Wolfe, David (1528–c.1578), leader of the second Jesuit mission to Ireland, was born in Limerick. His command of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese strongly suggests that he was educated on the Continent, but he is first recorded as dean of the diocesan chapter in Limerick. He was received into the Society of Jesus in Rome in 1554 and resigned the deanery in June 1555. On 30 April 1558 Ignatius Loyola appointed him rector of the College of Modena. On 2 August 1560 an effort to revive the morale and discipline of the catholic church in Ireland was initiated with the appointment of Wolfe as papal commissary (the title of nuncio being withheld at the request of his superior, Diego Lainez) with instructions to establish schools, hospitals and places of refuge for the poor where possible, to reform monasteries, and to recommend suitable candidates for bishoprics and deaneries; as a corollary, Irishmen seeking preferment were prohibited from travelling to Rome without his approval. Wolfe arrived in Cork on 20 January 1561 on his way to Limerick, where he intended to establish his base, but was forced into hiding when he learned that the government had ordered his arrest. His initial report of his reception by the laity was optimistic, noting that he had dealt with over a thousand marriage dispensations in the first six months.
The clergy, however, were less responsive. A number of the bishops countered his order to abandon their concubines by challenging his authority as papal commissary and refusing him the right of visitation to their churches. His sole right to sanction visits to Rome in search of promotion was particularly resented, and as early as 12 October 1561 he found it necessary to warn Cardinal Morone (the protector of Ireland in the curia) against Irish clerics who claimed to have no knowledge of Wolfe or his authority in Ireland. Wolfe's powers of recommendation were central to the success of his mission, and the appointments of O'Crean (qv) (Elphin), O'Harte (qv) (Achonry) and MacGongail (Raphoe), all on 28 January 1562, began the process of bringing the church hierarchy in Ireland into the mainstream of Tridentine reform. In the same year, Wolfe sent his reluctant fellow townsman, Richard Creagh (qv) to Rome from which he was to return two years later as archbishop of Armagh with faculties which extended the scope of what now became their joint mission. In the meantime, Wolfe had both recruited seven new candidates for the Jesuits and sent them to various houses on the Continent and, in 1563, drawn up a religious rule of life for a group of Limerick women, who became known as ‘Menabochta' (mna bochta, poor women) and gave rise to scandalous rumours assiduously spread by his episcopal opponents.
Wolfe asked to be recalled in 1563, but the new faculties issued by Pope Paul IV in 1564 prevented Lainez from dealing with his request. Later in the year, however, Wolfe's authority lapsed as a result of the pope's death and it was decided to recall him. It is not known when news of this decision reached Wolfe, but it is clear that he was not in a position to act upon it. In October 1565, the assize judges issued a warrant for his arrest and a reward of £100 was offered for information leading to his capture. He fled across the Shannon and led the life of a penniless fugitive in the neighbourhood of Limerick, his difficulties aggravated by his reluctance to leave Ireland without repaying the substantial debts that he had incurred.
Hearing that Richard Creagh had returned to Ireland after his escape from the Tower of London, Wolfe made his way to Armagh where they met on 6 January 1567. Since Wolfe was no longer a papal commissary, Creagh made him his vicar general and commissioned him to conduct a visitation of the metropolitan sees. At a meeting of the northern bishops, Creagh also secured a condemnation of the rumours concerning Wolfe and the house for women in Limerick. Wolfe's financial circumstances and the restraints on his freedom of movement made it difficult for him to carry out his duties and he decided to ease his position by suing for a pardon from the viceroy.
Using Hugh O'Donnell (qv) as an intermediary he arranged to see the lord deputy, Sir Henry Sidney (qv), at Carrickfergus. The meeting was friendly and Sidney promised that if Wolfe came to Dublin he would arrange for a pardon to be issued. When Sidney put the matter to the Irish council in Dublin, however, the protestant bishops demanded that before a pardon was granted Wolfe should declare the pope an Antichrist and submit to the queen as supreme head of the church. Wolfe refused these terms and was committed to Dublin castle in October 1567. For a while he attended to the spiritual needs of the other prisoners, but when it became obvious to the authorities that he would not change his views he was put in solitary confinement in an underground cell.
Wolfe escaped in 1572, but it was not till September 1573 that he set sail for Portugal, accompanied, significantly, by the 7-year old son of the rebel James fitz Maurice Fitzgerald (qv), who had submitted earlier in the year. His departure was facilitated by an Irish merchant who agreed to pay his debts on condition of immediate repayment on reaching Lisbon. Lisbon proved to be a troubled refuge. The Jesuit house was unable to provide the large sum required and the Dublin merchant complained publicly of the order's bad faith. More serious were accusations by an Irish student at the University of Coimbra that Wolfe had fathered a child in Ireland, taken bribes, and secured his release from prison by swearing to obey the queen's laws. Most serious was the intervention of the Jesuit general who blocked the payment of the debt, partly to allow the student's charges to be investigated, but largely because he was made aware of the possibility that the money was to be used to buy munitions. It is likely that this was suggested by Wolfe's frame of mind, but it was grounded on the facts that he was known to be writing a book in which he intended to show the king of Spain how to conquer Ireland and that he had met the Spanish ambassador, Juan Borgia, on several occasions with a view to persuading Philip II to support fitz Maurice's son at the Jesuit college in Lisbon.
Wolfe was formally warned by the procurator for the mission in Lisbon that he must not bring disrepute to the society by involving himself in matters of war. Nonetheless, in October 1574 he left Lisbon for Madrid, hoping to persuade Philip II and the papal nuncio to advance money for fitz Maurice's projected invasion of Ireland. He returned in March 1575 to the Jesuit house at Evora, Portugal, where his openly declared intention of collecting arms for fitz Maurice was seen as wholly inappropriate for a priest. The Portuguese provincial ordered that he should be confined to the house, but with the influence of both King Philip and the pope behind him Wolfe was able to free himself and he joined fitz Maurice in Saint-Malo in the summer of 1575. He subsequently visited Spain and went on to Rome, which he left in the company of fitz Maurice in February 1577.
He is said to have left the Jesuits during this period, but as late as June 1578 the general of the order wrote that he would be ‘glad of any employment for old David Wolfe' (CSPI, 1574–85, 136). It is likely that Wolfe died shortly afterwards. He was not among those who accompanied fitz Maurice to Ireland in June 1579 and nothing further is recorded of him.