01 November 2020

Genealogical fantasies satisfy
needs for a sense of belonging

The ‘Bridge of Sighs’ at Saint John’s College, Cambridge … an obscure family connection was uncovered in an Irish bar in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Genealogy and family trees are always dependent on collective imaginations and identities. In any family tree, some ancestors are counted in and some are counted out. Even if we knew all our ancestors from 600 years ago, it would be impossible to include 1 million people in any one family tree.

Dr Adam Rutherford points out in his new book, How to argue with a racist, that in every generation back through time the number of ancestors you have doubles. Over a 500-year period, I have 1,048,576 ancestors. By 1,000 years ago, I have an impossible number of 1,099,511,627,776 ancestors – that is, over a trillion people, a number that is about 10 times the number of people that ever existed.

And so, all genealogists make choices that are based on the needs of a family or an individual to provide a colourful illustration of their sense of identity with community and place across generations and down through the centuries.

One rainy afternoon, as I whiled away an hour or two in an Irish bar in Crete, I found myself rummaging through the bookshelves and an eclectic collection of books bought for decoration rather than broadening the minds of the clientele.

Stuck in one shelf, side-by-side, was Thomas Baker’s two volume History of the College of St John the Evangelist, Cambridge, published in Cambridge in 1869. Many of the pages had not been cut since they were published, indicating they had not been read too carefully by their owners over the previous century and a half.

Unusual books to find in a bar in Crete … and unopened since 1869 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

* * *

In those idle moments in McGinty’s Irish Bar in Georgioupoli, I took down both volumes, knowing there held family memories and stories. Here were the college records of Henry ‘Comberforth’ (1499-1586), later Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral (1555). He graduated BA (1533), MA (1536) and BD (1545), and went on to become a Fellow of Saint John’s College and a Proctor of Cambridge University. He was still a Fellow of Saint John’s in 1542.

Here too was Henry’s brother, Richard Comberford, often confused by later genealogists with my direct ancestor, Richard Comerford of Ballybur Castle, Co Kilkenny. Richard was admitted to Saint John’s in 1534, was a Fellow in 1538, and was the Senior Bursar in 1542-1544.

Richard Comberford and his brother John both leased lands at Much Bradley in Staffordshire from Saint John’s College. Perhaps these appear to be absurd links for someone to become engrossed with during a holiday on a Greek island. But the leases on the lands in Much Bradley pushed the family connection back a generation earlier than I had realised.

They were discoveries of the type that would delight Aunt Dot in The Towers of Trebizond, where she says ‘Cambridge was our university’ and she describes her family’s High Church Anglicanism approving ‘the improvements in the chapel of St. John’s College, Cambridge under Dr. Beale.’

Dave Hartley and Clare Walshe decided I should take the books home with me, and revel a little longer in their unread stories.

Saint John the Evangelist at Saint John’s College, Cambridge … Aunt Dot in ‘The Towers of Trebizond’ approved of ‘the improvements in the chapel’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The O’Hanlon clan and clergy titles

It seems Victorian and Edwardian clergy in the Church of Ireland were all too susceptible to genealogical claims and deceptions. I came across not just one but two rectors who were near contemporaries and who claimed the curious title of ‘The O’Hanlon,’ an ancient title for the head of a Gaelic Irish clan. Yet, despite their claims, they do not seem to share any close ties of kinship.

The Revd Dr Alexander Patrick Hanlon (1814-1898), who called himself ‘The O’Hanlon,’ was born at Miltown Malbay, Co Clare, the son of Patrick Hanlon, a local Roman Catholic farmer, and was ordained deacon in the Church of Ireland in 1846 by the Bishop of Killaloe and priest in 1847.

During the Famine, he was praised for his ‘unremitting’ and ‘constant’ work with local people and for his ‘genuine charity.’ He freely distributed milk, bread and medicine, working with orphans and the elderly, and it was said: ‘Not a house in which fever is to be found (and they are the greater in number), but he visits in person.’

He seems to have been considering an appointment to Dingle during the vacancy in 1864, when his wife suffered an epileptic attack while bathing in Dingle Harbour and died soon after. Hanlon continued to work with the Irish Society and the Irish Church Missions, and in 1889 was feted at a garden party in Dugort organised by the Achill Mission. He died in Tallow, Co Waterford, at the age of 84 in 1898.

* * *

The French Church, Portarlington … William Hanlon was born in Portarlington in 1849 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

His younger, near contemporary, the Revd William Hanlon (1849-1916), also claimed the title of The O’Hanlon. He was born in Portarlington, the son of a local doctor. He was the Rector of Rector of Innishannon, Co Cork (1879-1916), when he assumed the title of ‘The O’Hanlon’ in 1907. He also claimed to be the Hereditary Standard Bearer of the King in Ulster. In the pedigree he compiled to support his claims, Hanlon said his lineal ancestor had given Saint Patrick the site in Armagh for his first cathedral.

