08 March 2019
Unravelling the story of
JD Bernal’s Sephardic
Jewish family in Limerick
In a quiet corner in the churchyard of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, early yesterday [7 March 2019], I found the grave of John Bernal (1819-1898), a Limerick auctioneer, city councillor and grandfather of one of the leading scientists of the 20th century.
John Bernal had been a member of the city council for over a quarter a century as a councillor for the Dock Ward. He had auction rooms in George Street and later at 9 Thomas Street in Limerick, and when he died on 17 September 1898, he was living at Albert Lodge in Laurel Hill.
As his funeral moved from his home at Laurel Hill to Saint Mary’s Cathedral along George Street (now O’Connell Street), all the city businesses remained shut as a mark of respect. The Mayor, Michael Cusack, attended in full regalia, along with mace and sword bearers and all members of the City Council.
Canon James Fitzgerald Gregg (1820-1907), who officiated at the funeral, was later Dean of Limerick (1899-1905).
At least three generation of the Bernal family are buried with John Bernal in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, as well as his wife Catherine Maria Carroll, who had died over 17 years earlier in 1881. They had been married in Dublin in 1841, and they had a large family of 11 children – eight daughters and three sons.
His best-known grandson was Professor John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971), and the Bernal Institute at the University of Limerick is a tribute to one of Ireland’s most influential 20th century scientists.
JD Bernal’s reputation means the name of the Bernal family is forever identified with Limerick. In her biographical notice of Bernal, the Nobel chemist, Dorothy Hodgkin, provides considerable detail about the Bernal family, tracing the earliest records back to Spanish accounts of a family of Sephardic Jews. She begins with a Bernal who was an apothecary who travelled with Columbus on his third voyage to America in 1502. In 1654, Abraham Nunez Bernal was burned alive in Cordoba, and his brother is supposed to have fled first to Holland and then to England. A descendant of this family included Ralph Bernal (1783-1854), a prominent Whig politician, and his son, also Ralph Bernal MP, who married a wealthy Irish heiress, Catherine Isabella Osborne (1819-1880), daughter of Sir Arthur Osborne, and became Ralph Bernal-Osborne (1808-1882). A Liberal MP, he lived at Newton Anner, near Clonmel, Co Tipperary, and they were the grandparents of Osborne Beauclerk, 12th Duke of St Albans.
These connections may have given the Bernal name a note of political and aristocratic distinction in the areas around Tipperary and Limerick, and help to explain why JD Bernal and his family emphasised their descent from the Bernal family. But the original name of JD Bernal’s grandfather, John Bernal, was Jacob Genese.
Although the Genese family is virtually forgotten in Limerick today, they are one of the many interesting Sepahrdi families on these islands. The family first came to London from the Jewish Ghetto in Venice in 1749, and for long have been members of Bevis Marks Synagogue, which opened in 1701, making it the oldest working synagogue on these islands.
The Genese family in Venice were silk merchants, upholsterers and house furnishers, and were living in the Ghetto Nuovo from the mid-1600s.
A family tradition once proposed that the Genese family were Sephardic refugees who fled to Italy from the Inquisition in Portugal and took their name from Genoa. However, it is now generally accepted that the family had lived in the Italian peninsula for many centuries before they first appear in Venice in the 1640s. It is now thought the name is derived from the town of San Ginesio, about 60 km south-west of Ancona, where there was a Jewish community with a continuous presence for 2,000 years.
The family were members of the Scuola Italiana in Venice, rather than the Spagnola Synagogue indicates clearly that they were descended not from refugees from Spain or Portugal in the late 15th century or later but had Italkim (Italian-rite) origins.
Shemuel Ginesi (ca 1650-1703) and his wife, Benvenida (ca 1645-1707), lived in the Ghetto in Venice and were buried in the Jewish Cemetery in the Lido.
