Sunday, 28 June 2009

Comerford Profiles 21: Máire Comerford (1893-1982), republican activist and journalist

Máire Comerford (1893-1982) journalist and republican activist

Patrick Comerford

Máire Comerford (1893-1982) was a prominent Irish republican activist and journalist from Co Wexford who witnessed the principal events in the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War in 1916-1923.

She remained a committed supporter of Republican causes until her death in her ninetieth year, and at her death she was described as “the grand old dame of Republicanism.”

Ardavon House, Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, home to generations of this branch of the Comerford family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

She was born Mary Eva Comerford in Ardavon Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, on 29 June 1893 – although she preferred to call herself Máire after the Irish Civil War. She was born into the Catholic gentry of Co Wicklow, the eldest child of James Charles Comerford (1842-1907), of Ardavon House, Rathdrum – the owner of Rathdrum Mill and a friend of Charles Stewart Parnell – and his wife Eva Mary Esmonde (1860-1949) [see 13: Comerford of Ballinakill, Rathdrum and Courtown]. She later recalled: “My father was a friend of Parnell and they visited each other quite often.”

The former Comerford Mill in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Her mother, Eva Mary Comerford (1860-1949), who was born on 3 November 1860, was three times tennis champion of Ireland. Eva Mary Comerford’s father, Colonel Thomas Esmonde VC (1829-1872), Deputy-Inspector General of the Royal Irish Constabulary, served in the Crimean War and was the first British officer to enter Sebastopol after the siege in 1854. He was later decorated with the Victoria Cross for his part in the Battle of Sebastopol. Colonel Esmonde – whose great uncle was the Right Rev James Murphy, Bishop of Cork – was a younger brother of Sir John Esmonde (1826-1876), 10th Baronet, of Ballynastragh, Gorey, Co Wexford, and Glenwood, Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, Liberal MP for Waterford (1852-1876). Máire later laughingly spoke of the Esmondes as a “minor tier of the Anglo-Irish Catholic aristocracy.”

James and Eva Mary Comerford were married on 7 September 1892 and had three or four other children, including Alexander ‘Sandy’ Comerford of Malahide, Co Dublin, the father of the film-maker Joe Comerford (q.v.).

At first, Máire was educated privately at home and afterwards at a convent. Her father, James Charles Comerford, died in 1907, when Máire was 14, and by then the family finances had been in serious decline for years. The Comerford children were subsequently raised in Co Wexford and Co Waterford. In 1911, Máire was sent to a secretarial school in London, where she stayed in the Ladies’ Club in Eccles Place. The school was run by a Miss Gradwell, “a Tory lady from Co Meath” who “took to reading out Carson’s speeches in our shorthand classes.”

In London, Máire first became conscious of the political situation in Ireland, and she began to study Irish history and politics in her spare time.

Máire returned to Ireland around 1915 to live in Co Wexford with her mother in the home of Eva Mary Comerford’s brother, Máire’s uncle, Thomas Louis Esmonde (1864-1918). Around this time, her mother then rented a house in Courtown, Co Wexford, and there they set up a school for girls, where Máire was a teacher for a time. Invermore, designed by Sir Thomas Newenham Deane, had been built in 1859 as a house for the land agents of the Courtown estate, and had been lived in by the Hon George Stopford, brother of the Earl of Courtown, and Lady Mary Lloyd, before Eva Mary Comerford and Máire Comerford moved there.

The rubble of Invermore gives no hint of a lost story (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The house was built on a ridge overlooking Courtown Harbour. At times, it was also known as Levuka, and it changed hands and names many times. It became an hotel in 1947, and was known variously as the Oulart Hotel, the Sands Hotel and the Stopford House Hotel.

Like most hotels in Courtown, it fell on hard times, was closed, and was recently demolished. All that I could see when I visited in January 2012 was a heap of rubble and a clump of trees in a fenced-off field near two small housing estates. Nothing is left of the stepped arches over the windows, the pyramid-shaped roof, the classical porch, the Gothic entrance arch, the elaborate fretted balusters on the main and secondary staircases with their plant and animal motifs, or the courtyard at the rear with its eclectic design executed in local red brick and the outbuildings with carved bargeboards,

The once planned apartments were never built on the site, and the rubble of a grand old house that once looked down towards the harbour and out to sea – the rubble of a house that once played a minor role in Irish architectural and political history – shows no traces of a forgotten grandeur.

Early career

Meanwhile, in Co Wexford, Máire become involved in the local co-operative movement and in the United Irishwomen, later the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (ICA). On the outbreak of World War I, she also became involved in providing relief for Belgian refugees.

