Wolfe, Arthur (1739–1803), 1st Viscount Kilwarden , politician and judge, was born 19 January 1739, the fifth surviving son of John Wolfe (1700–60), owner of Forenaughts, Co. Kildare, and his wife Mary (d. 1804), only daughter of William Philpot, a Dublin merchant. After attending Mr Hatton's school he entered TCD (5 July 1755), graduating BA (1760). He entered the Middle Temple (1761), was called to the Irish bar (1766), and soon built up a respected practice, becoming a KC in 1778. Among the many positions he held were register of the crown and hanaper (1768), commissioner of bankruptcy (1772), commissioner for paving the streets of Dublin (1778–80), member of the Hibernian Fire Insurance Company (1773–), director for paving, cleansing and lighting the streets of Dublin (1789–97), governor of the Hibernian Society (1787–1803), and commissioner of appeals (1795–1803). He was also MRIA (1785), bencher of the King's Inns (1798), fellow of the Society of Antiquities (1800), and vice-chancellor of Dublin University (1802–3). In the late 1770s he was also a member of the drinking and debating society, the Monks of the Screw. He was elected MP for Coleraine at the 1783 general election through the influence of George de la Poer Beresford (1735–1800), earl of Tyrone. Although a skilled lawyer and an amiable man, he was regarded as a poor parliamentary speaker and ‘a determined, though not a very powerful, advocate of administration’ (HIP, vi, 548). Wolfe opposed parliamentary reform in 1783–4, and was appointed solicitor general in 1787. He voted against a regency in 1789 and succeeded John FitzGibbon (qv) as attorney general that year.
He was returned by purchase as MP for Jamestown, Co. Leitrim (1790–97), after which he represented Dublin city (1797–8). He voted for John Foster (qv) as speaker (1790), for the convention bill (1793) (aimed at preventing extra parliamentary assemblies), and against catholic emancipation (1795). Charged with defending the government's policy in the commons, his performance was considered solid but uninspired. He was one of the intended victims of Lord Lieutenant Fitzwilliam's (qv) purge of conservative office-holders, but managed to remain in place. In recognition of his services his wife was created Baroness Kilwarden of Kilteel, Co. Kildare, in 1795.
As attorney general, Wolfe was a member of the Dublin Castle ‘inner cabinet’ and was prepared to countenance firm measures to crush disaffection in the 1790s. He initiated several political prosecutions of United Irishmen, most notoriously that of William Orr (qv) in 1797. However, some loyalists were severely critical of his cautious legalistic approach: on the eve of rebellion, John Claudius Beresford (qv) expressed his hope that ‘in the desperate state of things, the timid counsels of a slow crown lawyer would no longer be regarded’. Wolfe, though, never advocated leniency to rebels and in July 1798 joined with Chief Justice William Carleton (qv) in insisting that executions of convicted United Irish leaders should go ahead despite an agreement by the prisoners to give general information and accept banishment. By this time he had been appointed lord chief justice of king's bench and Baron Kilwarden (3 July 1798). After Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv) was sentenced to death by court martial in November 1798, an appeal for a stay of execution came before Kilwarden at the king's bench. Kilwarden granted the stay (as Tone was not a British commissioned officer he could not legally be tried by court martial while the civil courts were sitting), but Tone cut his throat before news of the decision arrived at the jail. (The Wolfe in Tone's name is said to represent a connection between the families.)
When consulted over the union in November 1798 Kilwarden declared himself in favour, believing it was the only way to secure peace and prosperity. However, he was worried about public opposition and wary of committing himself openly as a unionist. In 1800 he acted occasionally as speaker of the house of lords, and eventually came out as a firm supporter of the union. After it passed he was created a viscount (29 December 1800). On 23 July 1803, at the outbreak of Robert Emmet's (qv) rebellion, he was driving from his country residence at Newlands Castle, Clondalkin, Co. Dublin, to Dublin Castle accompanied by his daughter and a nephew, Rev. Richard Straubenzie Wolfe (1779–1803). The carriage was stopped on Thomas Street by rebels, and Kilwarden and his nephew were piked to death. When, dying, he heard a demand for the instant punishment of his killers, he insisted ‘let no man suffer for my death but by the laws of my country’ (HIP, vi, 549). His murder was widely regarded as the single most shocking event of the Emmet rising. The government offered a reward of £1,000 for the arrest of his killers, and they were convicted and hanged some months later.
On 29 January 1769, Arthur Wolfe married Anne, daughter of William Ruxton (1697–1751), MP for Ardee, Co. Louth (1748–51). They had three surviving children, a boy and two girls. A portrait (1795) by Hugh Douglas Hamilton (qv) and a pencil drawing by James Petrie (qv) are held in the NGI. He was succeeded as 2nd Viscount Kilwarden by his son John Wolfe (1769–1830), who was MP for Ardee (1790–97); John died unmarried 22 May 1830 and his title became extinct.