Their son, Emanuel or Mandolino Ginesi, was a community official in Venice in the first half of the 1700s. His son, David Genese was living in the Ghetto Novo in Venice in September 1739.
David Genese was the father of Isaco or Isaac Genese (Gienese, Ginesi or Guinese), who arrived in London from Italy about 1749, perhaps having first moved to Amsterdam, where there was a large Sephardi community, descended from Spanish, Portuguese and Italian families. His move to London coincides with a time when Italian Jewish families – including the D’Israelis, the Anconas and the Sanguinettis – were arriving in larger numbers and changing the make-up of the Bevis Marks Community. Until 1715, the members were almost wholly Spanish refugees or Amsterdam-Spanish migrants, and then from 1715 to 1739 overwhelmingly refugees from Portugal.
A year later, Isaac Genese and Sarah de Isaac Lopez were married in the Spanish and Portuguese or Bevis Marks Synagogue in London in 1750.
Isaac Genese and Sarah were the parents of six children:
1, a daughter who died in infancy in 1757.
2, Rachel Sarah who died unmarried in December 1817.
3, David Genese, who married his first cousin Benevenida de Abraham Mendoza, a sister of Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836), the celebrated Georgian boxer. David died in 1784, and has no known descendants.
4, Siporah, who married David de Moses Nabaro.
5, Samuel Genese (born 1767) who married Rebecca de Emmanuel Capua in 1790, and they were the parents of four children who died in childhood, two Rachels, Deborah and Isaac, and seven other children:
1a, Samson de Samuel Genese.
2a, Sarah, who married Joseph de Israel Benseraf.
3a, Emanuel Mordecai Genese, who married Sara de Joseph Tolano.
4a, Hanna, who married Isaac de Abraham Haim Garcia.
5a, Samson Genese, who married Abigail de Haim Daniel Dias.
6, Samson de Isaac Genese (born 1769), who married Esther de Abraham Bernal in 1791, a member of a well-known Sephardic family of Spanish descent.
The youngest son, Samson de Isaac Genese (b 1769), and his wife Esther de Abraham Bernal, were the parents of seven children:
1, Isaac Haim Genese (1793-1858), who married Esther Jacobs and later moved to Ireland.
2, Rachel, who died young.
3, Abraham de Samson Genese, who died unmarried in 1859.
4, Samson Genese (junior), who married Hannah Simons. They have many living descendants.
5, Samuel Genese (1805-1888), who married Rachel Levy (1821-1871). They have many living descendants.
7, David de Samson Genese (1807-1874), born 1807, and has many living descendants. His son, Joseph de David Genese (born 1851), had 11 children, the youngest born in 1886.
The eldest son, Isaac Haim Genese (1793-1858), married Esther Isaacs in London in 1817. They had five children, including:
1, Jacob de Isaac Haim Genese, later known as John Bernal (1819-1898).
2, Samuel Genese (1820- ). In 1846 he he took over running a snuff and tobacco shop at 34 Grafton Street, Dublin. He married and had at least three children, a son Samson Genese and two daughters, including a daughter Hannah. The two daughters were still running the sop in Grafton Street in 1885.
3, Abraham (Bobby) Genese, who died in Limerick in 1847.
Isaac Genese was widowed when he moved from London to Ireland with his five surviving children around 1840. Louis Hyman, in his The Jews of Ireland, suggests he lived for a short time in Waterford, and other sources say he lived in Dublin. He set up an auctioneer’s business and later ran a bookshop and tobacconists.
Sometime before 1848, Isaac Genese married his second wife in Dublin and they had at least two further children:
1, Robert Genese (born 1848).
2, Caroline Genese (1850-1901), who married … Murtagh, and has descendants.
