Judge James Comerford, chairman of the New York City Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, being interviewed by Jack McCarthy on Fifth Avenue, 17 March 1988. Photograph by Peter Dolan. Archives of Irish America, New York University
Judge James J. Comerford of Manhattan was a Criminal Court judge in New York chaired the New York City Saint Patrick’s Day parade for 19 years, and was Grand Marshal of the parade in 1957.
An outspoken Irish nationalist and prominent in New York’s Irish community, Judge Comerford served in New York City’s Criminal Court of Special Sessions from 1960 until he retired in 1971. He was best known as the chairman of the city’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, which he ruled with a firm hand from 1965 until 1984.
James Comerford was born on New Year’s Day, 1 January 1901, on his family’s ancestral farm in Coolraheen, Co Kilkenny, Ireland. He joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1917, and was a member of the Coon Company of the Third Brigade of the Old IRA. He fought in the War of Independence in Ireland in 1920 and 1921, was wounded twice, and rose to the rank of captain.
Comerford emigrated to New York in 1925, and worked at various jobs, including grocery clerk, window cleaner and shipping clerk, until 1934.
He then enrolled at Columbia University, went to school during the day and worked at night as a change-maker for six years in the IND subway. Eventually, he graduated with the degrees Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts. He went on to receive his masters degree in law and then a JD from Fordham University and a PhD from New York University.
Comerford was appointed an assistant district attorney in Manhattan in 1947 and a justice in the Domestic Relations Court in 1953. Two years later, Mayor Robert F. Wagner named him to the Magistrates Court, and he became a judge of the New York Criminal Court. He retired as a Judge of the Magistrates Court in 1971.
The judge was also a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians for 52 years and was a president of the United Irish Counties Association and National President of the AOH in 1962. He was also National Historian of the AOH for 52 years and edited the organisation’s Hibernian Digest. For 19 years he was chairman of the New York Saint Patrick’s Day Parade and was also a past president of the United Irish Counties Assocation.
In July 1972, the AOH was forced to make an embarrassing repudiation of remarks by its former president after Comerford said the AOH in the US “unequivocally” supported the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland and that the AOH had provided funds for the IRA aw well as meeting IRA leaders on a “goodwill basis.”
It was the first time the order’s convention was held in Ireland since it was founded in 1836. At the dinner, Comerford was presented with order’s medal in honour of John F Kennedy. However, the AOH denied the judge’s claims and said its money had always gone to the Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Conway for the relief of those in need.
The AOH was also forced to repudiate remarks by Comerford portraying the AOH in America “to be parallel with the Orange Order.”
At the closing dinner of the National Convention of the AOH, Comerford also embarrassed the Taoiseach of the day, Jack Lynch, who was present at the dinner, claiming he was only hanging onto office by his finger nails.
Comerford was unrepentant. In 1978, he privately published an account of his days in Co Kilkenny with the IRA. In over 1,100 pages, he gave a detailed, even exhausting, account of his activities in the parish of Muckalee from 1916 to 1922.
Although gregarious and jovial in private, friends described Comerford after his death as an iron-fisted administrator. “He had another side to him, but it very seldom came out,” said John Concannon, who worked with Judge Comerford on the parade committee. “For most people this was a stern, tough man.”
Jim Comerford died at the age of 87 of complications from diabetes on 24 March 1988 at Our Lady of Mercy Medical Centre in the Bronx, New York. His funeral took place at Saint Philip Neri Roman Catholic Church in the Bronx.
Jim Comerford was survived by two sisters and a brother in Ireland: Bridget Morrissey of Kilkenny City, Helen Brady of Leighlin, Co Carlow, and John Comerford of Co Kilkenny. His wife of 44 years, Vera Carr Comerford, died in January 1984. Jim and Vera Comerford had no children.
The Irish Times, 27 July 1972; 28 July 1972; 31 July 1972.
New York Times, 25 March 1988.
© Patrick Comerford, 2009, 2011.
Last revised: 3 and 8 June 2011