Stephen Edward Comerford (1867-1921) … my grandfather died 100 years ago on 21 January 1921 (Comerford family collection)
Today marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the death of my paternal grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford. He died 100 years ago on 21 January 1921, shortly after my father’s second birthday, and so I grew up without knowing what my grandfather looked like or hearing about his life story.
When I set out to find out more about him – and where he was in 1916 – I learned the tragic story of his lonely death in 1921. He was then a survivor of World War I, who had been sent back to Dublin from Thessaloniki, suffering from malaria, in the weeks immediately after the 1916 Rising in Dublin.
He was living in Rathmines in suburban south Dublin, and he was buried in Saint Catherine’s churchyard in Portrane, Co Dublin, close to his in-laws, the Lynders family.
Stephen Comerford’s signature when he was apprenticed to his father on 23 June 1888 (Comerford family collection)
Stephen Edward Comerford (1867-1921) was the fourth son and fifth and youngest child of James Comerford (1817-1902), an arts-and-crafts stuccodore, architect and civil servant from Bunclody, Co Wexford. James had lived in Bunclody and Wexford town and worked on Pierece and Pugin churches before moving to Dublin in the early 1850s. His works in Dublin include the design of the former Irish House on the corner of Wood Quay and Winetavern Street, and the Oarsman in Ringsend, Dublin. His bookplate boasted descent from the Comerford and Comberford families.
His mother, Anne Doyle (1834-1899), was the daughter of Garret Doyle. Anne and James Comerford were married on 14 September 1851, in Saint Andrew’s Church, Westland Row, Dublin. A photograph of James and Anne in the family collection, taken by Metropolitan Photo Compy in their studio in 88 Grafton Street, was taken as James was reaching the pinnacle of his career, and his growing family offered him greater comfort. It is a portrait of a couple who are now confident of their place in the artistic and artisan society of Victorian Dublin, and may have been taken in 1867 when Anne was pregnant with Stephen.
Stephen Comerford was born at 7 Redmond’s Hill, between Camden Street and Aungier Street, Dublin, on 28 December 1867, and he was baptised a few days later in Saint Andrew’s Church, Westland Row (sponsors: Thomas Roche and Margaret Dowdall).
At the age of 16, in 1884, Stephen was apprenticed to his father, James Comerford, Operative Plasterer of the City of Dublin, ‘to learn his Art’ from 1 June 1884 for seven years, according to an indenture dated 23 June 1888, signed by James Comerford and Stephen Comerford and witnessed by John Hartigan and Isaac Hill.
Father and son soon became involved in turning the plasterers’ guild into a trade union.
A stucco plasterer, Stephen worked on many of George Ashlin’s Dublin churches in Dublin and on Ashlin’s hospital in Portrane. He was a member of the Society of Stucco Plasterers of Dublin and a founding member and member of the council of the Regular Stucco Plasterers’ Trade Union of the City of Dublin in 1893.
He was the Dublin branch secretary of the union in 1899, when the union organised a Parnell commemoration demonstration, and in 1902, when he took part in an Irish-language demonstration. In 1903, the union changed its name to the Operative Plasterers’ Trade Society of Dublin.
Trade union records, census returns, street directories and family records have allowed me to track the houses where Stephen had lived.
When Stephen Edward Comerford was young and successful, he had his portrait photograph taken in a way that presented him as a young Victorian man with confidence looking forward to the future. In the fashion of the time, this photograph was modelled on the formal portrait of John Ruskin (1819-1900) by Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896).
Stephen lived at 2 Mountpleasant Villas, Ranelagh (1899), 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue (1900-1905), 2 Mountpleasant Villas again (1905-ca 1907), 102 South Lotts Road, Ringsend (ca 1909), 2 Old Mountpleasant (ca 1909-ca 1913, this house is now incorporated in ‘The Hill,’ Ranelagh), and 7 Swanville Place, Rathmines, Dublin, from 1913 until his death in 1921.
He was living at 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue, Ranelagh, when his father, James Comerford, died in 1902 at 85. A year later, in 1903, Stephen’s young wife, Anne (née Cullen) died in the same house at the age of 32.
The census returns for both 1901 and 1911 show that Stephen could read, write and speak Irish and English.
No 2 Old Mountpleasant, Ranelagh … Stephen Comerford lived here in the first two decades of the 20th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
A year after the outbreak of World War I, Stephen Comerford joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers – ‘the Toffs and the Toughs’ – on 14 July 1915. When he left Dublin for Gallipoli in 1915, he was a 47-year-old man, leaving behind in Ranelagh his second wife, my grandmother – they were married just 10 years earlier – and her five young children and step-children.
