CATHERINE WOLFE (1890–1989)
Catherine Wolfe, also known as Caitlín de Bhulbh, was born on November 27, 1890, in the townland of Knocknasna, near Abbeyfeale, County Limerick. She was the eldest child of Thomas Wolfe and Johanna O’Connell Wolfe, both of Ballybehy. Her siblings included Hanora (b. 1892), Maurice (b. 1894), Patrick (b. 1896), Bridget (b. 1901), and Ellen (b. 1903).
Wolfe attended Springmount National School, in Abbeyfeale, and the Dominican boarding school at 19 Eccles Street, Dublin. In 1909 she matriculated at University College, Dublin, where she joined the Conradh na Gaeilge, or the Gaelic League, and studied Irish history and language under its founder, Douglas Hyde, who later served as the first president of Ireland (1938–1945). It may have been at this time that Wolfe adopted the Irish-language form of her name, Caitlín de Bhulbh. She graduated in 1912 with a bachelor of arts degree and a higher degree in education. She went on to teach at the Loreto Sisters secondary school at 77 Saint Stephen’s Green, in Dublin, Ursuline College secondary school, in Sligo, and Passion school in Kilcullen, County Kildare.
In 1913, the playwright Piaras Béaslaí, with help from Dublin’s Keating Branch of the Gaelic League, founded Na hAisteoiri (The Players), a theater troupe that produced and performed its plays in Irish. De Bhulbh was one of the group’s approximately ten original members, which included the future republican and Sinn Féin politician Con Collins, also of West Limerick, and the republican sisters Bríd and Máire Dixon. In 1914 and 1915 Na hAisteoiri staged its works in Dublin, while also touring for a week in counties Cork and Kerry during the summer of 1914.
In a newspaper piece published in 1954, Béaslaí recalled the troupe’s performance in Inchigeelagh, County Cork, in July 1914.
A feis or aeriocht had been recently held in a field adjoining the village, and the improvised platform, made of planks stretched across empty barrels, was still standing. We transferred planks and barrels to the village hall and made our stage. We had brought curtains and a “set” (of scenery) with us, and we borrowed furniture from the hotel where we were staying. In those days there were no buses and very few motors, and the people in country villages seldom got a chance of seeing a stage performance, I think practically everybody in the village and neighbourhood came to the performance. The schoolmaster, Mr. Tadhg Herlihy, very kindly stood at the door and collected the entrance money; and the curate, Father Fitzgerald … sat in a front seat and, at the conclusion, made a speech warmly commending our work.
On October 24, 1914, de Bhulbh published “Hata Sheáin Mhic Eoin” in An Claidheamh Soluis, the Gaelic League newspaper. It was an Irish translation of “Het Jac Jones,” a Welsh short story published in Straeon y pentan (1895), a collection by Daniel Owen (1836–1895). It’s not clear where or when de Bhulbh learned to read Welsh, but her fellow member of Na hAisteoiri, Fionán Lynch, later recalled his experience of teaching in Swansea, Wales, and forming a branch of the Gaelic League there. Perhaps de Bhulbh learned the language through him.
In addition to Irish, she spoke Latin and French, and according to a former student, Kat Ahern, regularly traveled to a small town near Lourdes to maintain her accent. “The year she did not go to France,” Ahern wrote, “she would be found in Ballinskelligs [in County Kerry], teaching and polishing her Irish.”
In 1937 de Bhulbh established Coláiste Mhuire (Saint Mary’s College), a secondary school for girls in Abbeyfeale. Located on New Street in a two-story house rented from Tim Scannell, the school had room for two downstairs classrooms heated in the winter by turf-burning stoves. De Bhulbh’s living quarters were upstairs. She later purchased the property and, as enrollment increased, leased space across the street from the Geany family (her brother Maurice was married to Ellen Geany). Tuition totaled £9 per year and never changed in the school’s twenty-nine years. Four competitive scholarships were offered each year based on examination results.
De Bhulbh had a reputation as a strict disciplinarian but never used corporal punishment. “She was very impatient with those who were inclined to be ‘upstarts’ or insincere,” Ahern wrote. “Her heart, however, was in the right place.” Writing in the Abbeyfeale history magazine Macalla na Mainistreach in 2001, Jim O’Malley wrote, “Her stern appearance and her commanding voice, which had a certain nasal tone, demanded immediate attention.”
“What Miss Woulfe said was law,” a student recalled.
Classes were conducted in Irish. Ahern credited de Bhulbh for prioritizing drama and music in her curriculum and for emphasizing physical exercise. According to Ahern, de Bhulbh “was somewhat a loner or very individualistic type of person. She was also ‘elegant’ to a degree and was, justifiably, very proud of the Woulfe family who were banished from Limerick city to Cratloe in the West Limerick hills.”
Coláiste Mhuire closed in 1966. De Bhulbh, who never married, died in January 1989 and is buried in Abbeyfeale. In 1991 former students placed a commemorative plaque on the New Street building that once housed the school.