18 October 2023

A paper in the next
‘Old Limerick Journal’
on JD Bernal and
his Sephardic ancestors

The women’s balcony in the synagogue in Córdoba … Abraham Nuñez Bernal was burned alive by the Spanish Inquisition in Córdoba in 1654 … one of my photographs in the forthcoming edition of the ‘Old Limerick Journal’ (Photograph Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was delighted earlier this week to receive the final proofs of a substantial paper I have written for the Winter 2023 edition of the Old Limerick Journal. The journal is edited by Tom Donovan and published by the Limerick Museum at the Old Franciscan Friary on Henry Street, Limerick.

My eight-page paper, ‘The Sephardic family roots and heritage of John Desmond Bernal, Limerick scientist,’ is to appear on pp 46-53 in the forthcoming edition of the Old Limerick Journal. It includes 10 photographs, including photographs I have taken of places associated with Bernal’s ancestors, in Córdoba, Venice, London, Limerick and Nenagh.

John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971) was one of the most interesting and important Irish-born scientists of the twentieth century. He was a crystallographer, molecular physicist, social scientist, committed Communist, campaigner for world peace, and friend of Pablo Picasso.

Many people thought Bernal was a member of the family of the prominent Victorian politician, Ralph Bernal Osborne (1808-1882), of Newtown Anner House, Co Tipperary, who was a Liberal MP for a number of English constituencies (1841-1868) before becoming MP for Waterford (1870-1874). But, in fact, his grandfather, John Bernal (1819-1898) of Limerick, was born Jacob de Isaac Haim Genese.

The ancestors of this family were Sephardic Jews who lived in Venice from at least the mid-17th century, and before that they had lived in the Ancona area of southern Italy for many generations. The family moved through Amsterdam to London, and Jacob arrived in Ireland in the 1840s from London.

Their synagogue membership in Venice shows the Genese family were of Italian Jewish (Italkim) origin rather than a family of Sephardic Jews who fled the Inquisition in Italy. This fascinating family with a long lineage married into some of the most eminent Sephardic families of Europe, with names like Lopes, Mendoza, Isaacs, Castro, Tubi, Nunes Martinez, Crespo and Levy.

The Ponte de Ghetto Vecchio leads into the Campo de Ghetto Nuovo in Venice … one of my photographs in the forthcoming edition of the ‘Old Limerick Journal’ (Photograph Patrick Comerford)

Admittedly, I came across the family almost by accident. I was interested in two brothers, Henry (Harry) William John Comerford (1874-1958) and Albert (Bert) Alfred George Comerford (1879-1973), who had married two sisters, Rosina Sarah Sipple (1881-1958) and Agnes Violet Sipple (1884-1965).

In my genealogical research on the Comerford family, these two brothers almost slipped under the radar. They were involved in stage, theatre, show business and early films at the beginning of the last century, but they used stage names, Harry Ford and Bert Brantford, which disguised their family origins.

Eventually, as I traced their families, I realised that Rosina and Agnes, the two sisters who married these two brothers, were Jewish by birth through their mothers. Although their grandparents were from the heart of the Jewish East End in nineteenth century London, they were descended from a long line of Sephardic families, associated for many generations with the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London.

At some stage in tracing this branch of the family through the East End, Amsterdam and Seville, I also came across the story of Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836), once one of the best-known and most celebrated boxers in sporting history on these islands. One hunch led to another, as is so often the case in genealogical research, and within weeks of visiting the Jewish quarter in Seville, I ended up tracing a very long-tailed family with links to Jewish communities throughout Europe.

When Jacob de Isaac Haim Genese settled in Ireland, he changed his name to John Bernal, and he moved to Limerick he became an auctioneer and a city councillor. His son, Samuel George Bernal (born 1864), bought a farm in Brookwatson on the Portumna road outside Nenagh, Co Tipperary. He was the father of five children, including John Desmond Bernal, the eldest child.

Two years ago, one of my photographs of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, featured as the front cover illustration the Winter 2021 edition of the Old Limerick Journal (No 56), with a complimentary credit and description of me inside on the title page.

In his paper in that edition of the Old Limerick Journal, the historian Des Ryan wrote about searches for ‘The Origins of the Limerick Jewish Community’ (pp 13-15), and asked whether the local newspapers were right in the 1890s to describe them as ‘Polish’ or even, on one occasion, ‘a Polish colony.’

He looked at the background of the 31 Jewish families living in Limerick at the time of the 1901 census, and found that while one family gave Poland as their place of origin, the other 30 families recorded Russia as their place of birth. In reality, most of them came from Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire.

At the time, more than 5 million people were living in an area known as ‘the Pale,’ which stretched from parts of Latvia in the north, to Odessa and the Black Sea in the south, including large parts of present-day Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Poland. Many of Jewish families in these regions fled the persecutions and pogroms that intensified after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.

Des Ryan, the longest-running contributor to Old Limerick Journal and a member of the journal’s editorial committee, provided an interesting and invaluable list of the Jewish families living in Limerick in 1901, many of them in Collooney Street (now Wolfe Tone Street) and the surrounding area.

My research on John Desmond Bernal was first presented at lunchtime lectures in the Hunt Museum, Limerick, on 11 February 2020, and in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, on 18 May 2021 (https://youtu.be/kx0OIY2J4oU)

I am looking forward to seeing the latest edition of the Old Limerick Journal when it is published in the coming weeks. I hope the responses to my story of JD Bernal’s Sephardic ancestry will include support for my belief that Limerick needs a Jewish Walking Trail, like those in many European cities.

The Winter 2023 edition of the Old Limerick Journal should be available within the next few weeks in all good bookshops in Limerick and through the museums in Limerick.

The Scuola Italiana or Italian synagogue in the heart of the Ghetto in Venice … the Genese family were members of this synagogue … one of my photographs in the forthcoming edition of the ‘Old Limerick Journal’ (Photograph Patrick Comerford)

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