Isaac Genese’s eldest son, Jacob de Isaac Haim Genese (1819-1898), was born on 29 April 1819. He changed his name to John Bernal, and with his brother Abraham (Bobby) Genese he moved to Limerick in the 1840s, when they set up a business as auctioneers in Thomas Street and lived in Sexton Street. When Bobby Genese died in 1847 he was first buried in a Christian cemetgery, but his body was exhumed brought to Dublin for burial in the Jewish Cemetery in Ballybough. Jacob or John Bernal had joined the Church of Ireland, and married Catherine Maria Carroll in Dublin in 1841. They lived at Albert Lodge on Laurel Hill Avenue, Limerick and he became a successful businessman and active politician in Victorian Limerick as John Bernal.
Maria Bernal, who seems to have raised their children as Roman Catholics, died in Limerick on 26 February 1881. Both Maria and John are buried in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, in a raised area beside the south porch. They were the parents of eleven children, three sons and eight daughters.
1, Catharine (born 1845).
2, Esther (1846-1857), died at the age of 11.
3, Dr Robert Arthur Bernal (1850-1876), of Albert Lodge, Laurel Hill Avenue, Limerick, and the Royal Navy. He married Catherine Elizabeth Donnelly (1856-1920) and died 5 October 1876. They were the parents of a daughter, Catherine Elizabeth Mary Frances (Assherson), who was born in Dublin on 14 March 1877. Catherine (Donnelly) later married: (1) Charles Patrick Magee and (2) Eustatius Louis Emile Brand. She died in Cape Town in 1920.
4, Mary Gertrude (1851-1925), married William Patrick Ryan (1851- ) and they had a large family.
5, Margaret Josephine (1856-1930) married Thomas John Riggs-Miller of Nenagh.
6, Grace (1861-1871), died at the age of 10.
7, John Theodore Bernal (1851- ).
8, Samuel George Bernal (1864-1919).
9, Aimee Rachel (1866-1937), born Albert Lodge, Limerick, 10 July 1866. She died 11 November 1937. She married Robert Ward and they had a large family.
10, Frances Esther, died on 17 March 1894, and buried at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.
11, Emily, married Albert Pfaff; she died on 28 July 1912.
Albert Lodge was later sold to the Walker family and then to the Faithful Companions of Jesus (FCJ nuns) or Laurel Hill Nuns and became known as Maryville.
Meanwhile, the third son and seventh child in this family, Samuel George Bernal (1864-1919), who was born in Limerick on 22 May 1864, moved from Limerick to Australia, running away to work on a sheep farm. He returned to live in Ireland when his father died in 1898 and at first stayed with his sister Margaret Riggs-Miller at Tullaheady, near Nenagh.
In 1898, he bought a farm in Brookwatson and built the family house. Two years later, on 9 January 1900, he married Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Miller (1869-1951), daughter of the Revd William Young Miller of Illinois, an Irish-born Presbyterian minister. She became a Roman Catholic before they married in 1900. Samuel Bernal died in Nenagh on 18 September 1919.
Samuel and Bessie Bernal were the parents of five children, three sons and two daughters:
1, John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971), born Nenagh 10 May 1910, died in London 15 September 1971.
2, Kevin O’Carroll Diaz Bernal (1903-1996), born Nenagh 22 January 1903, married Margaret Mary Sinnott (1913-1995) and died 17 January 1996.
3, Catherine Elizabeth Geraldine (1906- ), born Nenagh.
4, Fiona Laetitia Evangeline (1908-1908), died at the age of nine weeks.
5, Godfrey Francis Johnston Bernal (1910-2005), born Nenagh, married Ellen Marie Rose McCarthy, died January 2005.
The eldest son in this family, JD Bernal, was one of the leading scientists of the last century. Molecular physicist, social scientist, committed Communist and campaigner for world peace, he was centrally involved in planning the Normandy landings and pioneered the use of X-ray crystallography in molecular biology.
After visiting the Bernal family grave in Saint Mary’s Cathedral yesterday, I visited the Bernal Institute on the campus of the University of Limerick in the afternoon. So, it is worth saying more about JD Bernal tomorrow.