Saturday, 23 February 2019
My grandmother’s neighbour
was Padraic Pearse’s sister
I have been writing in recent days about my childhood move to a house on Rathfarnham Road, between Terenure village and Rathfarnham village, in 1960, and the interesting variety of neighbours I grew up among.
That house on Rathfarnham Road was just a 1 km (12 minute) walk to what had been my grandmother’s house in Ashdale Park, close to the junction of Terenure Road North, Brighton Square (which, to be honest, is a triangle) and Harold’s Cross Road.
After my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford, died in 1921, 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).
Although my grandmother’s family, like their neighbours, always considered Ashdale Park a part of Terenure, it was still listed as part of Rathmines District for many years. It was an area with interesting literary associations: James Joyce was born at No 41 Brighton Square in 1882, and William Butler Yeats lived part of his childhood, from 1883, at 10 Ashfield Terrace, now 418 Harold’s Cross Road.
But Yeats seems to have been ashamed of his family’s home between Terenure and Harold’s Cross, describing it in 1914 as ‘a villa where the red bricks were made pretentious and vulgar with streaks of grey slate.’ Perhaps this explains why he fostered the myth that he was from Sligo and not from Dublin – or from London.
In my nostalgic musings earlier this week, I was celebrating many Jewish neighbours we shared on Rathfarnham Road. In Ashdale Park, where my grandmother lived at No 5, the family’s neighbours in this small quiet cul-de-sac included many Jewish families, including the Marcus (No 2), Woolfson (No 8), Stein (No 9) and Riffkin (No 11) families.
Next door to the Comerfords at No 5, No 6 was known as ‘Derrybeg’ and was the home of Sydney Augustine Verschoyle (1883-1974) and his family: his wife Julia (1880-1967), and his daughter, Clare Verschoyle (1910-2004). Clare’s mother Rose, who was Sydney’s first wife, had died a year after Clare was born.
Sydney Verschoyle was born in Clontarf and had worked as a telephone electrician. He died on 4 November 1974, Julia had died on 20 August 1967, Clare Verschoyle died on 23 September 2004 at the age of 93, and they are buried in Goldenbridge Cemetery.
The Verschoyle family was descended from Dutch Huguenot brothers who had moved to Dublin on 16th or 17th century. Family members included a large number of Church of Ireland clergy, including a Bishop of Killala and a Bishop of Kilmore.
Bishop Hamilton Verschoyle of Kilmore was the grandfather of the novelist and playwright Moira Verschoyle (1903-1985), from Castletroy, Limerick, and Brian Goold-Verschoyle (1912-1942), a member of the Communist Party of Ireland who fought in the Spanish Civil War and who was one of the three Irish people killed during the Great Purge ordered by Stalin. Another family member, Captain James Lorenzo Verschoyle (1832-1875), married Caroline di Serrevalle, Countess d’Assereto, an Italian heiress.
The family was also related to Countess Markievicz of the Irish Citizen Army. Dermot Bolger has told the stories of Countess Markievicz and the Goold-Verschoyle family in his book The Family of Paradise Pier.
All these connections may have been distant for the Verschoyle family next door at No 6. But there was a closer link to the events of 1916 in this small, quiet cul-de-sac in leafy, suburban Terenure: No 20 Ashdale Park was the home for many years of Mary Brigid Pearse, one of the two surviving sisters of Patrick Pearse, a leader of the Easter Rising in 1916.
The relationship between Mary Brigid Pearse and her sister Margaret had been fractious since their childhood, and their brother Patrick often acted as peacemaker between the two sisters.
When Margaret Pearse, the mother of Patrick and Willie Pearse, died on 22 April 1932, she was survived by her daughters Margaret Pearse (1878-1968), a teacher and language activist, and Mary Brigid Pearse (1884-1947), a musician and writer.
