THOMAS WOLFE (1841–1915)

Thomas Wolfe was born in 1841, possibly at Dromolought, in northern County Kerry, the son of James Richard Wolfe and an unknown mother. He had at least two brothers, Maurice (b. ca. 1823) and Richard (b. 1842), but likely at least another brother and at least two sisters.

Wolfe's grandfather, Richard James Wolfe, had been a prominent landowner and "the agent having charge of the property of the Knight of Kerry," according to Wolfe's History of Clinton County (1911), which likely involved care of Ballinruddery, the residence of Maurice FitzGerald, near Listowel, County Kerry. Wolfe's father inherited land at nearby Dromolought.

Wolfe married Catherine "Kate" O'Connor on an unknown date and the couple had nine children: James (b. 1872), Mary "Minnie" (b. 1873), Julia (b. 1874), John "Jack" (b. 1876), Johanna "Hannah" (b. 1881), Margaret "Maggie" (b. 1884), Bridget "Bridie" (b. 1886?), Richard, and Eily. James Wolfe married Maria Stack and died, possibly, in 1955. Minnie Wolfe married Maurice Stack and died in 1950. Julia Wolfe never married and died in 1911. Jack Wolfe died in 1907. Hannah Wolfe married Patrick Horgan and died in 1954. Margaret Wolfe married Michael Downey, and Bridget Wolfe wed Timothy Griffin, dying in 1963. Richard Wolfe became a priest, moving to Sydney, Australia, and dying there in 1922. Eily Wolfe married Cornelius "Con" Morrissey and died in 1976.


An Irish family is evicted in County Clare, ca. 1879 (  Wikimedia  )

An Irish family is evicted in County Clare, ca. 1879 (Wikimedia)

Land War

Thomas Wolfe served for a time as a Poor Law Guardian, helping to distribute aid to the poor. In 1870, or probably right around the time of his marriage, he began renting a little more than 162 acres of land at Beale Hill (sometimes Bale Hill), near Ballybunion, in North Kerry, or about seven miles from his father's land in Dromolought. His absentee landlord was William Hare, third earl of Listowel, a member of the House of Lords.

Charles Stewart Parnell (Mathew Brady/Library of Congress)

Wolfe's lease was signed near the start of what historians call the Land War, or a long period of social agitation between landlords and tenants. The latter were led by Charles Stewart Parnell, a member of Parliament whose outspokenness landed him in Kilmainham Jail, in Dublin. In March 1882, the landlord Arthur Herbert, reviled by some for having leveled the house of an evicted family, was murdered at Lisheenbaun, County Kerry. (An "alphabet verse" about the killing was published soon after.) Late in April, Richard Roach was murdered in Dromkeen, County Limerick, apparently for having volunteered to work on a farm where the family had been evicted, also known as a "boycotted house."

On April 15, 1882, the establishment Kerry Evening Post reported that so-called Moonlighters, or armed, pro-tenant men, had raided the countryside around Ballybunion on April 10 in celebration of the announcement that Parnell would be released from jail. "A farmer named Patrick Quane, Kiloonly, Ballybunion, was taken out of his bed, put on his knee, and a double barrel gun presented at his head by one, and a revolver to his heart by another of the rulers of Ireland," the paper wrote sarcastically, "threatening him with death if he paid his rent—he is a tenant to the Earl of Listowel—or dealt in any 'Boycotted house.'"

The Moonlighters visited Wolfe's house, Beale Hill, and, like other farmers, "he also gave up his gun without a word of refusal or an attempt to defend," according to the Post, "though his house is one from which a successful defence could have been made—may it not be said 'You are nice men to have licenses.'"

Whether out of fear, principle, or necessity, Wolfe did not pay his rent during those years, and on April 6, 1885, he was evicted. According to the Kerry Sentinel, the sub-sheriff, W. C. Harnett, three bailiffs, Sergeant Thomas Strettan, and three policeman all arrived at Beale Hill to execute the court order issued for non-payment of rent. He owed £528 1s 5d on a yearly rent of £187 0s 8d.

The less sympathetic Post described Wolfe's acreage as "prime" and his rent "nominal," at £176 9s 6d, or  £1 2s 6d per acre.

