churches. The Pontifical of Anian included all these and almost all that was necessary for a bishop’s public duties, as well as the appropriate music.
The Bangor Pontifical survived the ravages of war, and although it was lost after Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion in 1402, it was returned to Bangor Cathedral by Bishop Ednam in 1485. After the injunctions in the reign of King Edward VI ordering the destruction of Roman service books, the Pontifical may have found a safe and private hiding place thanks to Bishop Rowland Meyrick (1559–1566), until it was presented to the cathedral by Bishop Humphrey Humphreys in 1701. Bishop Humphreys was a patron of Welsh literature, genealogical research and of the then newly formed Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK).
During World War II, the Bangor Pontifical was moved for safe-keeping with other treasures to the tunnels beneath the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. It was finally returned in 1946, and is now kept in the Library of the University of Wales Bangor.
One of the major pieces of work in the cathedral is the “Mostyn Christ,” a figure of the Pensive Christ carved in oak and thought to date from ca 1450. It depicts Christ before his crucifixion, chained seated on a rock and wearing the crown of thorns. The Mostyn Christ reflects the meaning of the Passion through the intense depiction of human suffering and the symbolic inclusion of a skull at the feet of Christ.
The Mostyn Christ is on loan to the cathedral from the Mostyn Estates. The Mostyn Estates is a private limited company that manages the interests of the Mostyn family across North Wales and elsewhere, including commercial, residential and agricultural holdings in Llandudno and agricultural estates in Rhewl and Tremostyn, Flintshire.
This wooden carving is one of the most iconic religious representations surviving from 15th century Wales and its story is shrouded in mystery. Its origins have been subject to intense debate, with suggestions including Maenan Abbey, Gwydir Chapel, Rhuddlan Friary and the chapel in the home of the Catholic Pue family in Penrhyn. It is possible that the item was rescued by the Mostyn family sometime during the Reformation. By the early 19th century, it was owned by the Mostyn family who lived Gloddaith Hall, where the early chapel was decorated throughout with Catholic iconography. The branch of the Mostyn family that lived at Talacre and Basingwerk was renowned for its allegiance to the ‘Old Faith’.
The Bishop of Bangor, the Right Revd Andrew John, was consecrated in 2008 and enthroned in 2009.
In all, there have been 57 Deans of Bangor Cathedral, and since the beginning of this year [January 2016], the Very Revd Kathy Louise Jones has been Dean of Bangor. Previously, she was the Lead Chaplain of the Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust in the Diocese of Newcastle in the Church of England. She studied theology at Cardiff University, Queen’s College, Birmingham, and the University of Wales, Bangor. She was ordained deacon in Bangir Cathedrals in 1992, and priest in 1997.
Her predecessor, the Very Revd Sue Jones, who is now Director of Mission and Ministry in the Diocese of Derby, was the first woman to be appointed a dean in the Church in Wales.
The Bible Garden in the grounds of the cathedral is said to be planted with an example of every plant mentioned in the Bible, although it looked a little shabby yesterday afternoon and I decided not to start counting.