10 January 2020

Comerford family members
who were officers in
the Royal Irish Constabulary

Detective Inspector Frank Comerford of the Royal Irish Constabulary

Patrick Comerford

The debate about appropriate ways of commemorating or remembering members of the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police has continued throughout the week, and it is unlikely to be resolved in the near future.

It seems too easy for some contributors to this debate to forget that these were not outside police forces and that their members came from families throughout Ireland.

So, as the debate continues, I thought it might be appropriate to recall some members of the Royal Irish Constabulary who had connections with different branches of the far-flung Comerford family.

Sergeant James Comerford and Inspector Frank Comerford were a father and son who were officers in the RIC.

Sergeant James Comerford (1815-1905) was born in Virginia, Co Cavan, in 1816, although it appears his family was originally from Co Kilkenny, and he spent most of his career in the RIC in Co Kilkenny.

As a sergeant in the RIC, James was based first in Johnstown, Co Kilkenny, and then in Urlingford, Co Kilkenny, and when he retired, he continued to live in Urlingford.

James Comerford married Catherine Tuohy (1827-1904), from Castleconnell, Co Limerick, and they were the parents of 13 children.

At the time of the 1901 census, James and Catherine were living in Urlingford. He was then 85 and she was 72. Living with them were their daughter Margaret (45), their son William (30), their daughter-in-law Margaret née Maher (29), both teachers, and their new-born grandson, later Major James Joseph Comerford (1899-1950).

Catherine Comerford died in Urlingford aged 77 on 27 October 1904; James died in Urlingford aged 90 on 16 November 1905. Their 13 children included District Inspector Francis (‘Frank’) Comerford (1861-1940), who was born in Urlingford, Co Kilkenny.

Frank joined the Royal Irish Constabulary and also married a policeman’s daughter, so that he was the son and the son-in-law of RIC officers. He married Mary Browne (25) from Tarbert, Co Kerry, daughter of William Browne (1835-1904), who was also an RIC officer.

William Browne was born in Waterford in 1835, and he served in Co Clare before being transferred to Co Kerry in 1861. He retired from the RIC in 1882. He lived for most of his life in Tarbert, Co Kerry, where most of his children were born, including his daughter Mary, who was born in Tarbert in 1866 (although other family accounts say she was born on the Island of Geese, Tralee). She married Frank Comerford in Tralee, Co Kerry, on 17 August 1892.

Frank Comerford was an RIC officer in Tralee, Co Kerry, Bagenalstown, Co Carlow and Ballymote, Co Sligo, before he moved to Tuam, Co Galway, in 1912.

In the year before the 1916 Rising, Frank played a key role in events in Tuam. Sean Mac Diarmada, Liam Mellowes and other nationalists set up a platform outside the Cathedral of the Assumption in Tuam after Sunday Mass on a May morning in 1915.

The rally was seen at the time as being pro-German and anti-English, and few people gathered to listen to the speakers or paid attention to them.

When Mac Diarmada said ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity,’ Inspector Comerford and Sergeant Martyn mounted the platform. Comerford caught Mac Diarmada’s hand and arrested him.

‘What for?’ said Mac Diarmada.

‘Under DORA’ Comerford replied, referring to the Defence of the Realm Act.

‘Let go my arm, I’ll go with you,’ Mac Diarmada said.

As Mac Diarmada placed his hand in his hip pocket, Mellows was heard to whisper, ‘Don’t fire,’ and Mac Diarmada’s automatic was seen to pass into the hands of Mellows.

Mac Diarmada was held overnight in Tuam before being moved, first to Arbour Hill and then to Mountjoy, and was jailed for four months. When he was released in September 1915, he joined the secret military committee of the IRB, which planned the Easter Rising in 1916.

It was said in Tuam that Frank Comerford ‘gained the goodwill of all by his tact and forbearance.’ When he retired, he received sincere tributes from all sections of the population of Tuam.

