This is a family story. It involves a royally bred horse, a famous wager, a pitched battle, married cousins, and, like all Wolfe tales, someone named Maurice. It begins, however, with someone not named Maurice, someone who has just died.
Richard J. Wolfe—the brother of Maurice, the nephew of both Edmund Maurice and (my favorite) Maurice Morris, the grandson of Maurice James, and the great-grandson of James Maurice—met his reward near Streator, Illinois, on May 25, 1927. Mr. Wolfe had been born near Ballybunion,* a small town in County Kerry, Ireland, and to mark his passing, the Kerryman newspaper, on December 10 of that year, published a story noting that the deceased had been “a very large farmer and breeder of horses.”
There’s more to the story than that, of course, but in order to get there, the Kerryman must first plow through some pretty dense genealogy. As it happens, the dead Mr. Wolfe and his widow, Catherine “Kate” Maher, were cousins. Her maternal great grandfather, like her husband named Richard James, was the brother of her husband’s paternal grandfather, the aforementioned Maurice James. (For those keeping score at home, her great grandfather is my great-great-great grandfather.)
I know. Nobody cares. But the Kerryman needs to at least acknowledge this stuff because it’s Kate Wolfe Maher Wolfe’s grandfather (which is to say, the deceased’s father’s first cousin) who’s really important here. And his name is … wait for it … Maurice Richard.
According to the paper, he “emigrated from Knockanasig** after he had made a lasting reputation as owner of Dimby, a racehorse whose name is still fresh in the traditions of the once famous Ballyeigh† racecourse.” The Kerryman continues:
Dimby was bred by William the Fourth, King of England. In the possession of Maurice Wolfe, his most notable performance was the winning of a challenge at the then goodly sum of one hundred pounds aside. The match was decided at Ballyeigh in or about 1840. The defeated horse was Roller, owned by a Mr. Gunn, a connection of the Roches of Athea. Dimby became the sire of The Rambler, also owned by Maurice Woulfe, and a good winner in the forties of last century. But it was perhaps the best of Dimby’s progeny that met a fatal misadventure and died without being tested on a racecourse. It was from the dam of May Morning, Victory and Tally Ho, and was bred by “Johnny Connell, of Rathmorrell,” whose memory as a sportsman is still so affectionately treasured in Kerry and Limerick.
If you’re like me, this needs some unpacking—but it’s worth the effort, because this is where the pitched battle comes in. The Listowel Races are a big deal in Ireland,‡ but their origins actually trace to a location nine miles away: just south of the deceased’s hometown of Ballybunion. There, where the River Cashen meets the River Feale and flows into the sea, was the Ballyeigh racetrack. According to a more recent article in the Kerryman, “Each year thousands converged on this picturesque setting to enjoy the festivities associated with this event, i.e. a variety of games, horse-racing and a pre-arranged faction fight which concluded the event."
Wait, a pre-arranged what?
A pre-arranged faction fight. The term “faction fight” refers to “pitched battles between feuding bands at fairs and other public gatherings.” They were especially prevalent in Ireland from 1760 until 1845, and while they began as battles over territory, they “often reflected more modern tensions, such as power conflicts between kinship-based mafias led by ambitious members of the middle class.”
At Ballyeigh, the combatants were, traditionally, the Cooleens and the Iraght O’Connors (the latter comprised of the Lawlor and Mulvihill families). On June 24, 1834, for instance, twenty people died when 1,200 Cooleens crossed the Cashen and attempted to surprise 2,000 Iraghts. According to the Kerryman, the Cooleens’ attack failed and, driven back into the river, they attempted to swim or boat to the far bank. “The contingent who were pursuing them had lost all reason in the heat of battle and pursued them into the water,” writes the Kerryman. “One boat was caught and upended and the occupants who could not escape by swimming were battered under the water until they drowned.”
The Kerry Evening Post reported on the event back in 1834: "It is computed that no fewer than one thousand men were engaged on each side, and there were nearly an equal number of women employed in supplying the combitants with sticks and stones." Arrests related to the "sanguinary and murderous" battle were still being made a month later.
This gives you a sense of how passions flared at Ballyeigh and why winning a hundred-pound bet there a few years later might have been a big deal.
Anyway, various safety-minded adjustments to the Ballyeigh races were implemented, but then, in 1856, violence erupted again. The particular race that set things off was won by none other than Johnny O’Connell, mentioned above, who rode May Morning—a relative of our renowned Dimby—to victory over Timekeeper. That horse’s owner, George Sandes, accused O’Connell of cheating, a fight broke out, and O’Connell ended up in the Ballybunion jail. In October 1858, the races moved to Listowel.
At this point, that original Kerryman article, the one mourning the death of Richard J. Wolfe, returns to its subject, noting that a legion of Wolfes had sailed for the States and one even “kept a high-class stud of Norman horses.” What it doesn’t mention is that once the Wolfes reached the rolling fields of eastern Iowa their interest in horse flesh may have taken a different turn. According to the History of Clinton County (1879), a “Horse-Thief Protection Society” was founded in the years immediately following the Wolfes’ arrival, its mission to protect the people from what it called illegal “horse-raising.” Its officers’ names tended away from the Irish.
As my dad once wrote:
The motivation for the Society is unknown to the writer, but in a land heavily populated with English and Germans, as well as with the Irish, it must have been distressing indeed to see so much evidence of what Sir Walter Raleigh unflatteringly called the “Wilde Irish” so dangerously near them. Prudence alone would have dictated such a move.
All of which is to say, lo, how far the Wolfes did fall … from horse-racing to illegal horse-raising in but one generation!
images: Maurice Richard Wolfe, of Dimby fame (Knockanure Library) and a Google Maps Street View shot of Ballyeigh, where the Cashen meets the River Feale and flows into the sea; “Eyes of the Races,” Listowel Races, September 16, 2008, by Barry Delaney (Flickr)
* Yes, I know. What a painful name! Actually, in Irish it looks like Baile an Bhuinneánaigh and derives from the Bonyon family, who claimed a castle there in 1582. You can see its lovely remains here.
** Cnoc an Fhásaig, or hill of the wilderness
† Baile ui Fhiaigh, or O’Fay’s town
‡ Listowel (Lios Tuathail, or Tuathal’s fort) being the hometown of my own great-great grandfather, or Kate Maher’s great uncle …