31 July 2019

Comerford baptism records
lead to a hymn describing
Dublin’s Victorian slums

The record of the baptism of Mary Anne Comerford of Ranelagh in Saint Peter’s Church, Aungier Street, Dublin, in 1853

Patrick Comerford

When James Comerford (1851-1894) was baptised on 29 August 1851 in Saint Peter’s Church (Church of Ireland), Dublin, by the curate, the Revd John James McSorley, and his sister Mary Anne was baptised there on 28 September 1853. Their uncle, Thomas George Comerford (1820-1908), and Mary Whiston were married in the same church in Aungier Street the previous decade, on 9 November 1846.

James and Mary were baptised by the Revd John James MacSorley in Saint Peter’s Church on 28 October 1853. Almost a quarter of a century later, MacSorley also baptised Charles William Comerford in Saint Peter’s on 28 February 1878.

Charles Comerford was later a telegraphist at the GPO at the time of the Easter Rising in 1916, His baptismal entry was difficult to find because MacSorley’s entry in the baptismal register only gives his mother’s maiden name, misspelled as Jordon, and omits his father’s surname.

His future wife, Adelaide Field, was also baptised in Saint Peter’s on 23 April 1878, as was his younger brother, Joseph Henry Comerford, on 7 August 1879; both were baptised by the curate, the Revd Robert William Buckley. Buckley was also the organising secretary (1868-1884) of SPG Ireland (Society for the Propagation of the Gospel), now the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

As I prepared a blog posting for Tuesday evening [30 July 2019] on the some of these branches of the Comerford family, and trying to understand and disentangle their various connections, I realised that it was almost as if Saint Peter’s had become an integral part of their story in Victorian Dublin.

The baptismal entry for Charles William Comerford

But I too became involved in the story of Saint Peter’s some years ago when I became involved in telling the story of the marriage of two ancestors of Dervla Kirwin, one Jewish the other Roman Catholic, in Saint Peter’s Church, Aungier Street, explaining the circumstances on a much repeated edition of Who Do You Think You Are?.

Her Jewish great-grandfather, Henry Kahn, and her Roman Catholic great-grandmother, Teresa O’Shea, were married in Saint Peter’s Church, Aungier Street, in 1880. They both gave their address as 70 Aungier Street. The parish registers show the wedding service was conducted by the curate of Saint Peter’s, Canon Morgan Woodward Jellett, who became the Rector of Saint Peter’s three years later.

Canon Morgan Jellett (1832-1896), the Revd John James MacSorley (1809-1884) and the Revd Robert William Buckley were part of that High Church tradition in Anglicanism that gave us the slum priests, with an enlightened social awareness and engagement.

The church closed in the 1970s, and was later demolished. But that ‘slum priest’ and High Church legacy lives on in the much-loved hymn, ‘We thank Thee, O our Father,’ written by MacSorley’s daughter, Catherine Mary MacSorley (1848-1929), a hymnwriter and the author of religious books for children.

The Revd John James MacSorley (1809-1884) was born in Derry and educated at Foyle College and Trinity College Dublin (BA 1844, MA 1847). He was ordained deacon in 1845 and priest in 1847, and he spent all his time in ministry in the same parishes, as curate of Saint Peter’s and Saint Kevin’s (1845-1881) and curate-in-charge of Saint Kevin’s (1876-1881).

He married Catherine Abbot, and they lived for many years at 94 Ranelagh Road, Dublin, where their two daughters were born: Catherine Mary on 5 October 1848, and Mary Gertrude, born on 25 September 1851.

Both sisters were baptised in Saint Peter’s by their father: Catherine Mary on 14 December 1848, and Mary Gertrude MacSorley on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1851.

The family later moved to Harcourt Terrace. Their father died in 1884 and after the death of their mother in 1910, Catherine Mary and Mary Gertrude continued to live in Harcourt Terrace.

Catherine MacSorley’s books for children include The Island of Saints: a a short sketch of the history of the Church of Ireland (1907), which ran to many editions and was used in religious education classes for Church of Ireland children until the mid-20th century.

Her other books include a history of Saint Peter’s Parish, published in 1917. Many of her books were published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK).

Her sister Mary Gertrude died 1 May 1924; Catherine Mary MacSorley died at the age of 80 at 6 Harcourt Terrace, Dublin, on 26 January in 1929; they are buried together in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold’s Cross.

Catherine’s father had died by the time she wrote the hymn, ‘We thank you, God our Father’ in 1890 for the children of Saint Peter’s School in nearby Camden Row. It was published for the first time in 1891, when it was included by the Church of Ireland in an appendix to the 1873 edition of the Church Hymnal. However, the editors of many hymnals say the author of this hymn is anonymous or unknown.

The third verse is said to have been inspired by the tall, dark tenement buildings in the Aungier Street and Camden Street area of Dublin:

And in the dusty city,
where busy crowds pass by;
and where the tall dark houses
stand up and hide the sky,
and where through lanes and alleys
no pleasant breezes blow,
dear God our Father, even there,
you make the flowers grow.

These ‘tall dark houses’ that ‘hide the sky’ and the ‘lanes and alleys’ where ‘no pleasant breezes blow’ were, undoubtedly familiar to the generations of the Comerford family who were baptised in Saint Peter’s Church, and to Dervla Kirwin’s great-grandparents, Harry Kahn and Teresa O’Shea, when they gave their address as 70 Aungier Street.

With Dervla Kirwan opposite the site of Saint Peter’s Church, Aungier Street, Dublin, filming for ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’

The hymn continues to be sung in the Church of Ireland, and is No 36 in the current edition of the Church Hymnal:

We thank you, God our Father,
for all your loving care;
we thank you that you made the world
so very bright and fair.
We thank you for the sunshine,
and for the pleasant showers;
and we thank you, God our Father,
we thank you for the flowers.

Out in the sunny meadows,
and in the woodlands cool,
and under every hedgerow,
and by each reedy pool,
and on the lonely moorland,
and by the broad highway—
with colours bright, so pure and fresh,
they spring up every day.

And in the dusty city,
where busy crowds pass by;
and where the tall dark houses
stand up and hide the sky,
and where through lanes and alleys
no pleasant breezes blow,
dear God our Father, even there,
you make the flowers grow.

And whether in the city
or in the fields they dwell,
always the same sweet message
the sweet young flowers tell.
For they are all so wonderful,
they show your power abroad;
and they are all so beautiful,
they tell your love, O God.

Saint Peter’s Church, Aungier Street, Dublin ... it was demolished in 1983


Unknown said...

Hello Patrick,
I am the great great niece of Canon Morgan Jellett of St. Peters. He is a personal inspiration to me, leading me to seek ordination in the episcopal church. Thank you for posting this- I know now he stood and worked for social justice... a slum priest in the High Church. Gorgeous.

Unknown said...

Patrick, Assuming you received the previous comment, I would very much like to share some things about St. Peters that I have in our family records about The Rev. Morgan Woodward Jellett. Photographs and writings. A hymnal as well.
Kindest regards,