29 July 2023
James Comerford (1885-1963),
an Irish Jesuit missionary
who spent his life in India
The Revd James Comerford (1885-1963), from Ballinakill, Co Laois, was an Irish Jesuit priest who worked for most of his life as missionary in India. He had once been at school with James Joyce, and two of his sisters were nuns.
Balinakill in Co Laois is between Abbeyleix, Ballyragget and Castlecomer, and close to the border of Co Laois and Co Kilkenny. Comerford family connections with Ballinakill date back to the mid-16th century, when the Revd Peter Comerford, probably a member of the Comerford family of Waterford and Castleinch, Co Kilkenny, was the Rector of Dysert Galen (Ballinakill), in the Diocese of Leighlin, from 1550.
In her recollection of the history of her branch of the Comerford family, the late Maire Comerford (1893-1982) recalls: ‘Our Comerford branch came to Rathdrum from Ballinakill in County Offaly [recte County Laois]. Kilkenny, like Galway, had its ‘Tribes’; but the Catholic tribes like the Walshes and the Comerfords, were evicted from the city of Kilkenny and ordered to live in Ballinakill.
‘All this happened a very long time before our story began in Rathdrum. In a quiet way, the Comerfords belonged to a class of Irish person who seemed relatively unaffected by the Penal Laws against Catholics; people engaged in primary industries – brewers, millers, wool merchants – who thrived relative to the many Irish people who depended for their livelihood on the land and nothing else.’
Maire Comerford also had strong family connections through her mother with north Co Wexford. Yet, in conversations with me in the early 1970s, she also recalled the tradition that the Comerford family of Ballinakill and Rathdrum was closely related to the Comerfords of Bunclody (Newtownbarry), Co Wexford.
So, when I came across the biographical details of the Jesuit missionary priest Father James Comerford from Ballinakill, I was interested to see that he too had close family links on his mother’s side of the family with the Bunclody area.
The Comerford family is recalled on the 1798 memorial in Ballinakill, Co Laois (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
A Comerford of Ballinakill, who may have been born ca 1742, is said to have been a hero during the 1798 Rising. A monument erected in the Square in the centre of Ballinakill in 1898 bears the inscription:
‘This monument is erected by the Ballinkill ’98 Club to commemorate the memory of the men who gave their lives for Ireland in 1798. Comerford. Grennan. Geoghan. McEvoy. Fagan. Fox. The above mentioned patriots are interred at Castle Lane. Beannacht Dé le h-anam na marbh.’
Members of the Comerford family in Ballinakill in the decades after the 1798 Rising included William Comerford, who moved from Ballinakill, Co Laois, to Laragh, Co Wicklow, Edmund Comerford, a juror in Ballinakill in 1823, and Edward Comerford, brewer, living in Ballinakill in the 1820s.
William Comerford, a shopkeeper in Ballinakill, Queen’s County, in the mid-19th century, was the father of Charles Comerford (1847-1891), a hotelier in Ballinakill. He married Eliza (Lizzie or Elizabeth) Finn (1845-1931) in Clonegal, Co Carlow, on 3 June 1876. She was the daughter of John Finn (1815-1890), a shopkeeper, and Elizabeth (McDonnell) Finn (1810-1891), of Clonegal, which is about 5 km outside Bunclody, on the border of Co Carlow and Co Wexford.
Charles and Eliza Comerford were the parents of eight children, six daughters and two sons:
1, Mary Elizabeth (1878-1939), born 13 April 1878, shopkeeper, of Ballinakil. She died in hospital in Portlaoise, 10 April 1939.
2, Sarah Anne (1880-1901), born 5 February 1880, died 22 August 1901.
3, (Sister) Katherine (Kate) Ellen (1881-1921), born 12 December 1881, died Limerick 13 December 1921.
4, John Joseph Comerford (1883-1884), born 5 August 1883, died aged 7 months, 6 March 1884.
5, (Revd) James Comerford (1885-1963), born on 27 January 1885.
6, Margaret Agnes (1886-1889), born 30 July 1886, died 11 December 1889, aged three.
7, (Sister) Bridget (‘Bridie’) (1888- ), born 26 November 1888.
8, Margaret May (1890-1917), born 26 May 1890, died in Clonegal, Co Carlow, on 13 May 1917.
Charles Comerford died in Ballinakill on 28 November 1891 at the age of 44. His widow Lizzie was living in Ballinakill, running the family hotel and farm, and living with her daughters Sarah (21) and Margaret (10) at the time of 1901 census.
In the decade that followed, Lizzie Comerford returned to live in Clonegal, near Bunclody. She was 65, a widow and a ‘retired grocer’, living with her sister, Mary Finn, shopkeeper and farmer, in Clonegal, and her daughter, Margaret Comerford (20), ‘shop assistant’, at the time of the 1911 census.
The sisters Kate and Bridie Comerford, both born in Ballinakill, later became known as Sister Catherine and Sister Mary of the Angels as nuns in the Good Shepherd Convent, Clare Street, Limerick. They were living there in 1901 and 1911. When Sister Catherine died at the age of 40 on 13 November 1921, it was noted that she was originally from Clonegal, Co Carlow. Sister Mary later became a nun in the Good Shepherd Convent in Waterford.
The Good Shepherd Convents became known as one of the ‘Mother and Baby’ homes or ‘Magdalene Laundries.’ Ironically, one of the women buried in the convent cemetery in Limerick is one of the residents, Bridget Comerford, who died there in 1958 at the age of 56. The difference is that Bridget was one of the 243 inmates of the Good Shepherd Laundry who was buried in an unmarked grave.