It all sounds like myth and fable – and probably is. Both men ignored the minor detail in the family trees that the last person before either of them to have been accepted generally as the head of the family was the rapparee Redmond O’Hanlon.

After the Caroline Restoration, Redmond O’Hanlon installed himself as clan chief and called himself ‘the Count.’ He was declared an outlaw in 1674 and became a rapparee around Newry and Carlingford Lough. A £200 reward was offered for his apprehension. He was shot at night in 1681 and his severed head was put on display at Downpatrick prison.

Family lore says his son, also Redmond O’Hanlon, exhumed his body, and reburied him in the Church of Ireland churchyard at Conwal Parish in Letterkenny, Co Donegal.

Saint Thomas’s Church, Dugort … Alexander Hanlon was feted by the Achill Mission at a tea party in Dugort in 1889 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A fake Limerick title in Lichfield

Spurious claims to family titles were not confined to Victorian clergy in the Church of Ireland. The Roman Catholic population of Staffordshire had a long history of English Recusancy. But the demographics of Catholic Staffordshire changed with the arrival of French prisoners of war, followed by new Irish arrivals seeking work. In 1841, Father John Kirk described his congregation in Lichfield as ‘very poor’ – one of the few exceptions was Lady Fitzgerald, a widow living near Lichfield.

Lady Fitzgerald’s name stood out as I read Michael Greenslade’s Catholic Staffordshire: she could hardly be a poor, Irish, Famine migrant. I was surprised, with a little further research, to find that her husband, Sir James Fitzgerald, was no true baronet, although his claimed title has interesting links with the part of Co Limerick where I live.

In all, four titles of baronet were given to members of the Fitzgerald family. The oldest of these was given in 1644 to Sir Edmond Fitzgerald of Clenglish Castle, now Springfield Castle, near Dromcollogher, Co Limerick. His son, Sir John Fitzgerald, was the patron of the poet Dáibhí Ó Bruadair (1625-1698). He was linked with the Titus Oates plot and was deprived of his title in 1691. No more was heard of these Fitzgerald baronets, or Sir John’s four brothers who might have claimed their father’s title.

However, a fanciful family tree was produced in 1780, without any convincing dates, biographical details or supporting evidence, claiming a Sir Maurice Fitzgerald moved from Co Limerick to Castle Ishen, Co Cork, but decided not to use the title of baronet because of his poverty. It goes through six generations of only sons for almost a century, until Sir Richard Fitzgerald, who claimed the title as sixth baronet in 1780.

* * *

Springfield Castle, Co Limerick … stands on the site of the caste owned by Sir Edmond Fitzgerald in the 1640s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Castle Ishen Fitzgeralds had no links with the Springfield family, yet their claims to the title were facilitated by Ireland’s leading genealogical authority, Sir William Hawkins. Those claims were dismissed in 1829 by Sir William Betham, a successor of Hawkins. He found that the Castle Ishen family was descended from another, different Sir Edmond Fitzgerald, who was knighted but was never a baronet.

Yet Sir Richard Fitzgerald convinced society he was the sixth baronet. His only son, Sir James Fitzgerald, who called himself the seventh baronet, married Bridget Anne Dalton, whose mother claimed she was the last lineal descendant of Sir Thomas More.

Their only son, Sir James Fitzgerald (1791-1839), married Augusta Henrietta Fremantle (1803-1863), a daughter of one of Nelson’s admirals. They lived at Maple Hayes Hall, near Lichfield, although James was living at Wolseley Hall when died on his way to Nice in 1839.

The widowed Augusta died in 1863, and their children returned to Ireland. Some family members became nuns, and the claimed family title, if it ever existed, died out with the death of Sir Gerald Richard Dalton-Fitzgerald (1832-1894), the ‘tenth baronet.’

Perhaps you and I have as much right to this title as anyone else who used it.

The doorway of Holy Cross Church, Lichfield … the widowed Lady Fitzgerald stood out from the poorer parishioners in the 1840s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This two-page feature was first published in November 2020 in the ‘Church Review,’ the Dublin and Glendalough diocesan magazineCanon Patrick Comerford blogs at www.patrickcomerford.com

Sunday intercessions on
1 November 2020,
All Saints’ Day

Christ and the Saints depicted in a dome in Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Heavenly Father,
we give thanks for the saints in the world today,
often hidden and unseen, mocked and ignored,
the meek who witness to your kingdom
in their struggle for justice, mercy and peace,
and for the integrity of your creation.

