04 February 2023

Pierce Comerford: the Irish
missionary who sent bones
of a Dodo back to Dublin

Monsignor Pierce Michael Comerford (1818-1905) … while he was living in Mauritius, he donated parts of a Dodo to the RDS Museum in Dublin

There are reports this week that the dodo, a Mauritian bird last seen in the 17th century, could be brought back to at least a semblance of life if attempts by a gene editing company are successful. The Guradian reports that gene editing techniques now exist that allow scientists to mine the dodo genome for key traits that they believe they can then effectively reassemble within the body of a living relative.

The Dodo was a non-flying bird that lived on the island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. It became extinct in the mid-17th century during the colonisation of the island by the Dutch.

There are hundreds of Dodos or parts of Dodos in collections around the world, making it possible to sequence the dead bird’s genome. Some of those collections include D0do bones in the Natural History Museum in Dublin, known to generations of Dublin children as the ‘Dead Zoo Museum.’

They ended up in Dublin thanks to donations from Monsignor Pierce Comerford from Kilkenny in 1865, the same year as the first major find of Dodo bones in Mauritius and the same year the Dodo entered popular culture with the publication of Alice in Wonderland.

Pierce Comerford’s Dodo fragments, labelled with his name in the Natural History Museum in Dublin

The Revd Dr Pierce Michael Comerford (1818-1905) worked in Mauritius for 30 years before joining his sisters in California. Some Dodo bones he sent back to Dublin from Mauritius in 1865 became part of the collection in the Royal Dublin Society Museum and are now in the Natural History Museum – the ‘Dead Zoo’ – on Merrion Square in Dublin.

Monsignor Pierce Michael Comerford was a son of Nicholas Comerford (1780-ca 1870), of Coolgreany House near Castlewarren, Co Kilkenny, and his wife Margaret Hanrahan, of Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, who were married in 1817. There is some confusion, but it seems the Coolgreany branch of the family was descended from the Comerfords of Ballybur and the Butterslip, and closely related to the Comerfords of Bunclody, Co Wexford.

Nicholas Comerford’s children included the missionary priest Monsignor Pierce Comerford (1818-1905), and two sisters who were two missionary nuns: Bridget (Mother Mary Teresa) Comerford (1821-1881) and Kate (Mother Mary Bernard) Comerford (1830-1911).

Pierce Michael Comerford was born Peter Michael Comerford in Coolgreany in October 1818, and he studied at Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny.

Pierce was in his 20s when he went to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. There he was ordained priest in 1845 by Bishop William Bernard Allen Collier, Bishop of Mauritius and Titular Bishop of Milevum. He would spend over 30 years working a missionary, mostly in Mauritius, with his cousin, Father Cornelius Hogan.

Pierce Comerford almost became a missionary bishop. He was nominated as the Auxiliary Bishop of Port Louis, Mauritius, and Titular Bishop of Megara on 7 January 1862. But he was never consecrated bishop, apparently for reasons of ill-health, although he continued to work as Vicar General of Mauritius. At the same time, another Irish-born missionary, Vincent William Ryan (1816-1888), who was born in Cork, was the first Anglican Bishop of Mauritius from 1854 to 1869.

Both Monsignor Comerford and Bishop Ryan were interested in the search for the Dodo on Mauritius. Until 1860, the only known Dodo remains were the four incomplete 17th-century specimens. Philip Burnard Ayres found the first subfossil bones in 1860, which were sent to Richard Owen at the British Museum, who did not publish the findings. In 1863, Owen asked Bishop Vincent Ryan to spread word that he should be informed if any dodo bones were found.

After a 30-year search, George Clark, the government schoolmaster at Mahébourg, finally found an abundance of subfossil dodo bones in 1865 in the swamp in Mare aux Songes in Southern Mauritius.

That same year, Dr Comerford gifted three leg bones and a small portion of the Lower Mandible of the Dodo (Didus ineptus), from Mahébourg, Mauritius, to the Royal Dublin Society Museum in Dublin on 17 November 1865.

John Tenniel’s illustration of the Dodo in ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’

That year, the Dodo entered popular culture as a character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). The Dodo is a caricature of the author. A popular but unsubstantiated belief is that Dodgson chose the particular animal to represent himself because of his stammer, and thus would accidentally introduce himself as ‘Do-do-dodgson’.

Dr Comerford’s donation is labelled as from ‘Mahbourd’, Mauritius, although the locality ‘Mahbourd’ is not given in the RDS register entry. His Dodo bones are now part of the collection of the Natural History Museum in Dublin.

Dr Comerford remained Vicar-General of Mauritius until 1876, when he returned home to Ireland to retire, to rest and to restore his health. However, his sister, Mother Mary Teresa Comerford, soon called him out of retirement, inviting him to leave Ireland for California and to be the pastor for a newly-established church linked with her school in Berkeley. She persuaded him to move to Berkeley in late 1878, arguing that ‘the wonderful climate of Berkeley would be more beneficial to his health than the cold of Ireland.’

Until his arrival, there had only been an itinerant priest serving the predominantly Irish Roman Catholics in Berkeley. Using his own money, Dr Comerford built himself a rectory facing Addison Street on lands donated by James McGee. A school for boys, Saint Peter’s, was built 100 ft south of the convent, facing Jefferson Avenue. With a school and chaplain in place, Archbishop Joseph Alemany of San Francisco created Saint Joseph’s Parish on 29 April 1879.

When Mother Mary Teresa returned to Ireland in 1879 to establish a novitiate for the California foundation in Kilcock, Co Kildare, her brother remained in Berkeley. When Dr Comerford was given permission to build a new school for boys, again James McGee donated the land for the school, and Saint Peter’s Boys’ School, financed by Dr Comerford, opened on 1 January 1881. There is a tradition that Dr Comerford sold his horse in order to furnish the school.

His sister returned to California in May 1881, but she died that August. Soon after, Dr Comerford next decided to build a church for the Catholics of Berkeley. Bryan Clinch, who had designed several small wooden Gothic churches in Northern California, was chosen as the architect. The site for the church was partially on land that McGee had given to Mother Teresa and partly on land that he gave to the church.

Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church was begun in 1883 but, due to lack of funds, was not completed until 1886. The church was paid for by a series of annual fairs that attracted the interest of people as far away as San Francisco.

Monsignor Comerford retired from Saint Joseph’s in 1899, but he remained active as a chaplain at O’Connor Hospital in San Jose. He died there on 19 December 1905, having been a priest for almost 61 years. He was buried in Santa Clara Mission Cemetery in Santa Clara. It was said: ‘Though ascetic in frame, Dr Comerford remained erect and vivacious to the end.’

The church he had built was torn down in 1913 to make room for a new wing of the convent, which stood until 1966.

His sister, Mother Mary Teresa Comerford (1821-1881), was a member of the pioneer group of Presentation Sisters sent from Ireland to begin missionary work in San Francisco in 19th century, was born Bridget Comerford in 1821. Their younger sister, Mother Mary Bernard Comerford (1830-1911), was born Catherine Comerford in Co Kilkenny in 1830. She too joined the Presentation Sisters, and travelled to San Francisco to join her sister in 1861. She remained in Berkeley until her death in 1911.

Mother Mary Teresa Comerford … persuaded her brother to move from Ireland to California

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