Doorways into the Comerford family history: the front door of Quemerford House in Quemerford, Calne, Wiltshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Doorways into the Comerford family history: the doorway at Ballybur Castle, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Professor Katie Cannon once offered a course at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, entitled the “Genealogy of Race, Sex, Class Oppression.” Most of us, if we were to look into our genealogy and family history, might discover how many of our ancestors have been discriminated against because of their race or class, and that at least half of them, all the women among our ancestors, have been discriminated against on the grounds of gender.
Sometimes, the burden of carrying our ancestors’ memories and names can be back-breaking. Even those who have famous (or perhaps infamous) parents or grandparents can suffer from having a name that is all too easy to recognise.
What’s in a Name?
The son of a great Greek poet once said that his father’s name was the profitless burden which he was condemned by irrevocable ill-fortune to bear on his shoulders throughout his life.
In the Old Testament story of Jacob, Jacob’s first words are a lie when he claims his brother’s name, identity and place: “I am Esau” (Genesis 27: 19), He wants to be someone else – the better one, the brawnier one, the beloved one, the first-born. However, Jacob learns instead to live in pursuit of God, and a transformation takes place. Later, when he is asked, “What is your name?” he replies: “Jacob” (Genesis 32: 27), but immediately is told: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel” (Genesis 32: 28).
Ancient names describe who a person is, which place they have in the family and the community, what marks them as individuals and what their relationships are. Isaac means “laughter,” Abimelech means “my father is king,” and the prophet Isaiah called his first son “Shear-Jashub” or “a remnant shall return.” Moses means “to draw out,” a name he was given because his mother drew him out of a river.
God displays the importance of a name when he says to Abraham: “I am God Almighty (El Shaddai”) (see Genesis 17: 1). It was quite a gift for Abraham to receive the divine name, which Jews today will not even speak or write out of respect.
Later, when Moses questioned whether he was up to the task God was giving him, El Shaddai would tell him: “I AM who I AM … Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’ … This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations” (Exodus 3: 14-15). By giving his name, God is offering an intimate invitation into relationship.
Christ shocked his listeners when he proclaimed: “Very tuly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8: 58). He is telling them that the intimate relationship that God offered their ancestors can be accessed through Christ. And the sign of this relationship is not a signed contract or a firm handshake, but a name.
Names matter, and when one is changed it is more than a legal matter, for it signals a shift in identity. God changed Abram’s name to Abraham (“father of a multitude”) and Sarai’s name to Sarah (“queen”) as a reminder of his promise to make them parents of a great nation. Christ changes Simon’s name to Peter as an expression of his future role in forming the church.
The value of family history
The poet Cecil Day-Lewis, who spent much of his childhood in Co Carlow and Co Wexford, wrote in his last book, Whispering Roots, of
the traditional Anglo-Irish
Pastime of playing hide-and-seek
Among family trees
But family history can also have a positive and beneficial effect for many, helping to give us a sense of belonging, both in space and in time. But for many of us, our father’s names and a sense of having roots in a particular place are all that we can hope to inherit in this world, and two of the few things we might hope to pass on when we die.
This small family history is an effort to help those who share the Comerford family name and story to understand the name we have as a common inheritance, and to see that name not as some profitless burden from our fathers, borne on our shoulders through irrevocable ill-fortune, but as an inheritance that gives us a sense of belonging in space and time. The memory of our ancestors, which includes tales of oppression due to race, sex and class, instead of being a backbreaking burden, can be uplifting. In his book, Report to Greco, the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, describes his life-long pursuit of his ancestors as “an oppressive, insatiable duty.” For the dying Kazantzakis, who felt his great-grandfather “still fully alive in my blood,” it was a terrifying search.
Their stories and our stories
But the search for our ancestors and a sense of being rooted in our own society and its history can also be uplifting. In an interview on RTÉ some years ago with Charlie Bird, the former President, Mary Robinson, spoke beautifully of the need to share family stories and our sense of identity with the Irish diaspora. “Their story is our story,” she said. “It’s family history.”