We pray for all who are voting in the United States,
we pray for governments making difficult and demanding decisions,
for the people of Greece and Turkey, residents and refugees,
suffering from the earthquake this past week,
for all working in hospitals, schools and public health.

Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

Lord Jesus Christ,
we pray for your saints in the Church today,
seeking your presence among us in word and sacrament.

In the Anglican Cycle of Prayer,
we pray this week for the Church of the Province of West Africa
and Most Revd Dr Jonathan Bau-Bau Bonaparte Hart,
Primate and Metropolitan, Archbishop, and Bishop of Liberia.

Throughout the Church of Ireland this month,
we pray for the Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross,
for Bishop Paul Colton,
and for the people and priests of the diocese.

We pray for our bishop, Kenneth,
and for his ministry, mission and witness …

We pray for all parishes,
struggling to find new and meaningful new ways
of bring part of the Communion of Saints in these trying days.

We pray for the churches in Nice, their priests and people,
suffering after the attacks in the past week …
Christ have mercy,
Christ have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
we give thanks for the Communion of Saints,
past, present and future,
many forgotten and without name:
the glorious company of Apostles,
the godly fellowship of the prophets,
the noble army of martyrs,
the great multitude and countless number,
from every nation, tribe and people …

We pray for those in need and those who seek healing …

In our hearts, we name individuals, families, neighbours,
care homes, hospitals, voluntary groups …

We pray for those who are sick or isolated,
at home or in hospital …

Sylvia … Alan … Margaret … Lorraine …
Ajay… Joey … Ena … Trixie …
Eileen … Niall …
We pray for those we have offered to pray for …
and we pray for those who pray for us …

In the diocesan cycle of prayer,
we pray this month for the bereaved within the dioceses,
that they may find comfort.

We pray for all who grieve and mourn at this time …
may their families find comfort and support in the prayers of friends …
may their memories be a blessing to us …

Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

We give you thanks
for the whole company of saints
with whom in fellowship we join our prayers and praises:

Merciful Father …

These intercessions were prepared for use the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes on All Saints’ Day, Sunday 1 November 2020.

‘The Holy Church throughout the World doth acknowledge thee’ … the Canticle ‘Te Deum’ depicted in the World War II memorial window by Gerald Smith in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When the meek are blessed
along with all the saints who
are silenced and forgotten

Saints and Martyrs … the ten martyrs of the 20th century above the West Door of Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 1 November 2020

All Saints’ Day

The Readings: Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Psalm 34; 1-10; Revelation 7: 9-17 or I John 3: 1-3; Matthew 5: 1-12.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

All Saints’ Day is one of the 12 Principal Feasts of the Church set out in the Book of Common Prayer.

One of the great hymns celebrating this day is ‘For all the saints, who from their labours rest’ (Church Hymnal, 459), written by Bishop William Walsham How (1823-1897).

The saints recalled in this hymn are ordinary people in their weaknesses and their failings. In its original form, it had 11 verses. The verses extolling ‘the glorious company of the Apostles,’ ‘the godly fellowship of the prophets’ and ‘the noble army of martyrs’ were inspired by the canticle Te Deum.

The name of the tune, Sine Nomine (‘Without Name’), written by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), refers to the great multitude of unknown saints, the sort of people praised by Christ in our reading of the Beatitudes this morning (Matthew 5: 1-12).

The writer of this hymn, Walsham How, spent time in Rome as chaplain of the Anglican Church there, All Saints’ Church. When he became a bishop, he was known as ‘the poor man’s bishop.’ He died in Leenane, Co Mayo, in 1897 while he was on holiday in Dulough.

His hymn vibrates with images from the Book of Revelation. The saints recalled by ‘the poor man’s bishop’ are ordinary people who, in spite of their weaknesses and their failings, respond in faith to Christ’s call to service and love, and who have endured the battle against the powers of evil and darkness.

The heart of the hymn is in the stanza that sings about the unity of the Church in heaven and on earth, ‘knit together in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of … Christ our Lord.’ Despite our ‘feeble struggles,’ we are united in Christ and with one another in one ‘blest communion’ and ‘fellowship divine.’

This morning’s Gospel reading, with its praise of people weighed down in their ‘feeble struggles,’ is the most familiar account of the Beatitudes.

In an interview some years ago, Father Brian D’Arcy told how Dorothy Day once spoke of how people regularly confess to ‘breaking’ one of the Ten Commandments, but wondered how often they confess to ‘breaking’ one of the Eight Beatitudes.

The Beatitudes are so familiar that we all understand the irreverent humour found in a scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.

‘Blessed are the Meek’ – which means the humble, patient, submissive and gentle – is misheard in The Life of Brian as: ‘Blessed is the Greek – apparently he’s going to inherit the earth.’ When they finally get what Jesus actually says, a woman says, ‘Oh it’s the Meek … blessed are the Meek! That’s nice, I’m glad they’re getting something, ’cause they have a hell of a time.’

