Wearing a poppy so my grandfather's story might not be lost

 

RITE AND REASON:Why old soldiers must never fade away on Remembrance Day, writes Patrick Comerford

I NEVER knew either of my grandfathers, nor did I have Comerford first cousins. Family traditions were handed on by a widowed and a maiden aunt, two half-sisters who lived in my grandmother's house. But I was an adult long before I saw a photograph of my paternal grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford. He died shortly after my father's second birthday, and so I never knew what my grandfather looked like, and I could never answer that very Irish question: "Where was he in 1916?"

When I set out to find out more about him, I discovered the tragic story of his lonely death on January 21st, 1921.

Stephen was born in 1867. His father, James Comerford, an arts-and-crafts stuccodore and architect. At 16, Stephen was apprenticed to his father for seven years and they soon became involved in turning the plasterers' guild into a trade union.

Union records, census returns, street directories and family records made it possible to track the houses where Stephen lived, including 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue, Ranelagh, where his father James died in 1902 at 85. A year later, Stephen's wife Anne died in the house, aged 32.

As a widower with three small children, he commuted between Ranelagh and Portrane, where he stayed with the Lynders family while working on George Ashlin's new hospital and chapel. He married my grandmother, Bridget Lynders, in Donabate in 1905, and they had more children.

However, the gap in Stephen's life between 1915 and early 1918 remained. In an idle moment during an internet search, I keyed in my grandfather's name. The missing story unfolded.

Stephen Comerford joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1915. Within days, he was sent to the Greek island of Lemnos and on to Gallipoli and Suvla Bay. He was among the few survivors evacuated to Thessaloniki. In the severe Greek winter, many of them suffered frostbite, dysentery and other sicknesses. In the summer's heat of 1916, more came down with malaria. Stephen was discharged on May 3rd, three days after the Easter Rising ended, and sent back to Dublin. Malaria was life threatening but life saving - for a few months at least. The war ended on November 11th, 1918, and a month later my father, Stephen Edward Comerford, was born in Rathmines. Later, Stephen was decorated with the Victory Medal, the British Medal and the 1914-1915 Star.

But his health continued to deteriorate, no more children were born, and he died alone in hospital at the age of 53.

My father was the only one of seven children to have children himself. So malaria saved my grandfather's life, however briefly, and ensured that he had grandchildren. His only reward was three medals. His lonely death was filled with sadness, typifying how those soldiers were forgotten by those who sent them to war and their stories not handed on in their families.

I never realised that my father might never have been born - and I might never have been born - if my grandfather had not been there, contracted malaria and been sent home from Thessaloniki in 1916. As a pacifist, I am now happy to wear a poppy on Remembrance Day, if only to say that my grandfather and men like him should never have been neglected, and their sad stories should never be forgotten.

• Canon Patrick Comerford is director of spiritual formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.