RICHARD E. WOLFE (1824–1910)

Richard Edmond Wolfe was born in 1824 at the Glen, the family farm in Cratloe, Parish of Athea, County Limerick, Ireland. His parents were Edmond R. Wolfe, a Catholic farmer and member of the Board of Guardians, and Ellen "Nellie" Brosnan. His siblings included seven sisters and at least one brother, among them Edmond, Joan, Nell, Mary, Bridget (d. 1911), and Julia.

Wolfe worked his father’s land near Cratloe. In Share the Profits!, a biography of Wolfe's son Richard W. Wolfe published in 1939, William H. Stuart writes that Richard E. Wolfe's "farm was one of the largest. He owned at one time fifteen cows, a herd of goats, sheep, pigs, two draft horses, geese, turkeys, chickens and two donkeys. On an extensive acreage he raised oats, rye, flax, and potatoes."

According to church records, he married Catherine White, of Coole, on February 23, 1852, in Athea, with Edmond Woulfe and Maria Mulcahy serving as witnesses. The couple had ten children: Maurice Richard (b. 1854), Ellen “Nellie” (b. 1859), Patrick Richard (b. 1861), John W. (b. 1864), Richard White (b. 1866), Catherine (b. 1868), Mary A. (b. 1870), Michael (b. 1870), Johanna (b. 1873), and Nano. Of these, Patrick, Richard, Ellen, John, Mary, and Nano immigrated to the United States.

Stuart's book, which offers a highly romanticized view of the Limerick Wolfes, describes Richard E. Wolfe as "strict and stern but of great humanity. He was loved by the countryside because of his good heart and his wise leadership, and, when he rescued a little girl from drowning, his popularity grew." According to Stuart, Catherine White Wolfe "spun the wool from her own sheep and made the children's caps, stockings, and sweaters." She also told her children fairy stories—"stories about ghosts, devils, witches, banshees, fairy thorns, devil cats, elves, bewitched butter, horned women, blood-thirsty giants, and weird and startling enchantments."

"Hedge-Schools," about a school at the Glen (National Folklore Collection)

An account in Ireland's National Folklore Collection describes how Wolfe operated a "hedge school" in an outbuilding at the Glen. Such schools dated back to the prohibition on Catholic schools, which lasted from 1723 to 1782, and many survived even into the national-school era. Teachers lodged in the homes of the farmers who hosted the schools, the widow Katherine O'Connor told her interviewer. "They were paid by local subscription from the pupils' parents and their meals were provided where they lodged. Irish was not taught but fluently spoken by the teachers and pupils." In his biography, Stuart writes that Wolfe "gave to the children of the community a building for a school and the land upon which it stood. It was far from a modern structure, but a long way ahead of the former hedge-fence school."

Wolfe died on May 24, 1910, at the Glen, of heart disease. His wife had already died. Wolfe's obituary appeared in the Limerick Leader on June 1, and describes him as "the 'Grand Old Man' of the Limerick Woulfes," noting that he "was well versed in folk lore and tradition, spoke Gaelic fluently," and provided important background information for the Reverend Patrick Wolfe's Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall, a seminal work on Irish names and surnames, published in part in 1906 and then later expanded. In the book, Father Wolfe credited his relative, "who gave me nearly all the surnames of West Limerick and North Kerry." A translation of a folk story that Father Wolfe published in an Irish language journal also credited Richard Wolfe and even featured a conversation with him, identifying him as a seanchaí, or storyteller. A posthumous notation in the National Folklore Collection identifies him the same way.

From the Limerick Leader, June 1, 1910

The Limerick Leader obituary also mentioned Wolfe's love for Daniel O'Connell, the Irish politician known as the Liberator, who won legal rights for Catholics. "He saw the Liberator at three of his monster meetings," the paper wrote, "and it is only a few years ago, while on a visit to Dublin, that [Wolfe] entertained some of the admirers of the great tribune, by narrating some interesting incidents of his life, on beholding his statue in O'Connell street."

The paper then provided a dramatic death scene for Wolfe:

Just after deceased was anointed, and shortly before he died, he said with a brain as clear as a rill, and with all the fortitude that is the priceless heritage of the followers of Christ:—'I am now prepared to meet my God.' His life ebbed peacefully away, almost unnoticeably like the sun stealthily dipping behind the horizon, after the unrelenting hand of death had been for days grappling with his powerful physique.