Her plans to work with her mother in running their school in Courtown were disrupted by the events in 1916. She was in Dublin staying with an elderly cousin, Miss Maud Mansfield, who lived at 4 Garfield Terrace, Rathgar, between Rathgar Road and Rathgar Avenue. Accidentally and unexpectedly, Máire found herself present at the outbreak of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. She did not take part in the Rising, and although she volunteered to aid Countess Markiewicz in Saint Stephen’s Green, she was turned away and carried despatches for the GPO garrison. In an interview with Aileen Orpen of The Irish Press at the age of 86, she described the events of 1916 in Dublin, saying: “It was wonderful.”

Máire Comerford with other Cumann na mBan women (Photograph: RTÉ Stills Library)

She returned to Gorey, Co Wexford, after the Easter Rising, joined Cumann na mBan and joined the local Sinn Féin branch.

Comerford supported the prisoners who had been taken in 1916 and the reordering of the Sinn Fein party from 1917. During the Irish War of Independence, Alice Stopford Green (1848-1929) assigned her to work the White Cross organisation, which was led by the Quaker James Douglas and which aimed to assist civilian war victims by raising money in the US.

Alice Sophia Amelia Stopford-Green, who was married to the historian, the Revd John Richard Green, was a distant cousin of the Earl of Courtown, a daughter of Archdeacon Edward Stopford of Meath, and a grand-daughter of Bishop Edward Stopford of Meath.

The house at No 90 Saint Stephen’s Green (left), where Máire Comerford lived in 1918 when she worked with Alice Stopford-Green (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Máire returned to Dublin shortly before the 1918 General Election. When Alice Stopford-Green returned to Dublin that year at the age of 70, she bought a house at 90 Saint Stephen’s Green and engaged Máire Comerford as her secretary. In that house, Máire met many of the leading nationalists of the day. León Ó Broin later recalled how both women were visited at the house they shared by prominent figures of the day, including the future president Douglas Hyde, the writers George Russell (AE), James Stephens and the historian Edmund Curtis, as wells as Horace Plunkett, George Gavan Duffy, the Quaker James Douglas, Erskine Childers, Mary Spring-Rice, Desmond FitzGerald and Frank Gallagher. He described how Comerford would wait on the alert while Michael Collins was visiting the house, and remembered the two women attending a meeting in the Childers family home on Bushy Park Road, Rathgar.

One of Ó Broin’s stories is of Comerford knocking one night at Alice Wordsworth’s house at 53 Leinster Road, Rathmines, where Bobby Childers was staying while his father was on the run and seeking hiding for a young man who had been shot in the head.

However, the working relationship between Máire Comerford and Alice Stopford Green eventually broke down because of their political differences, and Máire worked for a time as Áine Ceannt’s secretary

During the 1918 general election campaign, Máire was back in Co Wexford, campaigning for Roger Sweetman (1874-1954), who was elected Sinn Féin MP for Wexford North in December 1918. In that election, Sinn Féin won a majority and Comerford was an observer when the First Dail was inaugurated on 19 January 1919. She was present in the Round Room at the Mansion House to hear the Declaration of Independence being read and passed by the 37 TDs present.

Meanwhile, she was travelling the country, organising branches of Cumann na mBan, carrying dispatches for the the IRA’s Fourth Northern Division, and reporting on the activities of the Black and Tans.

During this time, she was a regular visitor to Co Carlow, and sheltered in Duckett’s Grove. By 1920, she was working for Sinn Féin in Co Tippeary, where one of her tasks was to work as a guide for Phyllis Snowden, wife of the British Labour leader. She also continued her involvement in the Irish White Cross. Later, she was in charge of a Cumann na mBan unit thatlooked after the upkeep of the Duckett mansion when it was occupied by the National Army before “the Split” in the immediate aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

Civil War

A false passport used by Maire Comerford during the Irish Civil War

She attended the Treaty debates, but opposed the treaty of 1921 on the grounds that she wanted no change from the republic proclaimed in the 1916 proclamation. Cumann na mBan voted by 419-63 against the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and wanted to maintain the Irish Republic. However, this vote was taken after the Treaty had been approved by the Dail on 7 January 1922.

Máire Comerford took the Anti-Treaty side in the Civil War of 1922-1923, in contrast to the stand taken by some of her prominent cousins in Co Wexford.

Her mother’s first cousin, Sir Thomas Henry Grattan Esmonde (1862-1935), 11th baronet, was Home Rule MP for South Dublin (1885-1892), West Kerry (1892-1900) and North Wexford (1900-1918), and later was an Independent Senator. His son, Sir Osmond Thomas Grattan Esmonde (1896-1936), 12th Baronet, was a Cumann na nGaedhael TD for Wexford (1923-1936).

