DAVID WOLFE (1528–after July 23, 1579)

David Wolfe was born in 1528 in Limerick city, County Limerick. Nothing is known of his immediate relations, although he appears to have hailed from a well-to-do Anglo-Norman family that was one of a few dozen families that ruled the island-city as a merchant-class oligarchy. Wolfes regularly appeared on the city council and served as mayor and sheriff. Wolfe later described Limerick as “the mightiest and most beautiful of all the cities of Ireland.” He noted that it was fortified and “only accessibly by two stone bridges, one of fourteen arches, the other of eight.” The houses within were cut from “black marble and built in the style of towers or fortresses.” Ships of up to 400 tons docked at the walls, making the city, with Galway and Dublin, a center of trading and culture.

Wolfe became a priest, and sometime before 1555 the pope appointed him dean of the diocesan chapter, an administrative position that reports to the bishop. In addition to Irish and likely some English, he spoke Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, suggesting a European education. In 1551, he first visited Ignatius of Loyola in Rome. The Spaniard had founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) ten years earlier and become its first Superior General. In 1554, Wolfe became the group’s first Irish member, and on June 21, 1555, resigned his deanery as a consequence. His relative, Thomas Fanning, succeeded him.

In November 1555, Wolfe traveled to Loreto, Italy, to study. After the death of Loyola in 1556, Diego Laínez became Superior General and in April 1558 sent Wolfe to Modena, where he served as vice rector and then rector of the college. Wolfe was a strict, even unforgiving member of the church. In a letter to Laínez, dated July 12, 1559, he complained that the Irish bishops passing through Modena were unworthy and included among them public sinners and even a murderer.

Papal Commissary

Elizabeth ascended to the throne late in 1558 and two years later officially established the Protestant Church in Ireland. On August 2, 1560, Pope Pius IV appointed Wolfe papal commissary to Ireland, with Dermot Geraldine serving as his diplomatic companion. Ambassadors of the pope generally took the title nuncio and were appointed bishops; however, the Jesuits preferred that Wolfe not indulge in the office’s worldly trappings, even as he accepted its many responsibilities. He served with the lesser title of commissary and had instructions to establish poor relief funds and schools, and to reform monasteries, among other activities. He was to take no payment or rewards for his labors.

Wolfe arrived in Ireland early the next year, setting up base in his home city of Limerick. He celebrated a public Mass attended by 2,000 people and gave church blessing to more than a thousand marriages. He also sent to Rome three new candidates for Jesuit membership: Maurice Halley, David Dymus, and his own relative Edmund Daniel. Over the next few years Wolfe traveled throughout Ireland, with the exception of the area around Dublin known as the Pale, where English authority was strongest. In Munster, Connacht, and Ulster he found the church to be low on resources and corrupt, writing that the bishops were “hirelings and dumb dogs.” He even accused his own relative, Thomas Fanning, of simony, or the selling of church favors.

About 1563 he established a quasi-religious order of “fallen” women in Limerick known as Menabochta (from the Irish mná bochta, or poor women). They were to follow the order’s rule, written by Wolfe, while still living in their own homes. That some members reverted to their old ways may have provided an opening for Wolfe’s enemies and occasioned various rumors about him. Many in the church already resented the Jesuit for his anti-corruption efforts and for his unwillingness to accept recompense, while the Irish chieftains preferred to control the bishoprics, which came with land and money. They also strenuously opposed the queen. Wolfe and other church officials, at least for now, treated the monarch more diplomatically, swearing allegiance to the Crown while continuing to proclaim the pope as true head of the church. The tension between these two views sometimes led to violence, with at least one priest hanged and a bishop run out of Ireland.

Wolfe’s energy began to flag. On July 29, 1563, he wrote his fellow Jesuit Francis Borgia that he felt “exiled in Ireland, far away from the fathers and brothers of the Society.” On May 28, 1564, another Jesuit elder, Everard Mercurian, wrote to Laínez that Wolfe was “in danger of losing soul and body; he desires to be recalled because he cannot achieve that for which he was sent.” The pope had other plans, however. Just three days later he issued a bull that ordered Wolfe and the new archbishop of Armagh, Richard Creagh, to establish Catholic schools in Ireland, including at least one university. The Jesuits felt that they were now helpless to recall Wolfe and instead urged him to move to Ulster, to be close to Creagh, his fellow Limerick native. They also promised that Jesuits would be sent to help him.

