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Patrick Comerford
Margaret Aylward Raymond Chandler Paddy Coad Patrick Comerford John Condon Donnchadh Ruadh Frank Edwards Alfie Hale D. P. Moran Cardinal Wiseman

 


PATRICK COMERFORD (1586-1652)

    Patrick Comerford, who first saw the light in Waterford in 1586 - that is, two years before the birth of his friend and cousin, Luke Wadding - was son of Robert Comerford and his wife, Anastasia White. The Comerfords, like the Waddings, the Walshes, and the Lombards, were of the opulent merchant class, noted, like the three families just named, for steadfast fidelity to the ancient faith, and as harbourers, like them, of hunted priests and harassed friars. The White’s were really Clonmel people, closely connected, however with Waterford. Robert Comerford’s brother was the noted Jesuit scholar, Father Nicholas Comerford, who, having graduated at Oxford in 1562, returned to Waterford, and there received Holy Orders. Driven from his benefice in the city for non-conformity, Nicholas, like many another persecuted Irish priest of the period, retired to Louvain, and there he took out his Doctorate in 1575. From Louvain he proceeded to Madrid, where he became a Jesuit and eventually found a grave. Nicholas Comerford was accounted one of the most accomplished scholars of his time, and, though he died comparatively young, he appears to have written extensively on philosophical and controversial subjects.

    Patrick Comerford received his rudimentary classical training from an outlawed priest, one Dermot O’Callaghan, whom his good mother sheltered and otherwise befriended. It was under Father O’Callaghan’s care that, some years later, the youth travelled to the Continent to enter the Irish secular College at Lisbon. First, however, young Comerford had graduated at Peter White’s seminary in Kilkenny, where he had as school-fellows and rivals for academic honours such future scholars as Luke Wadding, and Richard Stanihurst. During Patrick’s time in Kilkenny his father died, and then Mistress Comerford, like so many poor Irish mothers of her station in the Penal days, made the sacrifice of her human, to her spiritual, love for her boy. She sent him across the seas with Dermot O’Callaghan, partly that he might receive, in a foreign land, the education denied him in his own.

    How long Comerford remained at Lisbon we do not know; neither do we know exactly what year he entered Bordeaux, and again exact dates are wanting. Later, having meantime visited Ireland, which was easy of access from Bordeaux, young Comerford returned to Lisbon, and in that city entered the Novitiate of the Augustinian Hermits, whither another Waterford man, Richard Wadding, a brother of Luke’s, had preceded him. Wadding, by the way, though scarcely anything has been written about him, rose to eminence in the Order, and, like so many ecclesiastics of his name, left a considerable reputation for learning. We next hear of Comerford at Angra in the Azores, where, for four years, he taught rhetoric in the college of his Order. Thence he was recalled to read divinity at Lisbon, in which city he received ordination. Subsequently we find him teaching philosophy at Brussels, where, moreover, he had attained some fame as a poet and a preacher.

    In or about 1619 Comerford, better known by his religious name of Patricius de Angelis, was sent by his superiors as a missioner to Ireland, where the Pope had specially nominated him perpetual Prior of Callan. The priory was in ruin, and the brethren were dispersed through the country round about. A religious community, however, does not depend for its life on the co-existence of monastic buildings or endowments. Father Patrick gathered the scattered members together within sight of their ancient home, and secured for them a temporary abode, where, for ten years, in the worst of times, the outlawed friars feloniously kept their rule, edifying and encouraging the suffering people. One may wonder how friars could have lived in community in such times and have publicly followed their calling. The explanation is, doubtless, that the Callan Community enjoyed the protection of  “Walter of the Rosaries” or of some other member or branch of the Ormonde family. During his tenure of office in Callan the Prior, we are told, occasionally visited his friends in Waterford, to the great comfort of the latter and the consolation of the citizens generally whom he was wont to address and encourage. On the occasion of one of these visits to the Urbs Intacta, Father Patrick heard that, probably through one of the Waterford mariners who sailed the Spanish Main, a brother of his own had fallen into the hands of the Algerines and was then held for ransom at Mogadore on the Barbary coast. It may be necessary to explain that, in the 17th century, raids by Moorish corsairs on the Irish coasts were not infrequent. More than one Waterford-bound ship was captured and their crews and passengers sold into slavery or held for ransom by the infidels. Father Patrick set out at once for Spain to secure his brother’s release. This he had little difficulty in doing, thanks to funds furnished by his friends in Waterford, and to the good offices of the Trinitarian Order for the redemption of captives. Alas, the brothers’ happiness was but short-lived, for the ex-captive, presumably as a result of the hardships endured in captivity, survived his release only a very short time, to find rest at last in a foreign grave.

    From Spain Comerford travelled to Rome, where some business of his Order demanded his presence. At Rome it is intimated to him that Urban VIII, then occupying the Papal chair, had destined him for the vacant See of Waterford and Lismore. The last bishop of Waterford, Patrick Walsh, of dubious memory, had died more than half a century before, in the middle of Elizabeth’s reign. In the interval the diocese had been governed by vicars: John White first, then his brother James, who reconciled the Waterford churches on the death of Elizabeth, then Thomas Walsh, who became Archbishop of Cashel, and, finally, Robert Power of the Curraghmore family. A Cistercian monk, Nicholas Fagan of Inislaunaght, had been named for the see before Comerford, but he died without consecration.