Her mother was also a first cousin of Sir John Lymbrick Esmonde (1893-1958), 14th Baronet. He was one of a handful of people who served both as an MP and as a TD. He was MP for North Tipperary (1915-1918), being elected while he was a Captain with the Intelligence Corps in World War I – indeed, he was one of five Irish MPs who fought in World War I, the others being Stephen Gwynn, Willie Redmond, William Redmond and DD Sheehan. Later, Sir John Esmonde was a Fine Gael TD for Co Wexford (1937-1944, 1948-1951), was one of a handful of people who had been elected both as an MP and as a TD. John was Attorney General in John A. Costello’s government, although in 1948 Sean MacBride had suggested him as a possible Taoiseach because he had no links with either side in the Civil War. His brother, Eugene Esmonde, received a VC posthumously in 1942 during World War II. Another brother, Sir Anthony Grattan Esmonde (1899-1981), was Fine Gael TD for Wexford (1951-1972).

At the outbreak of the Civil War she reported to the Four Courts garrison in Dublin, opened a first-aid station and riding her bicycle along the bullet-swept streets and quays kept communications open between the Four Courts and the IRA headquarters where de Valera was stationed. As the Four Courts were being bombarded, she escaped and later joined the O’Connell Street garrison. She was there when Cathal Brugha walked out the door of the Hammam Hotel, a revolver in each hand raised against the rifles of the Free State army. Brugha rushed forward firing and fell amid a volley of shots. Maire rushed to his side and held a severed artery until medical attention arrived. He died two days later.

On one occasion while she was in Co Wexford, she encountered the Free State Army. They shot at her at her motorbike but she escaped, and later she wrote: “shot through the hat, drove through and delivered the stuff.”

In January 1923, she was involved in a Sinn Féin plan to kidnap the Taoiseach, William T. Cosgrave. However, she was arrested and imprisoned in Mountjoy Gaol, where she staged a protest against over-crowding. For this, she was removed to the criminal section of the prison and given a three-month sentence of hard labour. Her response was to go on hunger strike. During that time in prison, she was shot in the leg by a soldier, and she would always maintain afterwards that this was because she was waving to fellow prisoners.

Later she was transferred to the North Dublin Union Internment Camp, but she escaped from there too on 9 May 1923. Following her re-arrest on 1 June, she was imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol once again, where she said she was ill-treated yet again, according to Ó Broin, although he admitted that some of these claims were exaggerated. This time, she staged a second hunger-strike for 27 days before being released from jail on a stretcher.

She recovered from the ordeal in a Dublin nursing home run by Josephine O’Donel, sister-in-law of the Republican Peadar O’Donnell. By August 1923, Máire had recovered sufficiently to campaign for Sinn Féin in Co Cork during the general election. She was arrested in Cork while she was collecting deposits for candidates and jailed, but was released son after.

Republican politics

In later years, she felt that Eamon de Valera’s suggestion in America in 1919-1920 that Ireland’s future relationship to Britain would be about the same as that of Cuba to the US had led to a mentality of compromise and that this led on to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921.

Nevertheless, following the civil war, Comerford supported Eamon de Valera and his abstentionist Republican candidates. She used to drive de Valera around Ireland “in a motorcar with dubious brakes,” her former journalist colleague Eileen O’Brien recalled later in The Irish Times.

In November 1923, de Valera sent her to the US on a nine-month fund-raising mission to the US in November 1923. She travelled under the name of Edith Lewis, but her efforts proved to be disappointing. On her return to Ireland as she refused to take the oath of allegiance to King George, and so was unable to work in the Civil Service. She returned to Co Wexford, where Dom John Sweetman provided her with a refuge at Mount Saint Benedict, outside Gorey, where he attempted but failed to found a Benedictine school. She was finding it difficult to make a living and set up a small poultry farm on the land he gave her. “She remained one of his most loyal supporters,” and she was always grateful that he had provided her with the opportunity to eke out living, however meagre.

In 1926, she was arrested and jailed for six months for allegedly trying to influence a jury. That year she also attended the Sinn Fein ard fheis, representing Leinster, and for the was first time elected to the executive of Sinn Fein.

However, Máire Comerford split with de Valera when he took his supporters into the Dail in 1927. In 1926 he had established the Fianna Fail party, which drew off a number of Cumann na mBan supporters and weakened it after that. From then on, she was a member of what was generally seen as a group that was unwilling to compromise in terms of everyday politics and on constitutional matters.

Journalist and writer

Despite their political differences, Máire Comerford joined the staff of de Valera’s newspaper, The Irish Press, in 1935, and worked for his newspaper group as a reporter as well as editing the women’s page six days a week for about 30 years.

After joining the staff of The Irish Press, she worked hard to pay off the debts she had accumulated while she was farming in Co Wexford. Although she wrote for a while for the IRA’s journal, War News, she severed her formal links with the Republican movement in 1941 in response to the murder of Stephen Hayes, whose inocence she had insisted on maintaining.

