Tuesday, 12 January 2021

A Comerford countess
with links to the Fitzgerald
family of Askeaton Castle

The ruins of Askeaton Castle … the brother of the ‘Sugán’ Earl of Desmond married a Comerford from Danganmore, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

It is almost four years ago since I moved to Askeaton I have often pointed out that I have no immediate family connections with this part of west Limerick. There are other branches of the Comerford family that lived for short periods in Pallaskenry and near Castleconnell, and one Comerford family that lived for generations in Limerick City. But I am a complete ‘blow-in’ when it comes to this part of west Limerick.

However, as I was going back over my notes of my visit late last summer to Dromana House, outside Cappoquin, Co Waterford, I realised that there was one – albeit remote – connection between my side of the Comerford family and Askeaton and this part of Co Limerick. And this link involves the story of a Comerford woman who became a countess and fled into exile in Barcelona 400 years ago.

Richard ‘Boy’ Comerford was a younger son of Richard ‘Oge’ Comerford of Ballybur Castle, Co Kilkenny, who died ca 1579/1580, and a younger brother of Thomas Comerford of Ballybur. In the late 1560s, and certainly by the early 1570s, this Richard ‘Boy’ Comerford was living at Danganmore Castle, and probably worked as the equivalent of a legal clerk to the Butlers of Kilkenny Castle, witnessing numerous Ormond legal documents.

Richard was the father of two sons – Edmund Comerford and Richard Comerford, who eventually inherited Danganmore Castle – and one daughter, whose name has been forgotten in time, but who married John FitzThomas FitzGerald, who became the claimant to the title of Earl of Desmond at the end of the last Desmond rebellion.

John FitzThomas FitzGerald was a younger brother of James FitzThomas FitzGerald, the ‘Súgán’ Earl of Desmond, and they were the sons of Sir Thomas FitzGerald, commonly called ‘Thomas Roe,’ ‘Tomás Ruadh’ or ‘Red Thomas,’ and his wife Ellice Le Poer, daughter of Richard Le Poer, Baron Le Poer.

Thomas Rue FitzGerald, in turn, was the son of James FitzGerald, 14th Earl of Desmond and Joan Roche, daughter of Maurice Roche, Lord Fermoy. As Joan Roche was his own grandniece, their relationship fell within the proscribed limits of consanguinity. Because of this, their marriage was annulled and their son, Thomas Roe FitzGerald, father of James and John FitzGerald, was declared illegitimate and disinherited.

Instead, the title of Earl of Desmond was handed to Thomas’s younger, but decidedly legitimate, half-brother, Gerald FitzJames FitzGerald, who was recognised as Earl of Desmond by the Parliament in Dublin.

However, Gerald first entered into a bloody conflict with the Ormond Butlers of Kilkenny, and was heavily defeated at the Battle of Affane, near Cappoquin, by ‘Black’ Thomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormond, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London until 1570.

After his release, Gerald returned to Ireland and rebelled in 1579. He was killed in battle on 11 November 1583 and his severed head was displayed on London Bridge.

After the suppression of the rebellion in 1583, Thomas Roe FitzGerald and his son James FitzThomas claimed the title and estates of the Earl of Desmond. Their petitions failed, however, and Thomas Roe died in 1595 and was buried in Youghal.

His son, James FitzThomas FitzGerald, assumed the title of Earl of Desmond. He became known as the ‘Sugan’ Earl of Desmond. He soon gathered an 8,000-strong force and engaged in a three-year struggle. He took Desmond Hall and Castle in Newcastle West in 1598, but lost them the following year. In 1599, the Earl of Essex also brought to an end the 147-day siege of Askeaton Castle the ‘Sugan’ Earl of Desmond.

After escaping from Kilmallock, he was finally captured on 29 May 1601 while he was hiding in a cave underground, near Mitchelstown.

FitzGerald was placed in irons and taken to Shandon Castle, where he was found guilty of treason. He was then brought to England, and he was made a prisoner in the Tower of London. Historians suggest that he died sometime in 1608, and was buried in the chapel of the Tower.

Richard Comerford’s tomb in the ruined church in Kilree, south of Kells, Co Kilkenny … his daughter married John FitzThomas FitzGerald, ‘Earl of Desmond,’ and they fled to Barcelona (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The next male heir in this line of the Desmond FitzGeralds was his younger brother, John FitzThomas FitzGerald, who had taken part in the Desmond rebellion. John fled Ireland in 1603 with his wife, the daughter of Richard Comerford of Danganmore, Co Kilkenny, to Spain. There he was known as the Conde de Desmond. John died a few years later in Barcelona, probably after 1615.

Meanwhile, his father-in-law, Richard Comerford, continued to live at Danganmore Castle, Co Kilkenny. He died at an advanced age on 5 October 1624, and was buried against the wall in the north-west chancel of Kilree Church, Co Kilkenny, with his wife Joanna St Leger, who had died on 4 October 1622.

Their grandson, Gerald FitzJohn FitzGerald, claimed the title as 17th Earl of Desmond, according to the family tree in Dromana House, and was also known as the ‘Conde de Desmond.’ He served in the Habsburg armies of the Emperor Ferdinand in Spain and Germany, and died in Germany in 1632. As he had no male children as heirs to his claims, with him ended the male heirs of the four eldest sons of Thomas FitzGerald, 7th Earl of Desmond.

As for Richard Comerford, brother of the exiled ‘Countess of Desmond,’ he inherited Danganmore Castle in 1624, and was the ancestor of the Ryan and Langton families who later lived there.

Richard Comerford of Ballybur Castle, first cousin of this exiled Comerford countess, died in 1637, five years after the death of her son Gerald in Germany. The descendants of this Richard and his wife Mary (Purcell) include the Bunclody branch of the family, and so they are my immediate ancestors.

The connections with Askeaton – and with Dromana – are distant and may even seem obscure. But, almost 400 years later, they are still there.

The FitzGerald connection with the Comerford family … a corner of one of the family trees in Dromana House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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