In her will, the elder Margaret Pearse appointed her daughter Margaret as her sole executrix. Mrs Pearse’s estate was valued at £1,586. Saint Enda’s School in Rathfarnham was left to Margaret for the duration of her life and, on her death, it was to be a gift to the State.
Cullenswood House, Ranelagh, the original location of Saint Enda’s School, was left jointly to Margaret and Mary Brigid and, after their deaths, it was to be sold to pay for Masses for their mother and other members of the Pearse family.
The Pearse family also owned 20 Ashfield Park, Terenure, where Mary Brigid was living. This house was left to Mary Brigid, while the family shares in the Irish Press went to Margaret.
Mary Bridget Pierce was born in Dublin on 26 April 1884 and later changed the spelling of her name to Mary Brigid Pearse. From 1910, she was a harp teacher at Saint Enda’s School, Rathfarnham, and also gave piano and voice lessons. At the same time, she wrote some one-act plays and adapted works by Charles Dickens for performances by the Leinster Stage Society at the Abbey Theatre.
Unlike the rest of her family, Mary Brigid Pearse did not support her brothers’ involvement in the 1916 Rising. She is said to have gone to the GPO on Easter Monday to plead with Patrick Pearse to return home.
After the execution of her brothers Patrick and Willie in 1916, Mary Brigid chose to remain out of public and political life, and she devoted her time to teaching music and writing at her home in Dublin. In the 1920s and early 1930s, she spent much of her time writing short stories, plays, children’s stories and magazine articles.
Mary Brigid Pearse was unhappy with the terms of her mother’s will and Margaret’s appointment as executrix and sought legal advice first from Meldon Solicitors of 9 Bachelor’s Walk, Dublin, and then from another solicitor and friend, Bernard Bernstein. On 19 April 1934 Bernstein informed Margaret, through her solicitor, that Mary Brigid wanted all legal and financial matters to be resolved immediately so that she could be disassociated from her.
Mary Brigid became increasingly frustrated with Margaret and believed that her sister was misappropriating her inheritance. She demanded the deeds to 20 Ashfield Park, the house she had inherited, and tried to force Margaret to buy out her half-share in Cullenswood House.
Relations between the two sisters deteriorated further with the publication of Mary Brigid’s book, The home life of Pádraig Pearse, in late 1934. Because the book drew on Patrick Pearse’s unfinished autobiography, Margaret and Mary Brigid contested the royalties from the book.
Eventually, the publisher Browne and Nolan withdrew the book and Mary Brigid bought up all remaining unsold copies.
The sisters also argued over the payment of royalties from their brother’s other literary works. Mary Brigid’s erratic behaviour and her unwillingness to accept the advice of her legal counsel embarrassed and irritated Bernard Bernstein, who asked her to stop ‘harrying’ him. She discharged her senior and junior counsels in May 1936, and shortly after she settled her bill of about £140 with Bernstein. She had no further contact with him or with her sister.
The sad story of these two sisters is told by Teresa and Mary Louise O’Donnell in their recent book of Sisters of the revolutionaries: the story of Margaret and Mary Brigid Pearse (Dublin: Merrion Press, 2017).
Mary Brigid continued to write and teach harp, piano, cello and mandolin throughout the 1930s and 1940s and took part in several broadcasts about her brother Patrick. She suffered from high blood pressure and neurosis and died, aged 63, on 12 November 1947. Margaret Pearse, who was appointed a senator by Eamon de Valera in 1937, died in 1968 and bequeathed St Enda’s to the people of Ireland.
My widowed grandmother died at her home in Ashdale Park, Terenure, on 25 March 1948, four months after Mary Brigid Pearse died and seven weeks after William Norton became Tanaiste in the first Inter-Party Government. She was buried with my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford, in Saint Catherine’s Churchyard, Portrane. Her sons Robert and Patrick Comerford, her daughter Margaret and her step-daughter May continued to live at No 5 Ashdale Park, which remained in the Comerford family until 1995.