14 September 2017

Reconnecting with houses
that tell the family stories
through the generations

No 11 Beechwood Avenue (right), where James Comerford and Stephen Edward Comerford lived at the beginning of the 20th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

While I was in Dublin earlier this week and walking along Upper Beechwood Avenue, I stopped briefly at No 11, the house where my grandfather had lived at the beginning of the 20th century, and where my great-grandfather, James Comerford, died on 14 December 1902.

A few days earlier, I had been hanging some photographs and images of family homes in two sets of frames in the Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick.

The photographs personalise this room in the Rectory, adding colour and some of my own story to the house.

Each frame holds eight prints that tell the family story over the centuries.

A collection of photographs tracing the story of the Comerford family from Quemerford in Wiltshire, through Co Kilkenny and Co Wexford, to Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Collection 1:

1, Top right, Quemerford House: although the Comerford family never lived at Quemerford House, this house is main home in the village from which the Comerford family derives its name. Quemerford is a small village on the east edges of Calne in north Wiltshire.

Philip de Quemerford, sometimes recorded as Philip of Cummerford, a lawyer from Calne, was living permanently in Co Kilkenny from the beginning of the 14th century, and was attorney to John de Earleye in 1302. The last mention of the Quemerford family in the Calne area of Wiltshire is on 17 March 1344.

2, Top middle, Ballybur Castle, Co Kilkenny: Richard de Quemerford (fl 1434-1457) held his lands from James Butler, 5th Earl of Ormond and 1st Earl of Wiltshire, in 1434, and was working for the Butlers in Waterford Carlow. He appears to have been the ancestor of the Ballybur branch of the family, and many other branches of the family. Ballybur Castle was built in that century, and Richard ‘Roe’ Comerford, who inherited Ballybur Castle ca 1532.

3, Middle right, Danganmore Castle, Co Kilkenny: Richard ‘Boy’ Comerford (died 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. Later, in France in the 18th century, Joseph Comerford claimed the head of the family held the ‘Palatine’ title of Baron of Danganmore.

4, Middle centre, Coolgreany House, Co Kilkenny: John Comerford lost Ballybur during the Cromwellian confiscations in the mid-17th century. His grandson, Richard Comerford, is said to be the first member of the family to live at Coolgreany – a farm that still remains in the Comerford family.

5, The Butterslip, Kilkenny: This Richard Comerford’s eldest son, William Comerford (ca 1692-post 1765), later moved into the Butterslip Kilkenny City after his son James Comerford married Anne Langton of the Butterslip in 1754.

6, Bottom right, The Mall House, Bunclody, Co Wexford: 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. 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. The Comerford house later passed by marriage to the Lawler family, and at the beginning of the 20th century it was known as the Mall House. Today it is the Post Office.

7, Bottom left, No 11 Beechwood Avenue: my great-grandfather, James Comerford (1817-1902), moved from Newtownbarry (Bunclody) in the 1850s. He lived in different houses in the Clanbrassil Street area of Dublin, and was living in this house at the time of the 1901 census, when he described himself as a ‘civil servant, retired.’ He died in this house, where my grandfather was living, on 14 December 1902.

8, Bottom centre, No 2 Old Mountpleasant, Ranelagh: My grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford (1867-1921) was born 150 years ago at 7 Redmond’s Hill on 28 December 1867. He lived at a number of houses in the Ranelagh and Rathmines area, including No 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue (1900-1905), and No 2 Old Mountpleasant (ca 1909-ca 1913), a house now incorporated in ‘The Hill,’ Ranelagh. Later, he lived at No 7 Swanville Place, Rathmines, from 1913 until his death in 1921.

A collection of images tracing the Comberford family’s links in the Lichfield and Tamworth areas, and the link with the Comerford family of Ballybur (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Collection 2:

1, Top, three images: the Lichfield District Council sign at the entrance to Comberford; the plaque erected in the Comberford Chapel at the north transept in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth by the Comerfords of Ireland, commemorating the links between the two families; and a hassock in Lichfield Cathedral that is a reminder of the recently-closed Saint Mary’s and Saint George’s Church in Comberford, with symbols of Saint Mary and Saint George, a cross and rose, which also appear on the Comberford family coat-of-arms.

2, Top right, Comberford Hall: the 15th-century, half-timbered Comberford Hall, built in 1439 by William Comberford, MP, was still standing in the late 18th century, but by 1798 it had been ‘entirely demolished’ and a new house had been built on the site by Lord Donegall, although the present house may date back earlier to about 1720.