She retired in 1964. Later, colleagues in The Irish Press described her as “a grannywoman figure in the newsroom” on Burgh Quay.

From 1935 on, she lived at St Nessan’s in Sandyford, Co Dublin. When her mother, Eva Mary Comerford, died on 5 September 1949, she was living at St Nessan’s. Máire continued to live in the house for the rest of her life.

After her retirement, Máire Comerford became involved in 1967 with the Irish Georgian Society in the restoration of the Tailors’ Hall in Dublin, which had hosted Wolfe Tone’s nascent republican parliament in the 1790s. Her book The First Dail was published by in 1969 by Joe Clarke. She never completed a planned biography of Anne Parnell, Charles Stewart Patrnell’s sister and founder of the Ladies’ Land League.

Final days

Máire remained a life-long member of Sinn Féin and she was arrested on a Sinn Féin platform in Dublin in 1974 at the age of 81. In 1976, she was fined £10 for taking part in another similar demonstration, and offered to serve a jail term instead.

In 1976, she was interviewed as an articulate die-hard for the Curious Journey television documentary with other survivors of the 1914-1923 period, later published as a book. Up to her death she supported the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland, including the hunger strike campaign in 1980-1981. At her home in Sandyford, she held court as the grand old lady of Irish Republicanism. Her home was crammed with mementos of Ireland’s troubled past. Marie engrossed her listeners with stories of stirring episodes in her life.

Máire never married. Her last birthday celebrations were on 29 June 1982, when she was 89. Writing a week earlier in The Irish Times under the pen-name Candida, her friend and former journalist colleague Eileen O’Brien recalled that she was once “de Valera’s driver. Even the ranks of Tuscany must have cheered the sheer bravery of the man who entrusted his life to her driving. That they both lived so long is clearly a wonder.”

One of her last letters published in The Irish Times stated: “The Churches have played a part in the despoliation of Ireland. I appeal to them to make amends to the Irish people, and to provide an example of Christian living, by giving up their wealth, and by joining together in unity.”

Máire Comerford died at her home in Sandyford the age of 89 on 15 December 1982. At her funeral Mass in Saint Mary’s Church, Sandyford, Co Dublin, the lesson readers included Marian Richardson, the then wife of her nephew, the film-maker Joe Comerford. The principal mourners were Joe Comerford and Marian Richardson, their son Fionn Comerford, Mrs Kathleen Comerford, and Mr and Mrs Alexander Hinkson.

She was buried at Mount Saint Benedict, near Gorey, Co Wexford, in a plot beside her life-long friend Father John Sweetman and Miss Aileen K’Eogh and on the site of the school founded by Father Sweetman. At the graveside, the musician Finan Vallely played Boolavogue. The funeral was attended by members of her family, Iníon de Valera, former secretary of Eamon de Valera, politicians and former political comrades, and former colleagues in journalism, including William Sweetman, former editor of The Irish Press, George Kerr, former News Editor of The Irish Press, and John Healy, formerly of The Irish Press and The Irish Times.

Sources:

Maire Comerford’s papers are held at two libraries in Dublin: the National Library of Ireland (NLI Ms. 24896) and University College Dublin (UCD: IE UCDA LA18).

Angela Bourke, ‘Women and Politics in Independent Ireland 1921-68,’ Field Day, vol 5 (2002), p. 175.
Burke’s Peerage, various eds, s.v. Esmonde and Courtown.
Frances Clarke, ‘Maire (Mary Eva) Comerford,’ pp 714-715, Dictionary of Irish Biography (ed James McGuire, James Quinn), vol 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, and Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2009).
Debrett’s Peerage, various eds, s.v. Esmonde.
Uinseann Mac Eoin (ed), Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1987).
León Ó Broin, Protestant Nationalism in Revolutionary Ireland – The Stopford Connection (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1985), pp 146, 167-168, 180, 203.
David Rowe and Eithne Scallan (eds), Houses of Wexford (Whitegate: Ballinakella Press, 2004), # 963.

Carloviana 1983 (vol 2, no. 31), p.6
The Irish Press, 8.2.1971; 9.2.1971; 10.2.1971; 16.12.1981.
The Irish Times, 25.9.1976; 21.6.1982; 16.12.1982.

Patrick Comerford, visits to Rathdrum (latest visit, 31.10.2009) and Courtown (latest visit, 27.1.2012).

© Patrick Comerford 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014.

Last updated: 25 September 2009; 31 October 2009; 1 January 2010; 9 April 2010; 21 August 2010; 24 February 2011; 3 and 10 June 2011; 28 January 2012; 4 January 2013; 21 June 2014; 5 January 2016.

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