Dimby and the Kerryman

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, 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 Roehes 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). In June 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.”

This gives you a sense of the way passions might have 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!

You can read the entire Kerryman article from 1927 after the jump.

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 …

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There Was a Vast Unbroken Prairie

Where the forest meets the prairie, Buena Vista County, Iowa, by Samuel Calvin (University of Iowa)

This obituary of JAMES BUCKLEY WOLFE appeared in the Oxford Mirror, page 5, on February 3, 1916. Wolfe was my great-grandfather Maurice’s oldest brother. What strikes me is how this obituary, more than most, seems to be a means of remembering the early history of Clinton County, Iowa. Wolfe is cast in the role of the archetypal pioneer: one who made a pilgrim’s progress from Ireland, through the Slough of Despond (Chicago, apparently), fields of fire, and finally to the Celestial City, otherwise known (ironically?) as Lost Nation. It’s as if the obituary writer were not so much taking stock of James Wolfe as s/he was of the entire community.

Anyway, as for the misnomer in the headline: Wolfe did have a younger brother called John B., born in 1851.

Obituary of John B. Wolfe, Pioneer

James B. Wolfe was born in County Kerry, Ireland, April 13, 1844, and died at his home near Lost Nation, Iowa, January 27, 1916. When an infant he came to this country with his parents. The history of his life is the story of the immigrant and pioneer. They came to Chicago. Where a vast city now stands there were then only swamps and sloughs. Afterwards the family moved to Ottawa, Illinois, and later, in 1854 came to Iowa settling on the same farm, a part of which the deceased owned at the time of his death.

At that time, where there are now prosperous well tilled farms, there was a vast unbroken prairie over which the deer roamed at will and through which surged the all devouring prairie fire sweeping everything before it. Here, the deceased experienced the struggles and privations of pioneer life. Through the sides of the rude hut of a home, the wind and the weather blew. Often did he tell of how he shook the snow from the bed covers on awakening and brushed it aside on the floor to make a bare place upon which to stand while dressing. He lived to see the great evolution and progress of the past almost three quarters of a century. He saw the railroad, the steam engine, and the automobile displace the rail and the ox drawn wagon of the pioneer and the transformation which has made an unbroken, unpeopled* prairie the garden spot of the world.

The deceased united in marriage to Annie O’Connor, February 8, 1872, which union was blessed with seven children all of whom with the wife survive. They are John O. C., Nora L. and James L., of this place; Mrs. Frank Goodall [May R.], of Toronto; Doctor Jeremiah, of Grand Mound; Mrs. I. S. Ryan [Anna], of Welton; and Attorney Walter I., of Dunlap. Besides, the deceased leaves to mourn his death four brothers and three sisters as follows: Judge P. B. Wolfe, Mrs. T. D. Fitzgerald [Katherine] and Mrs. D. Langan [Margaret I.] of Clinton; Attorney Richard B. of DeWitt; Maurice B. of Lost Nation; and Sister M. Scholastica [Johanna] of St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital, Sioux City.

He was a man of sterling worth and unimpeachable character who counted every man his friend. Always a natural leader of men he held many positions of honor and trust, though never a seeker after public acclaim. At the time of his death, he was president of the Lost Nation Savings Bank.

The funeral services were held at St. James’ church, Toronto. Requiem High Mass was celebrated by Father McNamara assisted by Father Regan of Oxford Junction and Father Small of Lost Nation and the choir of the Sacred Heart church, Lost Nation. Father Small paid an eloquent tribute to the faith of the deceased—a life-long Catholic in which faith he so calmly and resignedly passed away.

The remains were borne to their last resting place by sight of his life-long neighbors and friends, namely James Connors, Anthony Early, William Burnett, Thomas Early, Edward O’Donnell, Edward Scanlan, M. P. O’Connor and James Hughes.

Those from a distance who attended were, Judge P. Wolfe and daughter Mollie and Mrs. T. D. Fitzgerald and daughter Margaret of Clinton; R. B. Wolfe and family and Mrs. M. Scanlan of DeWitt, Iowa; John B. Wolfe of Melrose, Iowa; Kate Carroll, Kilkenny, Minnesota; Mrs. B. McBride of Hawarden, Iowa; Hugh Buckley, Chicago; O. S. Gilroy and Jennie McLaughlin of Bettendorf, Iowa; and Mr. and Mrs. T. J. Leahy of Fulton, Illinois.

* It should go without saying that this was not true.