The Apostle Paul urges us not to occupy ourselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than divine training that is faith (I Timothy 1: 4). In the past, genealogies were often selective and speculative, tracing only those ancestors that would appear to enhance the social standing of the person for whom they were written. In the early 18th century, there was a genealogical genre popular among some Irish people, particularly those in exile in France and Spain, anxious to prove they had a pedigree far superior to those of the new English settlers. In the 19th century, publications such as Debrett’s Peerage, Burke’s Peerage and Burke’s Landed Gentry, linked the genealogical genre with the landholding gentry and the peerage, replete with snobbish foibles and pre-Marxist understandings of the nature of class and the functions of social stratification.
Even in its late 20th century format as Burke’s Irish Family Records, the former Burke’s Landed Gentry, continued to concentrate on families with aristocratic pretensions or whose wealth was derived primarily from their land holdings. Where were the famous political and trade union families and dynasties such as the de Valeras, the Connollys, the Pearses, the Larkins, the Corishes, Maud Gonne and the MacBrides, or the Lemasses and Haugheys? George Bernard Shaw had received a passing mention in Burke’s Peerage, not as a Nobel Prize-winning playwright but as a minor scion of the Shaws, baronets of Bushy Park. But where were the great literary families such as the Elgee-Wilde family, or the families of great writers and literary figures such as Sean O’Casey, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett?
These publications ignored the great store of genealogical lore among ordinary people, despising the oral tradition that once ensured generations of genealogies had been preserved and transmitted in many ordinary, normal and beautiful families in all classes in rural Ireland into this century.
It is easy to ridicule the way in which genealogies and family histories were selective and snobbish in the past. By the time we go back 20 generations, each of us has a million people in that generation alone from which to select our ancestors. it is calculated that when we trace our ancestors back to the year 1000 we each have 8,589,934,592 ancestors ... more people than are alive at present. But many of them are our ancestors in hundreds or thousands of different ways, so that I am probably descended from everyone then living in Europe who has living descendants ... we are all distant cousins, in one way or another.
So, theoretically at least, given the population of Ireland 20 generations or 600 years ago, most of us are closely related to one another, most of us share a vast array of ancestors, and most of those ancestors were recent immigrants, or the descendants of recent immigrants. Which ancestors we decide to trace our family histories back to reveals a certain desire for what we might call “myth fulfilment.” Genealogies can be composed with emphases that reflect our own priorities.
The Gospels offer us two different genealogies for Jesus, in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew (1: 1-17) and the Gospel according to Saint Luke (Luke 3: 23-38). Both genealogies are almost exclusively male listings, but they reflect different priorities distinguished by some interesting variation in Matthew’s genealogical approach. While Saint Luke traces the line of ancestry back to Adam, emphasising the universalist nature of the incarnation, Saint Matthew traces the line back to Abraham, rooting Jesus in space and time, placing him in the context of Israel’s story. He is not ashamed to name some of the more colourful men in this family tree, including Jacob, who lied and cheated his old blind father; Judah who slept with his own daughter-in-law, mistaking her for a cult prostitute; David the bandit-shepherd who becomes king; Rehoboam, who encouraged pagan cults and male cult prostitutes; Jehoram (or Joram), who married Ahab’s sister and followed the depraved lifestyle of his brother-in-law and his wife, Jezebel; Uzziah the leper; and Manasseh and Amon (Amos) who burned babies alive.
This is a colourful interpretation of the family history of Jesus as offered by Saint Matthew. But perhaps it is more interesting to note that, unlike Luke, Matthew includes five women among the ancestors of Jesus. The choice of these five women has particular significance in Saint Matthew’s genealogy; a reader knowing that Matthew was anxious to prove the royal ancestry and lineage of Jesus, might have expected that if any women were to be selected for special mention, they would have been queens, or perhaps the daughters of important kings, mighty warriors, or great prophets. Instead, the author of Matthew’s Gospel selects five women who were on the margins of society. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary were not the sort of women one might want to boast about in some imaginary Biblical version of Burke’s Peerage or Burke’s Landed Gentry.
