JOHN M. WOLFE (1922–2009)

John Maurice Wolfe, who adopted the Irish-language version of his name, Seán Muiris de Bhulbh, was born on September 22, 1922, in Abbeyfeale, County Limerick. His parents were Maurice James Wolfe, a solicitor, and Sarah McCarthy Wolfe. His siblings were Maurice Richard (b. 1925) and Richard (b. 1929).

After attending Springmount School in Abbeyfeale and Saint Gerard’s Senior School in Bray, County Wicklow, he studied engineering at Trinity College, Dublin, graduating in 1943. He then worked in London, in Scotland, and, for two years, in Kenya with the Royal Engineers. After returning to Ireland in 1956, he was employed by the Dublin Corporation and the Kerry County Council, being named assistant county engineer on July 16, 1958. In 1968, he began work for the Limerick County Council, retiring from there in 1987.

In 1956, de Bhulbh married Mary Murphy, and the couple had five children: Eibhlin, Sadhbh, Sibéal, Muiris, and Seán C.

De Bhulbh was a fluent Irish speaker and spent much of his life promoting the language. In the 1970s he served as cathaoirleach, or presiding officer, of the Limerick branch of Conradh na Gaelige (formerly the Gaelic League), a cultural organization founded in 1893 as a means of ridding, or at least reducing, English influence on Ireland’s politics and culture. De Bhulbh’s relative, the Reverend Patrick Wolfe, served as president of the league’s Limerick branch early in the twentieth century.

By the 1960s and 1970s, the Irish language was taught in Irish national schools and passing the course was required to receive a Leaving Certificate. Nevertheless, there was widespread skepticism of the language and, in some quarters, pessimism about its survival. On March 17, 1962, in the Kerryman newspaper, the playwright John B. Keane, in general a supporter of the language, published a column suggesting that other school subjects were more important. He also wondered whether the language was being used for social and political advancement:

Another sad aspect of the Irish question is the name-changing which has taken place in recent years. People whose names are written in English on Baptismal and Birth Certificates have found it politic and profitable to sign themselves now in Irish. In this category many of the worst type of fanatics are found, fanatics who accuse those who object to compulsory Irish of being West Britons and Shoneens.

Seán de Bhulbh responded in a letter published on March 31. “The question ‘what use is Irish,’” he wrote, “really betrays a person, for it means that he has never got beyond thinking in commercial terms.” He then addressed the issue of names:

Finally, I fear I must offend against Mr. Keane’s dictum by signing my name in Irish, even though it is in English on my birth certificate. I have been doing this for many years ever since I became convinced, after giving the matter some thought, that Irish was of the utmost importance in our national life. I must confess that so far this procedure has not yielded any profit!

De Bhulbh was particularly interested in names. In 1923, his relative Father Wolfe published Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall, an academic study of naming in Ireland as well as a dictionary of common Irish names. In 1997, after ten years of work, de Bhulbh published his own, updated study, Sloinnte na hÉireann: Irish Surnames. Both books, and a new edition that de Bhulbh published in 2002, examined the origins of Irish names and provided a reference for names as they appeared in both Irish and English.

In October 2008, de Bhulbh published Síth agus Eísíth (Peace and War), an Irish-language novella set late in the sixteenth century. He also wrote but never published a survey of West Limerick place names.

Mary Murphy Wolfe died in 2005 and de Bhulbh on February 7, 2009. They are buried in the Wolfe family mausoleum at the Temple Athea graveyard, County Limerick.