The political activist and agitator Reg then says: ‘What Jesus blatantly fails to appreciate is that it’s the meek who are the problem.’ This sums up the growing annoyance of the violent with the peaceful attitude of Christ. But it also highlights that the Beatitudes are about ordinary, everyday people, the people who were the priority in his hymn for the ‘Poor Man’s Bishop.’

Too often we see the saints celebrated by the church as martyrs and apostles, missionaries and hermits, bishops and theologians. How often do we see them as ordinary, meek, everyday people, the people who too often are dismissed as problems, who are living with problems, who often go without attention from politicians and activists alike?

The mother and child separated at birth in the ‘mother and baby’ home and blocked at every stage as they tried to find each other. Watching Catherine Corless on the Late Late Show on Friday night, I wondered at how the sinners had been turned into saints while the saints were those who were sinned against and labelled as sinners.

The middle-aged mother who hopes that life is going to get better as the years move on, but then finds instead every waking hour is devoted to an adult child with special needs, or to an elderly parent who now needs to be looked after like a child.

The couple filled with faith but afraid to come to church, marginalised because of their colour, class, language or sexuality.

The lone protester who stands outside a government office or embassy, ignored by those inside and berated outside by passing, hooting motorists, but who knows right is on her side … ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.’

Think for a moment of who your forgotten, silent, even silenced saints are among ‘the glorious company of the Apostles’ and ‘the godly fellowship of the prophets.’

Are they unnamed among ‘the noble army of martyrs’?

In our New Testament reading (Revelation 7: 9-17), Saint John in his vision sees a great multitude, a countless number from every nation, tribe, people and language, gathered before the Lamb on the throne.

They have come through a great ordeal, the final testing. Now they are before the throne of God, the Lamb of God, ceaselessly celebrating the celestial liturgy in God’s presence. No longer will they suffer or hunger, and ‘God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

But if the Church is a sign of the Kingdom of God, a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy, how does our life as the Church, in the parish and in the diocese, offer solace, comfort, a foretaste, hope for the meek, the downtrodden, the lonely, the oppressed, who are praised in the Beatitudes and who are invited as part of the great multitude, the countless number from every nation, tribe, people and language, to gather before the Lamb on the throne?

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit … those who mourn … the meek … those who hunger and thirst …’

May theirs be the kingdom of heaven, may they be comforted, may they inherit the earth, may they be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful … the pure in heart … the peacemakers … those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake …’

May we be generous in showing mercy, may we see God, be called children of God, find ourselves in the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are we even when others revile us for standing up for these values … when we stand up for those values, may we rejoice and be glad.

And in those struggles, we are ‘knit together in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of ... Christ our Lord.’ In our ‘feeble struggles,’ may we rejoice in being united in Christ and with one another in one ‘blest communion’ and ‘fellowship divine.’

And so may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Berliner Dom in Berlin, popularly known as Berlin Cathedral … the images inside the dome illustrate the Beatitudes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 5: 1-12 (NRSVA):

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’

All Saints’ Day … the Lamb on the Throne surrounded by the angels and saints

Liturgical Colour: White.

Penitential Kyries:

Lord, you are gracious and compassionate.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

You are loving to all,
and your mercy is over all your creation.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Your faithful servants bless your name,
and speak of the glory of your kingdom.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
you have knit together your elect
in one communion and fellowship
in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord:
Grant us grace so to follow your blessed saints
in all virtuous and godly living
that we may come to those inexpressible joys
that you have prepared for those who truly love you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Introduction to the Peace:

We are fellow citizens with the saints
and the household of God,
through Christ our Lord,
who came and preached peace to those who were far off
and those who were near (Ephesians 2: 19, 17).

The Preface:

In the saints
you have given us an example of godly living,
that rejoicing in their fellowship,
we may run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
and with them receive the unfading crown of glory …

Post-Communion Prayer:

God, the source of all holiness
and giver of all good things:
May we who have shared at this table
as strangers and pilgrims here on earth
be welcomed with all your saints
to the heavenly feast on the day of your kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Blessing:

God give you grace
to share the inheritance of all his saints in glory …

‘The Tree of the Church’ (1895) by Charles Kempe … a window in the south transept of Lichfield Cathedral shows Christ surrounded by the saints (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


466, Here from all nations, all tongues, and all peoples
459, For all the saints, who from their labours rest

The saints before the Lamb of God on the Throne … the Altar in Saint Patrick’s Church, Ballyragget, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

Christ the Pantocrator surrounded by the saints in the Dome of the Church of Analipsi in Georgioupoli, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)