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary are the sort of ancestors often overlooked by ancestor-searchers. But they challenged the Jewish restrictions on marriage to Gentiles and challenged the very definition of Jewish-ness which depends on a mother's authentic Jewish identity. By those rabbinical definitions of Jewish-ness, which perhaps were beginning to develop at the time the Gospels were written, we could not regard Perez, Boaz, or Solomon, or for that matter David and the whole line of kings of Israel and Judah as authentic, ethnic Jews.
Social mixtures and realities
Family history can teach us what a mixed lot we are. Properly researched, it can challenge our forgotten bigotries, prejudices and presumptions, and make us face up to and reclaim the realities of the mixtures from past generations that have gone to make us what we are today.
In the case of the Comerfords in south-east Ireland, we can delight in the discovery and enjoy the diversity found among family members over many centuries: the last pre-Reformation Bishop of Ferns; the first post-Reformation Dean of Ossory; Catholic bishops and archbishops in Waterford, Cashel and Carlow; Church of Ireland clergy in the Diocese of Ossory; judges and mayors, MPs and publicans, hurlers and footballers; stucco plasterers who worked on Pugin’s great churches; trade unionists and employers; and our very own villains, sentenced, jailed and deported. There were even two members of the family who took opposing sides during the 1798 Rising: one is said to have supported Bagenal Harvey and witnessed the executions on Wexford Bridge, the other was a yeoman who was burned to death in Kyle Glebe in Kilmuckridge, one of the first victims of the fighting; both were named James Comerford.
In Dublin, the family earns a passing mention in James Joyce’s Ulysses, while the English author of The Prisoner of Zenda was a kinsman of the Wexford Comerfords through his descent from a Cork branch of the family.
Outside Ireland, an Elizabeth Comerford was living in the Ionian Islands before their incorporation into the modern Greek state when she appears in the military register of marriages in Corfu. And there was almost a Comerford princess: Kathleen Comerford MacLoughlin married Prince Alexis Pavlovich Stcherbatov in 1941. Prince Alexis, who was born in St Petersburg in Russia in 1910, was a son of Prince Paul Borissovich Stcherbatov (1871-1951) and of his wife, née Princess Anna Wladimirovna Bariatinsky (1879-1942). Prince Alexis and Princess Kathleen had no children, and she died in 1999; her husband died in New York in June 2003.
Some may question the value of family history: is it simply about cushioning the insecurities of those who cannot accept their present circumstances and their present state of life? But family history can be instructive as well as fun, reminding us of the values of a pluralist society. The Wexford historian and genealogist, Hilary Murphy, is a good working example of a genealogist who has moved away from the pursuit of famous or well-connected ancestors to trace the stories of ordinary, everyday families in provincial and rural Ireland. He has shown that the collected stories of ordinary, local families, can be interesting and colourful in themselves, and can contribute to enhancing a sense of community in particular areas.
Ordinary everyday people have important stories to tell about their families, stories in which they can revel without any need for shame and embarrassment when it comes to some of the more “colourful” members of the family. Too often it was whispered in the provincial Ireland that certain people came from bad families and that having anything to do with them could end in nothing but coming to a bad end. But as Herbert McCabe has said, “Jesus did not belong to the nice clean world of Angela McNamara or Mary Whitehouse, or to the honest, reasonable world of The Observer or The Irish Times, he belonged to a family of murderers, cheats, cowards, adulterers and liars – he belonged to us and came to help us, no wonder he came to a bad end, and gave us some hope.”
References and Footnotes:
 D. Venardakis, Psevdattikismou elenechos, in K. S. Knondou Glossikon paratiriseon [...] anakevi (Trieste, 1884), p. 441.
 Cecil Day-Lewis, “An Ancestor,” Whispering Roots (London, 1970), p. 33.
 Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco (London, 1973), p. 24.
 Herbert McCabe, God Matters (London, 1987), pp 248-249.
 See Hilary Murphy, Families of County Wexford (Dublin: Geography Publications, 1986), passim.
 McCabe, p. 249.
To return to Patrick Comerford’s welcome page and the navigation aids, click here:
Welcome to ‘Comerford Family History’
© Patrick Comerford 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014.
Last updated: 12 April 2008, 16 August 2009, 31 December 2010; 6 June 2011; 7 May 2013; 16 May 2014; 3 July 2014; 14 July 2014, 26 July 2014; 20 September 2014.