Within days, as a private in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, he was sent to the Greek island of Lemnos and on to Gallipoli and Suvla Bay. He was among the few survivors evacuated to Thessaloniki. In the severe Greek winter, many of them suffered frostbite, dysentery and other sicknesses.
In the summer’s heat of 1916, more came down with malaria and were evacuated from Thessaloniki. Stephen was discharged on 3 May 1916, three days after the Easter Rising ended, and sent back to Dublin.
His records give his regimental number as 9062, and the theatre of war is which he first served as (2B) Balkans. His medals were:
● Victory, Roll B/101 B2, p. 131;
● British, Roll B/101 B2, p. 131;
● 1914-1915 Star, Roll B/10B, p. B81.
Malaria was life-threatening but life-saving – for a few months at least. The war ended on 11 November 1918 and a month later, on 14 December 1918, his youngest child – my father Stephen Edward Comerford – was born in Rathmines. But his health continued to deteriorate, no more children were born, and he died alone in hospital at the age of 53.
Stephen Comerford was first married in Saint Andrew’s Church, Westland Row, Dublin, on 29 November 1899, to Anne Cullen (1871-1903), of 11 Merrion Square, Dublin (the home of Sir Edward Hudson Hudson-Kinahan), daughter of Thomas Cullen, of Clanbrassil Street, salesman.
Stephen and Anne Comerford were the parents of three children, a daughter and two sons:
1, Edmond Joseph Comerford (1900-1905). He was born at 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue, Ranelagh, Dublin, on 30 October 1900, and was baptised a few days later in Saint Andrew’s Church, Westland Row (sponsors: Michael Heffernan and Elizabeth Carey). He died on 24 August 1905 in Clonskeagh Hospital, Dublin, and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, with his mother Anne (Cullen) Comerford, who had died in 1903, and his grandfather Thomas Cullen, who died in 1871. Neither Edmond’s name, nor that of his mother are included on the headstone.
2, Mary (May) Josephine (1902-1973). She was born in 1902 at 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue, Ranelagh, and was baptised in Saint Andrew’s Church, Westland Row. She married John Leonard (Sean O Lionnain) (1876-1959), civil servant, then of 52 Orwell Road, Rathgar, Dublin, and of Convabeg, Ballyhooley, Mallow, Co Cork. He was born John Leonard in 1876, son of Michael Leonard and Mary Anne McCarthy of Ballyellis, Mallow Co Cork. His family owned Leonard’s Bar in Ballyhooly (now Grindels). He had moved to London by 1901, and he married his first wife, Mary J Ward (Máire Nic a Báird), in Fulham in 1911. She died in 1934. He married May Comerford in Saint Joseph’s Church, Terenure, on 11 October 1939 (witnesses, Patrick Daneford and Margaret C Comerford). He died on 25 December 1959. They had no children, and May later lived at 5 Ashdale Park, Terenure, with her half-brother Patrick and half-sister Margaret. She died on 24 September 1973 and is buried in Dean’s Grange Cemetery, Dublin.
3, Arthur James Comerford (1903-1987). He was born on 26 October 1903 at 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue. In 1911, he was living at The Quay, Portrane, with his stepmother’s mother, Margaret Lynders, who described him as her grandson. He first worked for Arthur Guinness and Son. From 1926, he was the clerk of the Church of the Three Patrons, Rathgar. He was awarded the Papal Medal Bene Merenti in 1973. He lived at 38 Rathgar Road, Dublin 6. In 1931, he married Kathleen Miller. Kathleen died on 27 November 1975, and Arthur died on 12 December 1987. They had no children and are buried in Dean’s Grange Cemetery, Dublin.
Anne (Cullen) Comerford died at the age of 32 on 16 November 1903 at 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue.
Stephen and Bridget (Lynders) Comerford on their wedding day in Donabate in 1905 (Comerford family collection)
As a widower with three small children, Stephen commuted between Ranelagh and Portrane, and he stayed with the Lynders family at the Quay House while working on George Ashlin’s new hospital and chapel. While staying with the Lynders family, Stephen fell in love again. He married my grandmother, Bridget Lynders (1875-1948), on 7 February 1905, in Saint Patrick’s, the newly-built parish church in Donabate (priest, the Revd Anthony Murphy; witnesses: Lawrence McMahon and Mary Anne Lynders).