The Sentinel presented Wolfe's defense at length:

According to the tenant's statement the rent was a most excessive one, he having taken the farm under a lease for 21 years in the year 1870, when there was an insane competition for land, and this particular farm at the time was in a baren irreclaimed condition, and subject to all the disadvantages of land similarly located, it being situated just at the mouth of the Shannon, exposed to all the violence and severity of the Atlantic storms.

William Hare, third earl of Listowel (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Wolfe went on to claim that at least sixty of his acres were unusable, and yet, he said, he had made great strides in improving the farm. "He has built, or rather had been compelled to build, a very fine dwellinghouse, which cost him about £240 towards the erection of which his landlord never allowed him a shilling. He also ran a very good road through the farm which took away a great deal of his time, money and labour."

He pointed to the gates he had built and the piles of stones, evidence of the toil and industry necessary "to bring even the 80 acres which he only utilise into its present state of less than average quality." In addition, the bog was worthless for turf and the market at Listowel a full twelve miles away, "thereby losing a great deal of the profit of his produce." Worst of all, Wolfe had lost £600 worth of stock since 1877 "owing to the poisonous nature of the grazing."

He took the sick stock into his barn for care so often his neighbors had dubbed the building "Wolfe's Infirmary."

"There was no disturbance or party display," the Post wrote, "and the eviction was carried out quietly. Woulfe has nine in family, including himself and his wife. When the Sheriff arrived upon the scene he found but two cows, a few sheep, two horses and a couple of donkeys, all the other stock having been disposed of in Tralee."

Finished with Wolfe, the authorities proceeded to the next eviction. What happened next comes from the Kerry Weekly Reporter, about six weeks later:

Mr. Thomas Woulfe, who was evicted from his holding at Balehill, near Ballybunnion, was allowed the tillage of the farm by his landlord Lord Listowel. When the fact became known in the neighbourhood, some three hundred persons including both sexes came on the farm with horses and carts, accompanied by about twenty musicians, and put down several acres of potatoes and oats. The greatest merriment prevailed during the day.

Wolfe remained on the land for the rest of his life. In 1892, two of his nephews, brothers Matthew Wolfe and Richard M. Wolfe, were accused of murder and eventually indicted for manslaughter in the death of the farmer Michael Dillane at Ballybunion. An early report on the case suggests that boycotted land may have been at the root of the argument, although later the Crown prosecutor contended that it was unclear what started the row. Regardless, a letter to the editor of the Irish Times, republished in the Kerry Evening Post on August 3, 1893, complained that the Wolfe brothers were never tried and that it was "well known in the county, and evidence would have been produced at the trial to show, that the case was an agrarian murder"—which is to say, violence related to the Land War.

Over the next few decades such violence subsided and various land acts in Parliament oversaw the transfer of land from landlords to tenants. This 1901 report in the Kerry Sentinel, however, makes clear that the terms were often quite complex. A meeting of the Listowel Rural Council featured various members marveling at the law's opaqueness. "It would take a Philadelphia lawyer to understand that letter," the chairman said. "I venture it would take a practiced Old Bailey lawyer to unravel it," the clerk responded. He went on to use Thomas Wolfe's holding as an example of how such land transfers might work.

"You propose to take three roods and twenty-two perches and to give [Wolfe] £32 6s to purchase it out absolutely," he said. "The Land Commission want you to go round, and if their circular means anything it means that you are to find out the value of the different portions of Mr Woulfe's holdings. Supposing he has two hundred acres of land, fifty acres of it might be worth 5s an acre and fifty more £1 an acre, and so on, and when you have found out the proportion required you must add a certain portion for the proximity to the public road and take into account a variety of other circumstances such as the length of time the loan is being paid, etc."

The council adjourned after deciding to seek further guidance.


Later Years

Ballybunion, County Kerry, ca. 1880–1914 (National Library of Ireland)

In 1906, Wolfe paid 2s to join the Ballybunion branch of the Irish Land and Labor Association, a successful political advocate for tenants' rights. Four years later he was elected to serve on the Dispensary Committee of the Board of Guardians, charged with distributing medicine to the poor.

Wolfe died on August 29, 1915, at his home, Beale Hill. His funeral was held at the Ballybunion Church and he was buried at the Killehenny Burial Ground. His wife, Kate O'Connor Wolfe, died in 1932 and was buried next to him.