Scan of the obituary after the jump.

image: Where the forest meets the prairie, Buena Vista County, Iowa, by Samuel Calvin (University of Iowa)

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He Is Survived by Four Small Children

Thomas Wolfe and Ray Wolfe, Delmar, Iowa, 1941

An obituary for my grandfather RAY WOLFE, from the Jackson Sentinel, September 16, 1941:

Rites At Delmar Thursday For Raymond B. Wolfe

DELMAR – An unusually large and sympathetic assemblage of the relatives, friends and acquaintances of the late Raymond B. Wolfe were gathered together in St. Patrick’s church at 9:00 o’clock Thursday morning, Sept. 11, to attend the funeral services. Requiem high mass was celebrated by the Rev. J. J. Hopkins, with the Rev. James Quinlan, of Charlotte, and the Rev. Herald O’Connor, of Lost Nation, as his assistants on the altar. Interment was made in St. Patrick’s cemetery, Delmar, with the Rev. J. J. Hopkins officiating at the ritualistic service. Eight members of Timber City Post No. 75, The American Legion, of Maquoketa, under the command of Glen Bailey, composed the firing squad, and Hugh Fletcher, bugler, sounding taps, as military honors were accorded the deceased veteran of the world war. Casket bears were also Legion comrades: Charles Rasmussen, Allen Bracket, Percy Cassin, Peter McGinn, Ralph Guise, and Dan Waters. Deceased was born October 27, 1896, the son of Morris [Maurice] and Sarah Wolfe, near Lost Nation. He married Gladys McGinn, of Delmar, on August 25, 1925, and they lived on a farm near Lost Nation before moving to Delmar. He was a veteran of the world war, and a member of Timber City Post No. 75, The American Legion. Besides his wife, he is survived by four small children, three daughters, Sarah [Sara], Mary and Marjorie [Margery], and one son, Thomas; and four brothers, Philip, John, Melvin and James, all of Lost Nation.

image: Thomas Wolfe and Ray Wolfe, Delmar, Iowa, 1941

The Old Goat, R.I.P.

Tom Wolfe

This is my dad’s obituary—as I wrote it and pretty close to how it appeared.

THOMAS A. WOLFE (1940–2012)

Thomas Anthony Wolfe was born in Maquoketa, Iowa, on December 20, 1940. The son of Raymond Bernard Wolfe (1896–1941) and Gladys McGinn Wolfe (1903–1966), he was the great-grandson of Irish immigrants. The youngest of four, Tommy—as his sisters insisted on calling him—found himself deprived of a father as an infant and set free on not quite two hundred acres of Clinton County farmland. As a result, he lived inside his imagination. He became his hero, Jackie Robinson, by throwing balls against the barn and scooping up grounders. He found stacks of freshly mown hay to be occasions for an intense kind of dreaming. “What I remember most about farm life,” he once wrote, “was an aching feeling of loneliness.”

Wolfe graduated from Delmar High School in 1958 and then, with support from an uncle, from St. Ambrose College, in nearby Davenport. He later earned a master’s degree in American history from Western Illinois University. Having decided to forego farm life, Wolfe began his teaching career in Blue Grass, Iowa, before moving down the road to Walcott, where he taught across the hall from Frances Cupp Wolfe, whom he married on August 1, 1964. The couple—a sometimes uneasy mixture of Irish and French ancestry—raised three children in Davenport: Bridget Colleen (b. 1967), Brendan Martin (b. 1971), and Sara Elizabeth (b. 1973). As the names suggest, Wolfe’s Irish side often prevailed, although he lovingly called his wife Françoise. She called him “the old goat,” only sometimes lovingly, and they managed until 1993, when they separated. Divorce followed soon after.

Until his retirement in 1997, Wolfe held court in a room at Walcott Junior High School (later Middle School), mostly teaching American history. His great passion was for teaching, which took him back to the farm he never quite left: it was an exercise in imagination. A colleague remembers his closet full of hats. “He would put on a hat and act out various historical characters,” she recalled, and if on one occasion he actually tumbled from a windowsill during a performance—that made it only more memorable for his audience.

Wolfe’s other great passion was the teachers’ union. His wife Fran beat him to it, voting to strike on an occasion when he didn’t, and her zeal rubbed off on him. He served two terms as president of the Davenport Education Association, and was a near-annual delegate to assemblies of the state and national unions. For at least a decade he served as Midwest regional director of the NEA’s Peace and Justice Caucus, and in 2012 the Iowa State Education Association presented him with its highest honor, the Charles F. Martin Award for Association Leadership. He accepted with a generous and very funny speech calling for an end to the bitter and unthinking partisanship of American politics.

Tom Wolfe, who died at his Davenport home on August 4­, is survived by his sister Margery; his former wife; his close friend Nancy Porter, of Iowa City; his three children; and his three grandchildren. (His sisters Sara and Mary K died in 1998 and 2004, respectively.) One imagines he has finally returned to the old Wolfe homestead in Clinton County, to the hay bales and reveries. “As long as I live,” he wrote, “I’ll associate freshly mown hay with those dreams and yearnings, and I won’t know whether to be happy or sad.”

image: Tom Wolfe, ca. 1980s