Woulfe, Stephen (1787–1840), judge, MP, and first catholic baron of the Irish exchequer, was born at Chaude Fontaine, near Liège (then in the Holy Roman Empire, later in Belgium), second son of Stephen Woulfe, landowner, of Tiermaclane, Ennis, Co. Clare, and his wife Honora, daughter of Michael McNamara of Dublin and sister of Adm. James McNamara and Col. John McNamara of Llangoed Castle, Brecon, Wales. Woulfe obtained his early education at Stonyhurst, then at Maynooth before entering TCD (7 November 1808). While an undergraduate he was one of the ten men appointed to attend the general committee of the catholics of Ireland (3 August 1811). He graduated BA (1812) and immediately entered the Middle Temple (25 April 1812) before being called to the Irish bar (1814). In March 1814 he attended a catholic meeting in Co. Clare, where he was the chief supporter of Lord Donoughmore (qv) when Daniel O'Connell (qv) prevented a section of the meeting from passing a vote of thanks to him. This was to mark the start of a political career in which Woulfe was to advocate an Irish whig position that sometimes varied from the O'Connellite line. In 1815 Woulfe traveled to Italy, France, and Switzerland with Thomas Wyse (qv) and Nicholas Ball (qv). After his return to Ireland, despite consistent poor health, he continued to take an active interest in Irish politics and in particular the campaign for catholic emancipation.
In 1815 at an aggregate meeting in Limerick he made a strong case for accepting a government veto over the appointment of catholic bishops in exchange for catholic emancipation, and published his speech the following year. However, O'Connell had rather undermined his argument by following his speech with the story of sheep who were persuaded by wolves to get rid of the dogs assigned to protect them, and were instantly devoured. In 1819 Woulfe continued his advocacy of catholic rights with A letter to a protestant; or, The balance of evils; being a comparison of the probable consequences of emancipating the catholics of Ireland, with those of leaving them in their present condition. This was known for years afterwards as ‘Woulfe's pamphlet’ and William Plunket (qv) sent it to William Wyndham Grenville (qv), 1st Baron Grenville, who pronounced it ‘the ablest piece of political writing that had appeared since the days of [Edmund] Burke [qv]’ (Curran, 1855, i, 18). In it Woulfe stated (in answer to a concern expressed by Robert Peel (qv)) that catholics had no desire to interfere with the Church of Ireland, and warned that if relief was not granted there would be the risk of civil war in Ireland. In 1828–9 Wellington (qv) used this argument to propel the bill for catholic emancipation through the houses of parliament.
For most of the 1820s he concentrated on his legal career, but on 6 May 1826 Woulfe subscribed to an address sent to George IV calling for catholic relief. Once relief was granted (13 April 1829) he was appointed assistant barrister for Co. Galway in 1829, at £900 a year, in a bid to win his support away from O'Connell. In a letter to O'Connell from his daughter Kate, Woulfe had been described as an ‘Orange papist’ (8 Feb. 1829; O'Connell corr., iv, 9). Woulfe was forced to resign in 1832 because of ill health, although in 1830, through the influence of Plunket, he was one of the first catholics to be created crown counsel for Munster, earning £700–£1,000 a year. In this capacity he represented the crown in 1833 against O'Connell in a court case concerning resistance to the payment of tithes, and won a conviction. In reward, he was made a KC (1833). From 23 May 1835 to 10 November 1836 he served as third sergeant and entered parliament as a liberal MP for Cashel (4 September 1835–11 July 1838), on O'Connell's recommendation. In May 1835 Woulfe had been one of O'Connell's six counsel for his petition concerning the election for the city of Dublin.
Ill health prevented Woulfe from making any great impact in parliament, although he generally opposed the agricultural interest. During the debate on the municipal reform bill (he was part of a committee set up in 1833 to inquire into the state of municipal corporations in Ireland), when Peel questioned what good corporations would do for a country as poor as Ireland, Woulfe replied: ‘They will go far to create and foster public opinion and make it racy of the soil’ (Duffy, Young Ireland, 63); the phrase was later adopted by the Young Irelanders and became the motto of The Nation. Woulfe was appointed solicitor general for Ireland (10 November 1836) and a bencher of the King's Inns (1836), and co-sponsored a government bill to reform the civil bill courts (1836). He was promoted to attorney general 3 February 1837, and held the post until 11 July 1838. During this time he brought in a bill regulating the levy and expenditure of grand jury cess in the city and county of Dublin (20/21 February 1838). On 11 July 1838 he became the first catholic baron of the Irish exchequer, and held this post until his death. Before accepting the offer he told the government he would wave all claim in favour of O'Connell. However, O'Connell was offered – and declined – the post of master of the rolls.
The stress of carrying out his last appointment, combined with Woulfe's already precarious health, led to a physical breakdown. He arranged to go abroad for a year and determined that if he had not recovered by his return, he would resign as chief baron. He went to Baden Baden, where a surgeon advised an operation. Unfortunately Woulfe did not survive the procedure. He died 2 July 1840 at Baden Baden leaving a widow, Frances, daughter of Roger Hamill of Dowth Hall, Co. Meath, and two children: Stephen Roland, an ensign of the 54th Regiment who inherited the Tiermaclane estate of his uncle Peter Woulfe in 1865; and Mary, who married (1847) Sir Justin Sheil (qv), KCB. A complete list of Woulfe's works is in the BL catalogue.