James Wolfe was born in Limerick City, County Limerick, Ireland, the son of James Wolfe and a mother whose identity is unknown. His surname is sometimes spelled Woulfe or Wolf. He had four, possibly five brothers: Patrick (the eldest), George, Andrew, Stephen, and Francis, the latter’s relationship remaining unconfirmed.
Wolfe’s father was a Catholic merchant who owned about 1,500 acres of land. At one point, James Wolfe was set to inherit the estate, but his father rewrote his will several times before finally awarding the land to his son Patrick.
Little is known of Wolfe’s early years. At some point, he joined the mendicant Order of Preachers (also known as the Dominicans) and was ordained a priest. The order, which emphasized academic study, was organized into three levels of schooling: prior, provincial, and general. Wolfe served as prior-provincial for several priories, responsible for the general oversight of teaching and curriculum. At the time of his death, he was preacher-general, an appointed position reserved for those who had studied theology at least three years. The preacher-general’s main task was to preach, but he was limited to the area served by the priory.
Wolfe was preacher-general of the Limerick priory during the second of the Irish Confederate Wars (1649–1653), in which Oliver Cromwell led his New Model Army against a coalition of Irish Catholics and royalists. In October 1650, Cromwell’s son-in-law, Henry Ireton, mounted a siege of Limerick, which he abandoned by winter. In June 1651, however, he returned with 8,000 men, 28 siege artillery pieces, and 4 mortars.
Wolfe’s brothers, Captain George Wolfe and Father Andrew Wolfe, also lived in the city at the time, as did Father Francis Wolfe.
According to Maurice Lenihan, who wrote an account of the siege in volume 2 of Limerick; Its History and Antiquities, Ecclesiastical Civil and Military (1866), Wolfe was an outspoken character. He had opposed both peace treaties (in 1646 and 1649) that allied members of the Irish Catholic Confederation, which had ruled Ireland from 1642 until 1649, with Anglo-Irish opponents of Cromwell, some of whom were Protestant and who had previously waged war on the Confederation. These royalists were led by James Butler, marquess of Ormonde.
Limerick was the seat of the Confederation, but when, in 1646, the city’s mayor and Ormonde’s representatives announced the treaty, Wolfe rose before a crowd of 500 armed citizens and “fulminated excommunication” against the treaty’s supporters. On cue, the “people fell suddenly on the herald, flung stones at him, at Bourke the mayor, and all the aldermen who were about him, and all those of the ‘better sort’ who had countenanced the action.”
When, on June 11, 1651, Ormonde proposed garrisoning some of his troops in Limerick, Wolfe “raised a tumult in the city to oppose his entrance,” causing the royalist general to commandeer corn from the city and retire to the River Shannon, about four miles away. Soon after, Cromwell’s men arrived and began their second siege.
The inhabitants of Limerick were led during the siege by Hugh Dubh O’Neill, the governor and military commander, and Terence Albert O’Brien, bishop of Emly. According to Lenihan, “they were nobly seconded by … the zealous Father Wolfe,” among others. Over four months, however, the siege caused food shortages and deadly outbreaks of disease. “Councils became divided within the walls,” Lenihan wrote “Death stalked through the streets, grim and ghastly, whilst the plague-victims lay on the foot-paths, spectacles for men to weep over.”
As the siege neared an end and Ireton’s victory seemed certain, the English commander made clear his intentions to execute Bishop O’Brien, Governor O’Neill, and others who had refused to surrender. According to Lenihan, Wolfe still counseled resistance and “cautioned the trembling cravens as to what they were about.” Limerick surrendered on October 27, 1561.
Ireton spared O’Neill but not O’Brien and Wolfe. One historian, writing in 1854, argues that Wolfe was not in Limerick during the siege, but “solicitous of the salvation of souls and of consoling the Catholics, privately reached the city, and after eight days was betrayed and delivered over to the heretics.” Whatever the case, he was sentenced to death.
The standard account of Wolfe’s death appears in The Irish Dominicans of the Seventeenth Century, written in Latin by John O’Heyne and published in 1706; an English translation appeared in 1902. It is written in the style of hagiography:
At length he [Wolfe] was captured in Limerick while celebrating mass and received sentence of death within a few hours; he was then brought to the market-place and having made a public profession of the Catholic faith, exhorted the faithful to constancy. When he reached the highest rung of the ladder from which he was to be thrown, he exclaimed with a joyful voice: “We are made a spectacle to God, to the angels, and to men: to God to his greater glory, to the angels to their joy, and to the men to their contempt.” Soon after he expired on the gibbet.
Wolfe, considered a martyr by the Irish church, was presented for beatification in 1915 but, unlike Bishop O’Brien, was not among the seventeen Irish martyrs so honored by Pope John Paul II on September 27, 1992.
images: “Ireton Condemning the Bishop of Limerick,” an illustration in Lives of the Irish Martyrs and Confessors by Myles O’Reilly (1880); King John’s Castle on King John’s Island, Limerick, 2007 (Eric the Fish / WikiCommons)