The general feeling was that had he not retired before 1920, ‘the sack of Tuam would never have occurred.’ No attack was made on the police barrack, and the friendliest relations existed between the police and people in Tuam, due in large measure due to the good offices of Frank Comerford.

He died at Saint Jarlath’s Place, Tuam, Co Galway, on 12 December 1940, aged 79.

Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Esmonde, VC (1831-1872), father of Eva Mary Comerford and father-in-law of James Charles Comerford (Photograph courtesy Roger Comerford)

In another branch of the Comerford family, James Charles Comerford (1842-1907) of Ardavon House, Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, married Eva Mary Esmonde (1860-1949), on 7 September 1892. She was a daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Esmonde VC (1831-1872) and a niece of Sir John Esmonde (1826-1876), 10th Baronet, of Ballynastragh, Gorey, Co Wexford, and Glenwood, Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, Liberal MP for Waterford (1852-1876).

Eva Mary Comerford’s father, Colonel Thomas Esmonde, was an officer in the 18th Royal Irish Regiment during the Crimean War. He only 26 when he was the first officer to enter Sebastopol on 18 June 1855 after the siege. He was decorated with the Victoria Cross for his part in the Battle of Sebastopol.

Later, Colonel Esmonde became a Deputy-Inspector General of the Royal Irish Constabulary. He died in Bruges after a riding accident in 1872, and is buried in the Central Cemetery. His grave was restored by volunteers of the Victoria Cross Trust in 2017.

Eva Mary (Esmonde) Comerford was three times tennis champion of Ireland. The stories of two of her children show how divided Irish families were at the time of the 1916 Rising.

One daughter, Mary Eva Comerford (1893-1982), of St Nessan’s, Sandyford, Co Dublin, is better known as Máire Comerford (1893-1982), the Irish Republican activist and journalist. Máire was raised in Co Wexford and Co Waterford. She first became active in politics as a Redmondite in Wexford Town, but then took part in the 1916 Rising. She ran a farm in Co Wexford before working as a journalist with The Irish Press from 1935. She is buried at Mount Saint Benedict outside Gorey, Co Wexford.

One of Eva Mary Comerford’s sons was Colonel Thomas James Comerford (1894-1959), who was also raised in Co Wexford and Co Waterford. He became a Second Lieutenant in his grandfather’s regiment, the Royal Irish Regiment, in September 1914. He was on active service at the Souvla Bay landing (Gallipoli), and was with the Royal Munster Fusiliers in August 1915, when he was badly wounded in the mouth and chest and was not declared fit for active service until December 1915.

He later told his son that he was in Dublin while his sister Máire was involved in the Easter Rebellion in 1916. He was moved to France, and took part in the latter part of Battle of the Somme and then in the of Messines and other battles in Belgium. He joined the Indian Army in November 1917 and spent 25 years in India. He was active in World War II organising supplies for the Chindits. He died aged 65 on 1 January 1959 in West Malling, Kent. He married in Bombay on 10 October 1921 Edith Isobel Donaldson; she died on 9 September 1990.

Colonel Thomas Comerford and Edith Donaldson on their wedding day in Bombay on 10 October 1921 (Photograph courtesy Roger Comerford)

The faded elegance
of the Savoy Cinema
in Portarlington

ADW’s mural of ‘Into the West’ still decorates the façade of the Savoy Cinema in Portarlington (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I was born between a laundry and a synagogue on Rathfarnham Road, in a house across the road from the Classic Cinema in Terenure. So, I suppose, it was natural for me to wonder at times why so many cinemas had names with classical resonances, such as the Adelphi, the Corinthian, the Metropole or the Odeon.

Paris has the Panthéon and the Louxor Palais du Cinema, Berlin has its Babylon.

Many of these cinemas had faux-classical or Egyptian-style Art-Deco façades.

Other cinemas had names chosen to convey a sense of royal elegance: Lichfield had its much-mourned Regal Cinema (1932) on Tamworth Street; Rathmines had its paired Stella and Princess cinemas; the Palace Cinema on Cinema Lane was Wexford Town’s first proper cinema and opened in 1914 with a screening of The Old Maid’s Baby (the Capitol Cinema opened in 1931 and the Abbey Cinema in 1947).