In January 1565 English authorities captured Creagh shortly after he arrived in Ireland and sent him to the Tower of London. A month later the English-speaking Jesuit William Good, who had traveled separately from Creagh, arrived in Limerick. With Edmund Daniel, a new Jesuit and one of Wolfe’s relatives, he established a school in Limerick. It lasted about eight months before the English lost their patience with the pope’s men in Ireland. A court issued a warrant that denounced Wolfe a traitor and authorized his arrest. With a bounty of £100 on his head, Wolfe fled across the Shannon in a skiff. At about the same time, after three months of periodic torture, Creagh managed to escape from the Tower, making his way first to Antwerp and then to Ulster.

The pope died on December 9, 1565, effectively ending Wolfe’s ambassadorship.


The new Jesuit Superior General, Francis Borgia, tried to recall Wolfe from Ireland and its attendant dangers, but his efforts were complicated by debt. Wolfe owed local merchants 200 ducats, or £66, for support of the Limerick school and had promised them he would not leave the country without making good. In November 1566, Wolfe traveled north to meet Creagh and there became embroiled in a dispute with Cornelius MacArdle, the bishop of Colgher. MacArdle had published a libelous pamphlet against Wolfe, who responded in kind. MacArdle was denounced by Creagh, who ordered him to pay the Jesuit a fine of two hundred cows. But the episode suggests that Wolfe’s numerous enemies felt empowered now that he no longer reported directly to the pope. Indeed, when Creagh was captured again during the summer of 1568, rumors circulated that Wolfe had betrayed him. When MacArdle made the charge before a large crowd, Wolfe barely escaped alive.

Through the chieftain Hugh O’Donnell, Wolfe arranged a meeting with the English viceroy, Sir Henry Sidney, who promised him a written pardon in Dublin. Once in the capital, however, Sidney demanded that any pardon must be accompanied by the swearing of allegiance to the queen as true head of the church. Wolfe refused and was imprisoned at Dublin Castle, where he was interrogated and periodically tortured. His hair and beard were torn out and he was stripped naked and whipped with rods.

Never blessed with a diplomatic temperament, Wolfe seemed to turn irrevocably against the English during his captivity, which lasted from 1568 to 1572. Even earlier he had raised eyebrows by becoming close to the chieftains O’Donnell and Shane O’Neill. Then, in June 1569, one of his friends and allies, James FitzMaurice FitzGerald, launched the first of the Desmond Rebellions against the English in Munster. It was crushed in less than a year, although Wolfe and others surely welcomed a new papal bull, issued in February 1570, excommunicating Queen Elizabeth.

As Wolfe languished in Dublin Castle, both the pope and the Jesuits sent money as ransom but it never arrived. Wolfe’s relative, the Jesuit Edmund Daniel, traveled to Portugal to collect money but was captured and found with a copy of the pope’s bull intended for FitzMaurice. He was hanged, drawn, and quartered in 1572.

In September 1572 Wolfe managed to pay his jailor ransom with money from a local merchant, whom Wolfe promised to reimburse with money obtained from Portuguese Jesuits. He spent the next year on the run in Ireland attempting to gain passage to Portugal while also collecting material for what became Description of the Realm of Ireland. On September 17, 1573, he left for the Continent in the company of the merchant and a seven-year-old boy, FitzMaurice’s eldest son.

In Portugal, Wolfe received a cold welcome, with many Jesuits resenting the debt he had thrust upon them. Rumors began to fly that the boy with him was actually the product of a relationship between Wolfe and his niece. Others claimed he planned to use any money he raised not for ransom but to purchase munitions for a planned invasion of Ireland. In fact, Wolfe supported such an invasion and presented King Philip II with his Description, written in part to aid such a venture. In 1575 the Spanish king approved an invasion but pledged only money.

After a Jesuit investigations into rumors surrounding the child, Wolfe was cleared and the ransom reimbursed. By this time, however, his health was largely destroyed and there was little trust remaining between him and his fellow Jesuits. By 1577, when he met FitzMaurice in Rome, he was no longer a member of the Society, and two years later, when FitzMaurice sailed for Ireland and launched his second, ill-fated rebellion, Wolfe likely did not accompany him. He last appears in Jesuit records on July 23, 1579, and may have died soon after.