It’s surprising more hasn’t been written about the Rev. Patrick Woulfe. The parish priest of Cappagh from 1925 until his death in 1933, he is best known for having authored Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall, a dictionary of Irish names and surnames that became a standard work through much of the twentieth century.

An unsigned review in the Catholic Historical Review, published in 1925, is typical for its effusive praise: “Tucked away in explanatory paragraphs on the Irish name system and in the introduction, is enough material for several papers of the highest rank, suitable for presentation before learned societies.” The reviewer goes on to describe Woulfe’s work as a “handbook” for anyone in need of information on Irish history and genealogy.

And yet its author has largely remained in the shadows. My research is new, but so far I have not turned up any papers associated with Father Woulfe or even a photograph of him. This is too bad, because he seems to have hailed from an interesting family and to have lived an interesting life. In fact, that unnamed reviewer notes how remarkable Woulfe’s book is for having been produced “in a country so unsettled as Ireland” during the War of Independence.

Father Woulfe did not hide away, either, but engaged with his times fully.

He was born on March 9, 1872, in Cratloe, Parish of Athea, Co. Limerick, one of at least eight children of James Patrick Woulfe and Honora Maher Woulfe. He may have received his earliest education at a hedge school run by his relative, Richard Edmond Woulfe, at his nearby farm the Glen. An account in the National Folklore Collection describes the school, and while the Irish language was specifically not taught, the elder Woulfe was, according to his obituary, “well versed in folk lore and tradition, [and] spoke Gaelic fluently.”

Patrick Woulfe attended the local national school and  St. Ita’s College in Newcastle West and St. Munchin’s College in Limerick City. He began his studies for the priesthood at the Irish College in Rome and, after poor health forced a return to Ireland, completed them at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, County Kildare. He was ordained there on June 19, 1898.

From 1898 to 1902, Woulfe worked in the town of Wigan in Lancashire County (later Greater Manchester), England, and then, on October 6, 1902, became the curate at St. Munchin’s. He also served as chaplain to the Limerick Workhouse, on Shelbourne Road in the northwest of the city. (The buildings now house St. Camillus’s Hospital.) According to the 1901 census, the workhouse fed 1,140 inmates.
Fr. Woulfe served as curate in Kilmallock from 1905 to 1925 and there earned a reputation for his outspoken cultural nationalism. On June 28, 1914, he chaired a large feis in Kilmallock attended by armed Irish Volunteers, and two years later gave a speech in which he extolled Irish patriotism. At a time when the higher ranks of the church were more reticent, Fr. Woulfe was significantly less so.
On May 28, 1920, IRA forces attacked and burned the RIC barracks in Kilmallock, killing anywhere from one to eight policemen. (The barracks are now a bank.) The only IRA man killed was Liam Scully. After being shot, he was taken to a nearby house where, a witness later testified, Fr. Woulfe administered the Last Rites. According to a later obituary, he celebrated Mass later that day at the workhouse and was forced to pass the barracks in order to get there—”an ordeal few would care to undertake having regard to the temper of the police.” The newspaper reported that “from then to the Truce was a very anxious time” for Fr. Woulfe, who was not well regarded by the police.
Evidence suggests that Fr. Woulfe was the subject of official scrutiny even before that, however. A report in the Cork Examiner, dated November 22, 1919, notes that while he was in London on church business, Fr. Woulfe’s residence was searched after Irish prisoners escaped from a Manchester jail. These were almost certainly the six IRA men who broke out of Strangeways on October 25, as reported in the Manchester Guardian. On September 25, 1920, the Cork paper again wrote that Fr. Woulfe was subject to a search. This time, the presbytery at Kilmallock “was surrounded by military … and entered by the officers whose presence in the building was not known to the clergymen until their rooms were entered. So far as is known nothing incriminating was found.”
It’s worth noting the exact nature of the church business that brought Fr. Woulfe to London in 1919. He was there to advocate on behalf of the proposed beatification of the “Irish martyrs,” including one of his own probable relatives, James Woulfe, a Limerick priest hanged by Cromwell’s army in 1651.
The Woulfes had long been a prominent family in the area of Kilmallock and Cappagh, and Fr. Woulfe’s own near relative, Richard E. Woulfe, was the family’s respected storyteller. Described as a seanchaí in the National Folklore Collection, Woulfe receives credit in Sloinnte Geadheal is Gallfor collecting the names of West Limerick and North Kerry. Fr. Woulfe even consulted him on his own Irish translations, for issues of both language and history.

In a letter quoted in his obituary, Richard Woulfe explains that during the bloody days of Cromwell “the Woulfes were obliged to leave the rich plains of Limerick and became scattered and separated never to meet again. Some went to Clare, others settled in the western part of [Limerick], and later on extended their branches into Kerry. Hundreds of them escaped to the Continent of Europe, while many of them perished during the prolonged war, and at the Siege of Limerick …”

He went on to write that two Woulfe priests “were condemned to death by Ireton (son-in-law of Cromwell), and perished on the scaffold.” One of those, James Woulfe, was presented for beatification in 1915 but was not among the seventeen Irish martyrs so honored by Pope John Paul II on September 27, 1992.

Fr. Patrick Woulfe was transferred to Cappagh, on November 25, 1925, and served as the parish priest there until his death on May 3, 1933.
In 1932, Fr. P. J. Carroll, a Limerick priest then living in the United States, wrote in the Limerick Leader that Woulfe “believes in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church and the Irish language. He uses Irish for thinking, talking, praying, dreaming. He speaks English to you as a concession—because you are a foreigner; but if you can distinguish the difference between slain leat and taim go mait, he carries you along in Irish.”
Fr. Woulfe is buried in the yard of St. James Church, Cappagh. In 1997, another relative, Seán de Bhulbh, updated his scholarship with Sloinnte na hÉireann: Irish Surnames.

Brendan Wolfe