14 January 2024

Mary Comerford Boddington,
a Cork-born travel writer,
and her descendants
who died in the Holocaust

The snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees … Mary Comerford Boddington wrote two volumes of travel books on the Pyrenees (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing late last week about four brothers – Alexander, Arthur, Patrick and Robert Law – who were prominent in cricket and in the theatre in the late Victorian era, and their Comerford family connections.

Their grandmother, Belinda Comerford, was a sister of Mary Teresa (Comerford) Boddington (1776-1840) was an Irish-born writer and traveller and the author of many volumes of travel literature, fiction and poetry.

Mary was born in Cork in 1776. Her father, Patrick Comerford of George’s Quay, Cork, and Summerville, Co Cork, was a wine merchant in Cork in partnership with his father John Comerford, who was directly descended from the Comerford family of Co Wexford. His mother Elizabeth Hennessy was a member of the well-known Hennessy family of Cognac fame.

Patrick Comerford married Anne (Teresa) Gleadowe in Bath in 1770. She was a daughter of Thomas Gleadowe (1700-1766) of Castle Street, Dublin, and a sister of the banker Sir William Gleadowe-Newcomen (1730-1806), of Killester, Co Dublin.

The couple returned to live in Cork, and their younger surviving daughter, Belinda Isabella Comerford, married the Revd Francis Law (1768-1807), Vicar of Attanagh in the Diocese of Ossory and Rector of Cork. They are part of the Comerford family stories. Many of Belinda’s descendants kept the Comerford family name, including her son, the Revd Patrick Comerford Law.

Belinda’s elder sister, the writer Mary (Comerford) Boddington, was born in Cork in 1776. She wrote verse frequently for papers and literary magazines in Cork before she left for London in 1803. Two years later, she married Thomas Boddington (1774-1862), a West Indian merchant, whose lucrative business was centred there.

Mary Comerford and Thomas Boddington were married on 16 April 1805, in Saint George’s Church, Hanover Square, London, then as now a fashionable church for weddings. There the architect Henry Holland married Capability Brown’s daughter Bridget in 1773, the architect John Nash married Mary Ann Bradley in 1798, and much later 28-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, the future US President, married Edith Carow (25) in 1886.

In the musical My Fair Lady, Alfred Doolittle (Stanley Holloway), having just been provided with an inheritance and having to move into ‘middle-class morality,’ invites his daughter Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) to his wedding at this church, leading to the song, ‘Get Me to the Church on Time.’

Mary toured continental Europe after 1815. Her first book, Slight Reminiscences of the Rhine, Switzerland and a corner of Italy (1834), was published in London in two volumes. This was followed by a two-volume collection of short stories, The Gossip’s Week (1836), James Hamilton and other tales (two volumes, Philadelphia, 1837), a second travel book, Sketches in the Pyrenees, with some remarks on Languedoc, Provence and the Cornice (two volumes, 1837), and a collection of poems, called simply Poems (1839).

Most of her books were published by Longman. Some of her songs were written to Irish airs, but while she and her husband Thomas Boddington are referred to frequently in Thomas Moore’s Diary, her poetry is now regarded as vain doggerel, remembered only because of her prolific output and because she was a woman writer who managed to publish so much at a time when men dominated the world of literature and publishing.

Mary died in 1840, and the popularity of her poetry and her travel writing faded soon after her death.

Mary and Thomas Boddington were the parents of two daughters and a son:

1, Mary Theresa (1806-1898).
2, Thomas Boddington (1807-1881).
3, Harriet Olivia (1809-1877).

Their elder daughter, Mary Theresa (1806-1898), was born in London on 13 January 1806. She moved to France and at the age of 25 she married Jean Ernest Lannes de Montebello (1803-1882), Baron de Montebello, in the British embassy in Paris on 27 April 1831. Jean Ernest was born on 20 July 1803 in Lisbon, where his father was Napoleon’s ambassador to Portugal. He died on 24 November 1882 in Pau, France, and Mary died there on 15 May 1898.

There the memories of their side of the Comerford family might have died out in the narratives of the Comerford genealogies if I had not decided in some idle moment many years ago to explore what had happened to Mary Comerford’s daughter and her descendants.

When Mary Boddington married Jean Ernest, he was chef de cabinet at the French Foreign Ministry and a chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur. His father, Jean Lannes, 1st Duc de Montebello (1769-1809), was a Marshal of the French Empire. He was one of Napoleon’s most daring and talented generals. In his exile on Saint Helena, Napoleon said of Lannes: ‘I found him a pygmy and left him a giant.’