Others remember cinemas that tried to convey royal elegance with names such as Deluxe, Rex, Royal, Tivoli and Savoy.

Tivoli outside Rome has given its name to gardens and cinemas around the globe. It is known for the falls on the Aniene River, its proximity to the Sabine Hills, and its panoramic views across the Roman Campagna. From the early Renaissance period, it was favoured by cardinals and popes, and its villas include the Villa d’Este.

Perhaps there were so many Savoy Cinemas throughout these islands because Italy was seen as producing the best in cinema and the name Savoy at one time embodied Italian regal elegance.

The House of Savoy was one the longest-reigning royal house in Europe, and, although most of Savoy has long been incorporated into modern France, the House of Savoy became the Italian royal family from 1861 to 1946, just at a time when many cinemas were being built.

The Savoy Cinema opened on the Market Square in Portarlington, Co Laois, in 1945, just a year before a referendum abolished the monarchy in Italy in 1946.

The cinema stood beside the former Saint Michael’s Church, also known as the ‘English Church’ and now used as a community hall. Today, both look forlorn, standing behind the equally forlorn-looking Market House on the Square, caught in the trap of a traffic island in a one-way traffic cinema.

The Savoy Cinema opened in Portarlington in 1945 and was listed in the Kinematograph Year Books from 1950 to 1962. It had an Ernemann sound system in 1950 but by 1954 it had changed to RCA. It closed in 1989, was taken over by a new operator and reopened in 1990.

The Irish-produced film Into the West’ was partly filmed on location in the Savoy Cinema and at nearby Lea Castle in 1992. It tells the story of two Traveller boys Ossie (Ciarán Fitzgerald) and Tito (Ruaidhrí Conroy) and their epic adventures with their steed Tír na nÓg.

In one memorable scene, filmed in the Savoy in Portarlington, Ossie and Tito bring their horse to a cinema matinee.

The Savoy closed soon after and for more than quarter of a century it has been boarded up and vacant.

But the Savoy Cinema in Portarlington experienced a remarkable transformation last summer when a wonderful mural was created by the local resident and street artist ADW on the façade of old cinema in anticipation of two screenings of Into the West.

ADW’s mural was launched on 15 June last as part of a Laois-wide celebration of Cruinniú na nÓg, a national day of free creativity for children and young people. The site-specific mural pays homage to the 1992 movie and turned into a trip down memory lane for many local people who were extras in the making of the film.

ADW is from Dublin and now lives in Portarlington. He has been painting under the moniker ADW since 2008 when he first picked up a scalpel and tin of spray-paint and began creating his own images. Now known internationally as a 3D artist and muralist, his mural in Portarlington was his biggest to date.

The project was supported by Laois County Council and Creative Ireland. ADW hoped it would inspire and add some colour to the area while helping local people to appreciate the town’s cinematic history of their town.

At the time, the Savoy was in terrible condition and ADW spent two days preparing the walls before starting to paint the main image. New Savoy letters were also cut and installed. The whole project took six days from start to finish – one day for power washing, one day of priming and four days painting the image – after many months of planning.

A once old and drab building that had been closed for more than 25 years ago in the centre of the town was transformed and brightened up Portarlington.

But in some ways the Savoy also figuratively represents the fate of the House of Savoy. Its name was tainted of the role of its princes and dukes in the massacre of the Waldensians in 1655, the massacre of protesters in Milan in 1898, and collaboration with Mussolini and the Fascists in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s in not only in Italy but also in Croatia, Albania, Ethiopia and Greece.

The cut-out letters placed on the façade of the Savoy had gone before the Christmas lights were put up beneath last year’s street art – a faded memory like the House of Savoy.

The former ‘English Church’ beside the former Savoy Cinema … ‘Into the West’ was screened here last summer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)