James Comerford, the second and only son of Charles and Eliza Comerford, was born on 27 January 1885 in Ballinakill, Co Laois. He was only five when his father died on 28 November 1891.
James Comerford’s early education was at the Jesuit-run school, Clongowes Wood College, Co Kildare, where James Joyce (1882-1941) also spent his formative years from 1888 to 1892.
When James Comerford was 17, he entered the Society of Jesus at Saint Stanislaus College, the Jesuit novitiate at Tullabeg, near Tullamore, Co Offaly, on 6 September 1902. Tullabeg was a formation house for Jesuit novices, and was known affectionately as ‘the Bog’. He was ordained priest on 1 July 1919, and took his final vows as a Jesuit on 2 February 1922.
Father James Comerford spent most of his life as one ‘a handful’ of Irish priests with the Jesuit Calcutta Province in the Darjeeling Region in West Bengal. The mission took in half or more of north-east India, included Patna, Ranchi and south of it, Assam, Bhutan and Sikkim – an area four or five times that of Ireland.
Many of the letters he wrote back to Ireland are kept in the Jesuit archives in Dublin. One letter written in 1928 describes his life in India as a missionary:
‘Here I am in a mud hut, where books and manuscripts are exposed to destructive insects. The Church is neat as far as a thing of mud can be. Malaria and cholera are the two chief diseases. The water is salty, the effects of the seawater not being wholly removed. I shall have to build a cottage, but I am not afraid of the cost, as I never yet heard of missioners being obliged to withdraw from outposts on account of expense.
‘People from Calcutta come out here in quest of game – tigers – that abound in a part of the district. I have to look after. in all my district there are 800 Catholics and about as many Protestants. The latter are visited occasionally by Fr W, a high Anglican clergyman. It is now nearly two years since his last visit. He walks like the Indians in his bare feet across the rough rice fields. I don’t know how he does it. With shoes I get blisters on my feet after 5 or 6 miles, His people tell me that they will become Catholic, if I open a school. This I have done for our own Catholics, but one has to move slowly when dealing with Bengalese, as they easily change.’
He went on to say: ‘The great trouble down there is the mud that covers part of the district. It is sticky and slimy, and you must sometimes submit to being carried through it by a couple of men. Once my carriers sank deep into it, and it was only with difficulty they were able to bring me to a place of safety. Efforts are being made in the Madura Mission to erect a Church that will he dedicated to St Patrick …’
Later that year, in another letter back to Ireland, James reported:
‘The mud walls of my hut crack, and in these recesses cockroaches retire during the day, and appear at night. Lizards abound, Bats find a snug shelter on the inside of my thatched roof. As soon as I light my lamp I am visited by all the grasshoppers in creation. Ants and mosquitos are numerous. Yesterday I caught a rat. Are there such rats anywhere else in the world? They have a most abominable smell. If I got rid of the rat the smell remained. The application of one of the senses in the meditation on hell would be easy and profitable in my present environment.’
He recalled: ‘My worst experience so far was on the eve of the Ascension. At midnight a terrific storm burst, and my roof, in parts, gave way. Then came the rain and poured over my bed. I opened my umbrella and enjoyed whatever partial help it gave. Tomorrow, Feast of the Ascension, I shall reserve the Blessed Sacrament. It has not been reserved here for the last 50 years. The rains have begun and I shall soon be submerged. My hut and the Church will be the only dry spots. When I want to go out I proceed in my bare feet, if the distance is short, otherwise by canoe. Such is life in the wilds.’
A year later, in 1929, he wrote in a letter home:
‘I went on a visit lately to a distant village at the mouth of the River Hoogli. I had to make the journey in a country canoe, and, starting at 6 am reached the end of my water passage at 8 pm. It was dark, and I had to do the remaining mile on foot. I did that mile often, yet, we lost our way. At 10.30 the men, carrying my Massbox, were so fatigued that they asked me to stop, saying that we were getting further and further into the jungle. I yielded, and we sat down on the mud embankment to await dawn, i.e. to wait from 10.30 pm to 4.30 am.
‘After the trudge I had through quagmires of mud, I was not opposed to rest. At midnight however the rain began to come down in a flood. At 2 am there was another short but copious downpour, and when it was over, in spite of everything, I began to nod. I also began to slip down the mud embankment towards the deep water that now lay around. What troubled me most was that I would be compelled to deprive my poor people of their Sunday Mass.
‘But when everything seemed hopeless, a kindly Providence came to our aid. At 4.30 I heard a man singing. We called him and with his help we were able to make our exit. I managed to get through my two Masses by 10.30. Then, after breakfast (I had taken nothing since breakfast on the previous day at 4.30, except some bread and jam with a flask of coffee) through six baptisms, and when all was over had a real, sound sleep on a plank bed. You get used to a plank bed.
‘At the beginning of my career as an outpost missioner, a plank bed was a genuine mortification. Now I can sleep as comfortably on one as on the most up-to-date article in Calcutta or Dublin.’
Meanwhile, James Comerford’s widowed mother, Lizzie Comerford, died at the age of 84 on 14 March 1931 in Clonegal, near Bunclody. She is buried in Clonegal with her daughter Margaret May Comerford, her sister Mary Finn, who died in 1934, her parents, John and Elizabeth Finn, and her maternal grandparents, Austin and Elizabeth McDonnell of Clonegal.
Father James Comerford died in Dishergarh, Asansol, West Bengal, on 10 October 1963. He was the last surviving member of his family.
This posting is now available on the Comerford Genealogy site as part of the series of Comerford Profiles HERE
For a posting on Comerford missionaries, visit HERE