3, Top left, Chesterfield Farm, south of Lichfield: the Comberford family held the Manor of Chesterfield from the early to the late 12th century.

4, Middle left, Comberford Manor Farm: this is a possible location for the original Comberford Hall, at the north edge of Comberford Village and close to the site of the ford across the River Tame, and the centre of the manor once owned by the Comberford family.

5, Middle right, The Moat House, Lichfield Street, Tamworth: this Tudor-era manor house was the Comberford town house in Tamworth. When the English Civil War was finally over, the Comberfords were forced to sell the house, which was bought by Thomas Fox (1622-1666), a Roundhead captain, for £160.

6, Middle Centre, artist’s image of Wednesbury Manor: This image by D. Clarke is based on an old photograph taken in the 1890s before Wednesbury Manor was demolished. Wednesbury Manor was inherited by the Comberford family by marriage from the Beaumont family.

7, Bottom left, Bradley Hall, Staffordshire: many 18th century family trees identify Richard Comerford of Ballybur with Richard Comberford, ancestor of the Comberfords of Bradley, near Penkridge. Richard was the Senior Bursar of Saint John’s College, Cambridge (1542-1544), a senior barrister, a serjeant-at-law and the King’s Remembrancer from about 1547. in 1530, his wife Dame Isabella Comberford was admitted to membership of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John the Baptist, which acted as the city government in Lichfield.

8, Bottom right, The Cathedral Close Lichfield: as well as the Moat House, the Comberford family may also have had a town house in Lichfield. Four successive generations of the family being admitted to the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John, which was the effective city government of mediaeval Lichfield, and in 1530 Humphrey Comberford was Master of the Guild, a position equivalent to that of Mayor. His brother Henry Comberford was Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral. Both Colonel William Comberford and his nephew, William Comberford, fought at the sieges of Lichfield during the English civil war, defending the Cathedral Close for the Royalists. I have stayed in one of these houses in the Cathedral Close on many occasions.

The day Padraic Pearse
left a 1916 leader
waiting at the altar

Inside the Church of the Holy Name on Beechwood Avenue … it replaced the temporary wooden church where Thomas MacDonagh and Muriel Gifford were married in 1912 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to the Church of the Holy Name on Beechwood Avenue in Ranelagh earlier this week, I came across the story of the wedding that Padraic Pearse was supposed to attend as the best man of another 1916 leader – but that he forgot about on the day.

Thomas MacDonagh (1878-1916) was one of the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation and the commandant of the battalion that fought in Jacob’s biscuit factory.

He was born Joseph McDonagh on 1 February 1878 in Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary, a son of Joseph McDonagh and his wife Mary (Parker), both teachers. He went to school in Rockwell College, near Cashel, and began studying for ordination as a missionary priest. He left, however, and taught first in Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny, and Saint Colman’s College, Fermoy, Co Cork.

He then moved to Dublin, where he joined Padraic Pearse’s staff at Saint Enda’s School in 1908 as a teacher of French and English and assistant headmaster. In 1910, he received a BA at University College, Dublin (UCD), and a year later received his MA for his thesis, ‘Thomas Campion and the Art of Poetry.’

Thomas MacDonagh and Muriel Gifford (1884-1917) of 8 Temple Villas, Palmerston Road, became engaged in autumn 1911. Thomas had earlier experienced a romantic rejection from Mary Maguire, who later married his friend, Padraic Colum. Muriel was a member of the Church of Ireland, and her engagement to a Roman Catholic caused problems with her family, especially with her mother.

Muriel Enid Gifford was born on 18 December 1884 at 12 Cowper Road, Rathmines, was educated at Alexandra College, and trained as a student nurse in Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital until her health broke down.

Initially, the couple planned to marry in the Catholic University Church on Saint Stephen’s Church. But eventually they were married on 3 January 1912 in the temporary wooden chapel on Upper Beechwood Avenue that was about to be replaced by the Church of the Holy Name, then nearing completion.

Because Muriel was a member of the Church of Ireland, the ceremony was deliberately low-key. Although there would be no best-man on the day, Padraic Pearse was supposed to be a witness. But Pearse never turned up on the day, and a family tradition says a man cutting a hedge at a house on Beechwood Avenue was called on to stand in. However, the parish register shows the witnesses were two of Muriel’s sisters, Claude Gifford and Sydney Gifford.

Thomas was living at 72 Harcourt Street and Muriel was living with her parents at Temple Villas. He gave his occupation as ‘Professor.’ Before his marriage, he left Saint Enda’s and was appointed Lecturer in English at UCD.

