JAMES J. WOLFE (1899–1937)
James Joseph Wolfe was born on June 9, 1899, in Athea, County Limerick. He was the son of John Patrick Wolfe, who farmed and ran a draper’s shop, and Maryanne O’Connor Wolfe. His siblings were Margaret (b. 1895), Maryanne (b. 1896), Patrick (b. 1897), Bridget (b. 1902), Louise (b. 1904), and John (b. 1905).
Nothing is known of Jim Wolfe’s early life or education. He joined the Irish Volunteers in 1916 and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) two years later, part of a movement that believed in forceful resistance to British rule in Ireland. Wolfe’s relative Richard B. Wolfe, a pharmacist in Abbeyfeale, was a brother-in-law of Con Colbert, one of sixteen men executed by the British after the Easter Rising of 1916. During the War of Independence (1919–1921), Dick Wolfe served as an officer in the West Limerick Brigade of the IRA, and Jim Wolfe became a signaler in G Company of the brigade’s 2nd Battalion.
After the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 6, 1921, the IRA split between factions supporting and opposing the Treaty, which granted Ireland its own Parliament while keeping it a part of the United Kingdom. Jim Wolfe fought with anti-Treaty forces during the Civil War (1922–1923) and was captured in October 1922. He was released in December 1923, after the anti-Treaty IRA was defeated.
Wolfe immigrated to Canada in 1924, landing in Quebec on August 16 and eventually settling in Vancouver, British Columbia. A U.S. Department of Labor manifest card, dated November 24, puts him in the company of James O’Sullivan and Patrick J. O’Shaughnessy seeking permanent residence in Seattle, Washington. He soon returned to Vancouver, however, and worked as a logger from 1924 to 1929.
In 1932, Wolfe joined the Communist Party of Canada, at some point having been blacklisted from further employment, and was assigned to organize sailors. Early in 1937 he answered a call for volunteers to fight with anti-Fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). He joined the XV International Brigade, arriving in Spain in March 1937 and the next month attending non-commissioned officer training at Pozo Rubio, southeast of Madrid. He likely earned the rank of sergeant.
Wolfe served in No. 1 Company of the mostly American Lincoln Battalion during the Battle of Brunete (July 6–25, 1937). Fought west of Madrid, it was a major defeat for Republican, or anti-Fascist, forces. A new offensive was then launched on August 24, in the north, and focused on the town of Belchite. Wolfe, then with the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, was fighting there on the steps of Saint Augustine Church when, on September 5, a hand-grenade injured him in the face and neck. “He collapsed in the church courtyard,” according to Barry McLoughlin, in Fighting for Republican Spain, 1936–38 (2014). “He could neither speak nor smoke, so he gave his cigarettes to his friend Peter Nielson”—a detail used later in recruiting materials. Wolfe died that evening in a hospital, probably in Hijar.
News of Wolfe’s death reached Ireland in the form of a front-page story in Irish Press on November 28, 1937: “Five More Irishmen Killed In Spain.” The curate in Athea, Father J. J. Hawke, requested a death certificate from Spain, which was provided in April 1938.
Wolfe’s name is one of 1,546 volunteers listed on a memorial to the Canadian volunteers who fought for the Spanish Republic. It was unveiled in Ottawa, Ontario, on October 20, 2001. The destroyed town of Belchite, meanwhile, was not rebuilt and remains as a memorial to the battle’s more than 11,000 casualties.