    One of the most deplorable results of the Penal code and the weakening of ecclesiastical authority which followed was a general loosening of discipline, hence arose many serious abuses within the Church as well as some grievous scandals.  Waterford Diocese, when Bishop Comerford was consecrated, had its share both of abuses and of scandals. The new Bishop was, fortunately, a strong man-no less morally than physically. He was of great stature, of imposing presence, and of refined and noble bearing; his intellectual was on a par with his physical equipment: firm will, sound judgement, prudence in counsel and in action. He was, in addition, an eloquent preacher, an elegant writer, and a ready conversationalist. Among his domestic difficulties were some controversies with certain religious within his diocese. The Cistercians in Waterford had un-canonically seized on certain churches, scil: St. John’s and Mothel, and, no doubt, they were quite convinced of their rights thereto. We do not now know on what grounds they based their claims, but we make take it the latter seemed valid, to them. We do know, however, what good people are sometimes like when they are in the wrong and think themselves in the right. Our Cistercians were in the wrong, but were unaware of their position, and they caused the bishop much worry, before he convinced them of their error.  A second source of what I may call domestic worry was furnished by the Franciscans, or, rather, by their local Superior in Waterford, Father Strong, who was a cousin of Wadding’s and a very wrong-headed, though well-meaning man.  The bishop successfully overcame the opposition from these and other sources.  Access to his Cathedral, or even to the meanest parish church in his diocese, was out of the question. Both Cathedral and churches were all in the hands of the Protestant bishop, Boyle, a hater and bitter persecutor of the Catholics. Boyle died in 1635, only to be succeeded by the equally bitter Atherton of infamous memory.

    Notwithstanding the times and their perils, our bishop held ordinations, confirmations, and even synods of the clergy. Most of the episcopal functions, however, had to be performed by night or in secluded places. Like other Irish bishops of the period, he was obliged to assume an alias and to date his letters “ex loce refugii nostri.” His assumed name was generally “William Browne,” but occasionally he appears as “William Poore.” His contemporary, Bishop Roche of Ferns, signs himself, “J. K. Turner.” In the Franciscan archives, Dublin, by the way, are many unpublished letters of both bishops so signed. One letter of Dr. Roche’s to Luke Wadding I venture to quote here, as well because it bears on our subject, as because it has, I assume, never been published, and because it illustrates the difficulties of administration with which Dr. Comerford had to contend.

    “Your friend Comerford of Waterford is an honest man, and if any should report ye contray to you, suspend to believe any whit than well of him. He has entered into a charge where every body did what it pleased himself hitherto and now yt ye good man would faine give a forme or face to ye confused administration wch was heretofore he indureth much contradiction from such as ought to assist him and I am sorry yt I must depose of our Fr. Strong yt he is a party against him and generally held in this land to be the maine stickler aginst ordinary jurisdiction and yet him self asserteth the charge of ordinary beyond many others, as is sayed of him. I doubt not but yt tou have heard how Waterford is vexed by Cistercians and a pretende chaplain of Malta in all wh Fr. Th. Strong has his oare.

    ye 6 of January, 1630.
  Yor Loving Cossin,
  J. K. TURNER.”

    A brighter day dawned for Ireland and the Irish Church when in 1641 the prelates, peers, and people of Ireland bound themselves by solemn oath, at Kilkenny, to take up arms in defence of their religion, and never to sheath the sword till liberty of worship was secured. Of all the bishops who took part in the Confederate deliberations, Comerford was one of three or four most unflinching and faithful. He was, perhaps, the staunchest of all the Nuncio’s supporters, and of all the cities that Rinuccini visited he admired Waterford most. At the door of the ancient Cathedral, now for a few years in Catholic hands again, His Excellency was met by the bishop, who, with full ceremonial, conducted him to the appointed throne. The function was, we are told by the Nuncio himself, of the most imposing and solemn character; so strictly rubrical was the celebration, that even the fastidious Nuncio, accustomed to all the splendour and accuracy of Roman ceremonial, was both delighted and surprised. It was on this occasion that the Papal representative styled Waterford “A Little Rome” (Parva Roma), a title as honourable at least as Henry VII’s “Urbs Intacta.” 

    Comerford’s first and principal care was the spiritual well-being of his flock, and though this, under the circumstances of the time, was no ordinary obligation, and though, too, the meetings of the Confederate Parliament occupied much of his time, our prelate yet managed to write a book on polemical theology, and to complete lists of the patron saints of the diocese and the Deans of the Cathedral. Whether any of these or other works of Comerford, still exist, the writer cannot say.  It is amongst the possibilities that some day some of them may again come to light. 

