13 March 2021

A family tree that tells
the story of ‘Smother’
star Dervla Kirwan

With Dervla Kirwan on ‘Who do you think you are?’ … repeated many times on television channels around the world

Patrick Comerford

The new RTÉ Sunday night drama series Smother continues tomorrow night (14 March 2021). Dervla Murphy play the devoted mother Val, heading the cast in this tense thriller set on wild and rugged coast of west Clare.

The relationships in Smother were difficult to disentangle in the first episode last Sunday (7 March 2021), and Ryan Tubridy joked on his morning show earlier this week that a whole episode of Who do you think you are? might be needed to explain who is related to whom, and how.

Back in 2010, I took part in an episode of the BBC programme Who do you think you are? that featured Dervla Kirwan, looking at the stories of her own entangled family tree and background.

That series in the summer of 2010 included Bruce Forsyth, remembered for Strictly Come Dancing and The Generation Game; Rupert Everett, known for his film roles in My Best Friend’s Wedding and Shakespeare in Love; the Australian actor and singer Jason Donovan; the award-winning Scottish actor Alan Cumming; comedian Alexander Armstrong; Hugh Quarshie, a long-time member of the cast of Holby City; the television and movie actor Rupert Penry-Jones; and Monty Don, the television gardener.

The programme featuring Dervla Kirwan was first aired by the BBC on 2 August 2010, and has since been shown by RTÉ on countless evenings, and on many other channels around the world.

Before Smother, Dervla Kirwan was best known for her role as Assumpta Fitzgerald in 23 episodes of Ballykissangel, and for her parts in Goodnight Sweetheart, The Silence, and other dramas and movies.

She first won critical acclaim in 1988 in London for her ‘firm but fragile’ performance as the factory girl Linda in A Handful of Stars, the premiere in the Bush Theatre of the first play in Billy Roche’s Wexford Trilogy. In 1992, again at the Bush Theatre, she starred in a revival of the complete Wexford Trilogy.

Dervla was born in Churchtown in Dublin and 12 years ago she was searching for her connections with Michael Collins, a brother of her great-grandmother. Until then, she had never spoken about her great-uncle Michael Collins, a national figure who played a key role in establishing the Irish Free State. On that programme, she found out how her grandfather Finian O’Driscoll, a nephew of Michael Collins, fits into the story of the Irish War of Independence and the shaping of the Irish Free State after the death of his uncle.

Dervla went to the Military Archives in Cathal Brugha Barracks to unearth Finian O’Driscoll’s pension records and clues to his activities before he joined the Irish Free State Army. She made an unexpected discovery regarding the IRA, and the documents helped her retrace Finian’s steps as she headed to Clonakilty, Co Cork, where the War of Independence was at its height when her grandfather was still a teenager.

But her discovery of an unconventional marriage took her on a journey to a tragic miscarriage of justice. Dervla knew little of her paternal side of the family and in a café she met her father who told her that his grandfather, Henry Kahn, was Jewish. Knowing nothing of the Dublin Jewish community, she headed to the Jewish Museum in Portobello.

Equipped with this new information, Dervla and I then met on a corner of Aungier Street in Dublin, opposite the site of Saint Peter’s Church, now occupied by the Dublin YMCA.

We talked about how her great-grandparents, Henry Kahn and Teresa O’Shea, were married in Saint Peter’s Church in 1880, when both of them 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 (1832-1896), who became Rector of Saint Peter’s three years later.

Dervla wanted to know why they were married in a Church of Ireland parish church: Henry, who was then 24, was born a citizen of the Russian Czarist Empire, into a Jewish family in Suwalki in Russian Poland on 28 September 1855, while Teresa was born an Irish Catholic.

But off camera I told Dervla how Henry was a cohen or a member of the hereditary priest caste in Jewish society. To marry any woman outside Jewish society would exclude him for ever from full membership of the Jewish community in his adopted city. Teresa, for her part, risked being excluded from Catholic society for marrying a Jewish man unless he first converted to Catholicism.

Anti-Semitism had not yet become a major social problem in Dublin: just four years before their marriage, Lewis Wormser Harris was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1876 – although he died before taking office. But Henry and Teresa were taking a major risk, so it must have been a true love match. They must have really loved each other to make such enormous sacrifices.

As residents of Saint Peter’s Parish, the Church of Ireland parish church provided the most convenient and most tolerant place for Henry and Teresa to celebrate their wedding.

As I told Dervla, this was a true Victorian romantic love story.

Saint Peter’s Church, Aungier Street, Dublin … it closed in 1970 and was demolished in 1983

I showed her a photograph of Saint Peter’s before it was razed to the ground. But we also talked off-camera about how this church, which had been rebuilt in 1867, was a beautiful and richly-decorated church. The rector of Saint Peter’s, Archdeacon William Lee, and his curates, Canon Morgan Jellett and the Revd John James MacSorley (1809-1884), were part of that High Church tradition in Anglicanism that gave us the ‘slum priests,’ with an enlightened social awareness and engagement.

As we talked on, I was reminded of MacSorley’s daughter, Catherine Mary MacSorley, who wrote the hymn, We thank thee, O our Father, in 1890 for the children of Saint Peter’s School in Camden Row 1890. Her hymn includes a description of the conditions in inner-city Aungier Street, where Henry and Teresa were married, in late Victorian 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,
e’en there, O God, our Father,
thou mak’st the flowers grow.

Henry Kahn ran a tobacconist’s shop in Capel Street. Ten years after he and Teresa were married, he was baptised a Roman Catholic in Saint Michael’s and Saint John’s Church, Dublin, on his 35th birthday, 28 September 1890. A Latin inscription next to his name reads: ‘Adult baptism from Judaism.’ He was naturalised two years later.

Dervla had discovered a Victorian love story, and the rest of that story unfolded in that episode as she learned about a dismal miscarriage of justice and an act of anti-Semitism that reached even the House of Commons – and that inspired an episode in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The baptismal entry for Charles William Comerford in Saint Peter’s Church

Of course, there are interesting Comerford family connections with Saint Peter’s Church too.

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

Later, MacSorley also baptised Charles William Comerford in Saint Peter’s on 28 February 1878. Charles Comerford, who lived in Kenilworth Square 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.

Charles Comerford’s 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 Irish organising secretary (1868-1884) of SPG (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 [30 July 2019] on some of these branches of the Comerford family, and tried 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.

Canon Morgan Woodward Jellett (1832-1896) became the Rector of Saint Peter’s three years after conducting the wedding of Henry Kahn and Teresa O’Shea. Jellett, MacSorley and Buckley were part of that High Church tradition of ‘slum priests.’

The Revd John James MacSorley was born in Derry and spent all his ordained ministry in the same part of Dublin, 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 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 (1917). Many of her books were published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK).

Mary Gertrude died 1 May 1924, Catherine Mary died at the age of 80 at 6 Harcourt Terrace, Dublin, on 26 January 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.

Saint Peter’s Church closed in the 1975 and was later demolished. The site is now occupied by the DUublin YMCA. But the ‘slum priest’ and High Church legacy lives on in Catherine Mary MacSorley’s hymn, ‘We thank Thee, O our Father.’

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

Dervla Kirwan … found interesting stories about her ancestors on ‘Who do you think you are?’

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