The couple set up home in a flat above Hayes, Conyngham & Robinson, the chemist shop, at 32 Upper Baggot Stree. Their son Donagh was born in the Gifford family home at Temple Villas in November 1912.

When Donagh was baptised in the Church of the Three Patrons on Rathgar Road, Padraic Pearse walked into the church. It was a coincidence. Pearse did not know what was going on; he was cycling from Rathfarnham into the city centre, and had stopped at the church to pray. A delighted father walked up to Pearse, the best-man who never was, and said: ‘Well, you got here in time for the christening anyway.’

Their daughter Barbara was born on 24 March 1915. By then, Tom and Muriel family had moved to 29 Oakley Road, Ranelagh.

Around this time, Tom Clarke asked MacDonagh to plan the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. The graveside oration by Pearse made it a propaganda coup. When MacDonagh applied for the chair in History, English Literature and Mental Science (Philosophy) at University College Galway, his referees included Douglas Hyde, WB Yeats, George Noble, Count Plunkett and Pádraig Pearse.

Although MacDonagh is listed among the seven leaders in the Easter Rising in 1916, he was a late addition to that inner circle and did not join the secret military council that planned the rising until April 1916, just weeks before the rising. He was court martialled and was executed by firing squad on 3 May 1916. Muriel’s sister, Grace Gifford, married Count Joseph Mary Plunkett hours before his execution.

No 50 Marlborough Road (to the left) where Muriel MacDonagh lived until she drowned 100 years ago, and No 52 Marlborough Road (right) where I stayed in the mid-1970s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Emotionally devastated and estranged from her parents who disapproval of her husband's involvement in the rising, Muriel lived briefly with the Plunketts at Larkfield, Kimmage, and with her husband’s family in Thurles, Co Tipperary, before moving with her children to 50 Marlborough Road, a Plunkett family property in Donnybrook. On 3 May 1917, a year to the day after Thomas was executed, she became a Roman Catholic.

Two months later, the widowed Muriel died of heart failure while swimming off the South Strand in Skerries, Co Dublin on 9 July 1917.

She had gone to Skerries with her daughter Barbara and her sister Grace Plunkett, while her son Don was in hospital. The holiday party also included James Connolly’s widow Lillie and their children Roddy, Fiona and Ina, Eamon Ceannt’s widow Aine and their son, Ronan, and Michael Mallin’s widow Agnes and their five children, Seamus, Sean, Una, Joseph and Maura. They stayed at Miramar, a large holiday home on Strand Street, later demolished and now the site of the Rockabill Restaurant at 41 Strand Street.

On the afternoon of 9 July, Muriel decided to try to swim to Shenick Island, off the South Strand, leaving Barbara with Grace. At low tide, this small hilly island with its Martello Tower is accessible by foot; but when the tide is full, treacherous currents swirl around it. But reaching the island was a personal and a political goal for Muriel. A family story says she wanted to place a tricolour on the island out of the reach of the local Royal Irish Constabulary who had removed one from the beach.

In full view of the holiday party, Muriel got into difficulty and soon was lost to sight. A rowing boat commandeered by Noel Lemass set out for Shenick Island but failed to find her. Muriel’s body was found on the rocks near Loughshinny the following morning. A coroner’s inquest found there was no water in her lungs, indicating she did not drown but had died of heart failure brought on by exhaustion.

Her funeral procession took place from Miramar in Skerries to her home at Marlborough Road. After Mass in the Pro-Cathedral, she was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

For the two MacDonagh children, their parents had died within 14 months of each other. At first, they were taken care of by Katherine (Kate Wilson), the oldest of the Gifford sisters, and her sister Grace. Two months after Muriel’s death, her father Frederick Gifford died too, leaving his wife Isabella to care for the family.

But Thomas MacDonagh’s sister, Sister Francesca, a nun, objected to her niece and nephew being brought up by their Protestant grandmother and aunts and succeeded in having them placed with Roman Catholic foster families. It was a sectarian action that divided a family and that Muriel and Thomas would have disapproved of.

For a few years, I stayed at No 52 Marlborough Road, the house next to Muriel’s last home, when I spent weekends in Dublin while I was living in Wexford, and I was married from that house in 1974. But until this week, I never knew the story of her marriage, or how Padraic Pearse almost left her waiting at the altar in the church across the street from the house where my grandfather and great-grandfather had once lived.

Shenick Island seen from the South Strand in Skerries at low tide (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)