    At length, alas, dawned the evil day when foul dissension arose to mar the Catholic cause and to smite more fatally than Cromwell’s sword, the high hopes of Ireland. Briefly stated, the case and cause was this: The Confederation was composed of two elements, difficult to amalgamate and to some extent mutually jealous and suspicious: the old or native Irish and the new Irish or Catholics of the Pale.  “Nathless their creed they hate us still as the Despoiler hates” was the feeling of the old Irish, and the other side was equally distrustful. The Anglo-Irish party was not averse to a peace, which the Nuncio condemned because it did not provide sufficient security for freedom of religion. On Rinuccinni’s side were the majority of the bishops, the Religious Orders (except the Jesuits), and the Ulster army of Owen Roe O’Neill. In the opposition camp were the Pales-men and new Irish, with the usual small following of weak-kneed natives. The Nuncio summoned a synod at Waterford to consider the situation. He chose Waterford as the meeting place, first, because it was the most Catholic city in Ireland; second, because its bishop was the man upon whom he could best rely in difficulty; third, because the fort of Duncannon, with its trustworthy Catholic garrison, was close at hand, and, last, because its magnificent harbour afforded means of swift and sure communication with the Continent. To shorten as much as possible a long story, the synod declared that all who should favour the obnoxious peace were perjurers and excommunicate. Somewhat later, the Nuncio pronounced excommunication against all bishops, clergy, or laity who accepted the peace, and moreover, laid the whole country under interdict to punish the advocates of Ormonde’s terms. During the few months immediately following the synod of Waterford, the Nuncio resided almost constantly in the latter city. He was the guest of the princely bishop, who entertained him with lavish hospitality. Together they paid many a visit to Duncannon, and spent many an hour scanning the opening between Credan Head and Hook for glimpse of the expected ship which was to bring money, munitions of war, and further instructions from Rome.

    So far from securing the object desired, the Nuncio’s strong measures only deepened the dissentions. Canonists, amateur and otherwise, pronounced the censures invalid; some places observed the interdict, others treated it with contempt. The bishop of Waterford was, perhaps, of all the prelates, the most devoted to the Nuncio’s policy, most faithful to his orders, and most scrupulous in obeying the interdict. The interdict, indeed, was felt an almost insupportable burden: Mass was not said, bells were not rung, and sacraments were administered only to the dying. Though Waterford obeyed the interdict, the clergy petitioned for its removal. A meeting of the city deanery was held in the Cathedral on November 12th, 1648, at which was drawn up a resolution or petition to the Nuncio for withdrawal of the terrible censures. We have still the list of signatories, which includes the bishop; Father Peter Stronge, Superior of the Dominicans of Waterford; Father Joseph Everard, Guardian of the Franciscans; Father John Hartry, Cistercian and Notary Apostolic; Edward Clere, Rector of the Jesuit House; Father Michael Barron, Prior of the Augustines; Robert Power, Dean of Waterford; Father Michael Hackett, the precentor. The Deanery of Clonmel similarly expostulated, the petition thence being signed by Thomas White, Pastor of Clonmel; Father Edward Bray, Franciscan; Re. Thomas Prendergast, S.T.D.; Father Edmund Brayns, Franciscan, and Fathers John Gough, William McGrath, and and Andrew Sall, Jesuits of Clonmel. One might expect Geoffrey Keating’s name in this list, but it does not occur; aliunde, however, we know that Keating was a staunch adherent of our bishop’s policy, and the last product of his pen which has survived, is a poetic appeal to his countrymen to reject the peace of Ormonde.

    That section of the Supreme Council that disagreed with the Nuncio, deprived our bishop of the little that remained to him of the temporalities of his See. An attempt was even made to seize his person, but he retired within the walls of Duncannon till that danger had passed. Then, in a few months, came Cromwell before the walls of Waterford. The story of the city’s gallant defence and the citizen’s refusal to accept aid from the excommunicated troops of Ormonde will some day be told in full; the present is not the place to attempt it. Suffice it to say, Cromwell failed at Waterford, and during the siege the venerable bishop remained with his people in the city encouraging, exhorting, and administering to the dying. When, later on, Waterford surrendered to Ireton, the bishop embarked for St. Malo in August, 1650. Shaken now in health, worn out by hardships and anxiety, heart-broken for the woes of his country and the fate of his people, the illustrious confessor of the faith survived his exile but two years. He died at Nantes on the 10th of March, 1652, aged 66, and was buried in the cathedral there with all the honours due to his personal worth and his episcopal rank.  Apropos of his death and burial in a foreign land it was indeed remarked that if these had taken place in his own city by the Suir, the dead prelate could hardly have received more honour from his own people than came to him from stranger’s hands in the capital of Brittany. When Bishop Comerford’s grave, before the altar of St. Charles, was opened, ten years later, to receive the bones of another exiled Irish prelate, Robert Barry, of Cork, the body was found quite intact and un-corrupt. His grave, however, cannot now be discovered wherein, far from the land he loved and served so well, he awaits the resurrection. On that day, when the crooked ways will be made straight, and all who bore persecution and mis-representation, as he did, for justice sake, will be vindicated, his place will be with Declan and Carthage and Colman, among the hosts of the saints of the Decies.  

Extracted, in part from Canon Power's Waterford's Saints & Scholars, Printed by the Waterford News, Ltd., 1920 and from Rev. Joseph O'Shea's life of Father Luke Wadding. 
 

 

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Last modified: June 29, 2007