Marshall Lannes was born on 10 April 1769 in the small town of Lectoure, in the Gers department in the south of France, the son of a Gascon farmer. He had little education and was first apprenticed to a dyer. But after enlisting in the army he quickly rose through the ranks and alongside Louis Nicolas Davout and André Masséna he is regarded as one the ablest of all of Napoleon’s marshals.

Napoleon sent him as ambassador to Portugal in 1801. Lannes bought the 17th century Château de Maisons, near Paris, in 1804, and had one of its state apartments redecorated for a visit by Napoleon.

When the French empire was founded, he was named a Marshal of France (1804), and he commanded the advanced guard of a great French army in the campaign of Austerlitz. Napoleon took him to Spain in 1808, and gave him a detached wing of the army, with which he won a victory over Castaños at Tudela. As a reward, Napoleon gave him the title of Duc de Montebello in 1808.

He was sent to capture Saragossa in 1809. After his last campaign in Spain, he said: ‘This damned Bonaparte is going to get us all killed.’ That year, for the last time, he had command of the advanced guard. He took part in the engagements around Eckmühl and the advance on Vienna. With his corps he led the French army across the Danube, and bore the brunt, with Masséna, of the terrible battle of Aspern-Essling. He received a mortal wound on 22 May and died on 31 May 1809.

Marshall Lannes and his second wife, Louise Antoinette, Comtesse de Guéhéneuc (1782-1856), had five children, including Jean Ernest Lannes, Baron de Montebello (1803-1882), who married Mary (Comerford) Boddington’s daughter, Mary Theresa.

Mary Theresa and Jean Ernest Lannes de Montebello were the parents of six children:

1, Marie (1832-1917), who married Henri O’Shea, a descendant of the family of wine merchants who had once been in partnership with the Comerford family in Cork.
2, Eveline (1837-1868), a nun in the Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul.
3, Berthe (1838-1893), who married Auguste Guillemin.
4, Jean Gaston Lannes de Montebello (1840-1926), 2nd Baron de Montebello, an artillery officer and a chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur.
5, René Lannes de Montebello (1845-1925), whose story continues this exploration of Comerford family connections.
6, Roger Lannes de Montebello (1850-1878), who died in Paris.

René Lannes de Montbello (1845-1925) was born in Gelos on 13 September 1845, and inherited some of the family fame and titles. He married Princess Marie Lubmirska (1847-1930) in Paris on 4 November 1875. She was the daughter of a celebrated Polish composer, Prince Kazimierz Anastazy Karol Lubomirski (1813-1871), whose family lived near Lviv in what is now Ukraine.

René was an army major and was known by the courtesy title of Baron de Montebello. But, when his son Henry was born in Paris in 1876, he assumed the title of count. Henry died in childhood, but René and his Polish princess were the parents of four other children. He died on 27 December 1925, and Princess Marie died on 18 May 1930.

One of their sons, Count André Roger Lannes de Montebello (1908-1986), was involved in the French resistance during World War II. He was the father of Count Guy Philippe Henri Lannes de Montebello, who, as plain Philippe de Montebello, was the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until he retired 2008.

But it is the fate of André’s elder sister that I have found distressing. Hedwige Marie Renée Lannes de Montebello (1881-1944), was born in Pau on 10 Mar 1881, and on 17 September 1910 she married in Biarritz Louis d’Ax de Vaudricourt (1879-1945), of the Château Vaudricourt, who was born on 20 May 1879.

Like her brother, Hedwige was involved in the French resistance. She was captured, and on 7 April 1944, named simply as Hedwig Ax, she was sent on a train from Gare de l’Est in Paris to the transit camp at Neue Bremm in Saarbrücken, Germany. She was moved to the women’s concentration camp in Ravensbrück, where her unique number was 47135. She died in Ravensbrück on 19 November 1944.

Her husband, named simply in his deportation papers as Louis Ax, died in the concentration camp in Dachau in January 1945.

Although I first came across her story more than ten years ago, I know no more than this about Hedwige Marie Renée Lannes de Montebello and her husband. They may seem like very distant twigs on a distant branch of the Comerford family tree. But if we fail to claim them as part of the family, they stop being part of ‘us’ and part being part of ‘them.’ And therein lies the beginning of all the dangerous thoughts that lead to racism and violent racism.

Hedwige Marie Renée Lannes de Montebello (1881-1944), a direct descendant of Mary Comerford Boddington – and through her of the Comerfords of Wexford and Cork – died in Ravensbrück on 19 November 1944. Later this month, Holocaust Memorial Day on Saturday 27 January 2024 recalls the 79th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps. The rise of the far-right across Europe and Holocaust Memorial Day later this month are stark reminders of the need to keep these stories alive, and to respect and honour the memories of the dead.

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