Bridget Lynders was born on 18 April 1875, a daughter of Patrick Lynders and Margaret (née McMahon) Lynders of The Quay House, Portrane, Co Dublin. Her elder brother, John Lynders (1873-1957), was then a sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary, later a Head Constable, and was living at the RIC Barracks, South Main Street, Wexford, later the Dun Mhuire Theatre.
Stephen and Bridget (Lynders) Comerford were the parents of three sons and a daughter:
4, Patrick Thomas Comerford (1907-1971), born at 2 Mountpleasant Villas, Ranelagh, on 24 November 1907. He lived at 5 Ashdale Park, Terenure, Dublin 6. He died unmarried on 22 April 1971, and is buried with his parents in Portrane, Co Dublin.
5, Robert Anthony (‘Bob’) Comerford (1909-1953), born at 102 South Lotts Road, Ringsend, Dublin, on 28 December 1909. A civil servant, he lived at 5 Ashdale Park, Terenure. He was unmarried. He died in the Meath Hospital, Dublin, three hours after a motor accident in Leinster Road, Rathmines, on 10 August 1953. He is buried with his parents in Portrane.
6, Margaret (1912-1995), born at 2 Old Mountpleasant on 22 April 1912. She lived at 5 Ashdale Park, Terenure, Dublin 6W. She died unmarried on 14 February 1995 and is buried with her half-sister Mary in Dean’s Grange Cemetery.
7, Stephen Edward Comerford (1918-2004), my father. He was born at 7 Swanville Place, Rathmines, on 14 December 1918. He lived at 83 Rathfarnham Wood, Dublin 14, and had six children (five of whom are surviving), and ten grandchildren (nine surviving).
A wreath of poppies on my grandfather’s grave in Portrane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Stephen Comerford, my grandfather, died in hospital 100 years ago on 21 January 1921, just two years after my father was born.
He was buried in Saint Catherine’s Churchyard, the old Church of Ireland churchyard in Portrane, close to other members of the Lynders family, including my grandmother’s parents. His gravestone incorrectly gives his age at death as 49.
The inscription on his gravestone makes no mention of his part in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, or of how he died. Ironically, his gravestone also gives the wrong age for him at the time of his death. He was born on 28 December 1867, and died on 21 January 1921 at the age of 53. But the gravestone says he died at the age of 49 – the age he was when he came back from the war in 1916. As his health deteriorated, he must have remained 49 for ever in my grandmother’s heart.
My grandfather’s only reward was those three war medals – but even these were lost in the various family moves between Ranelagh, Rathmines, Terenure and Rathfarnham. His lonely hospital death was filled with sadness, terror and dread.
No 5 Ashdale Park, Terenure … Bridget (Lynders) Comerford moved here in the mid-1930s, and it remained the Comerford family home for 60 years until 1995 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Stephen Comerford’s widow, Bridget (Lynders) Comerford, continued to live at 7 Swanville Place until ca 1935. She then moved to 5 Ashdale Park, Terenure, and in the 1940s worked as private secretary to William Norton (1900-1963), leader of the Irish Labour Party (1932-1960) and secretary of the Post Office Workers’ Union (1924-1948). She died at her home in Terenure on 25 March 1948, seven weeks after Norton became Tanaiste in the first Inter-Party Government. She was buried with her husband in Saint Catherine’s Churchyard, Portrane.
My father was the only one of Stephen Comerford’s seven children to have children himself. So, malaria saved my grandfather’s life, however briefly, and ensured that he had grandchildren.
His lonely hospital death was filled with sadness, typifying how those soldiers were forgotten by those who sent them to war and their stories not handed on in their families.
His story typifies how those soldiers were forgotten by those who sent them to war and how their stories were not handed on in their families, fearful they would be marginalised further as the political climate changed on this island.
I have worked and travelled throughout Greece and Turkey. But it was many years before I realised that my father might never been born – and I might never have been born – had my grandfather not been there, contracted malaria and been sent home from Thessaloniki in 1916.
When I am in Cambridge, I sometimes take time off in Grantchester, for a time the home of the English war poet Rupert Brooke. Before he died during the Gallipoli landings in 1915, he wrote:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed …
In Ireland, my grandfather remained 49 for ever in my grandmother’s heart. And there is some corner in Thessaloniki that is for ever Ireland.
As we continue this decade of a centenary of commemorations, the contribution of men like my grandfather must not be undervalued, still less forgotten.
May his memory be a blessing.