Woulfe, Tom (1915–2015), Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) administrator and civil servant, was born 20 September 1915 on the family farm at Faha, Beale, near Ballybunion, Co. Kerry, one of three sons and three daughters of James Woulfe, farmer, and his wife Mary (née Stack.) He attended Kilconly National School, Beale, before spending two years boarding unhappily at St Brendan’s College, Killarney, Co. Kerry. Playing Gaelic football from a young age, he was a full back good enough to get on the St Brendan’s under sixteen team, on the strength of which he was admitted in 1931 into Tralee Christian Brothers’ School (CBS), Co. Kerry, boarding there on heavily discounted fees. He was a substitute for the Tralee team that won the 1932 Munster colleges cup and played as his school claimed further Munster colleges titles in 1933 and 1934. He was also left full back for the Munster colleges team.
In autumn 1934 he left for Dublin to work as a civil servant in the Department of Justice, based for his first five years in the Garda Síochána headquarters and then in the department’s headquarters. He joined the Volunteer Force, a part-time state militia, in the mid-1930s, later serving in the Defence Forces during the Emergency (1940–45). In October 1943 he married Kathleen (‘Cáit’) Purcell, the daughter of a labourer from Donnybrook, Dublin. They settled in Victoria Road, Rathgar, Dublin, and had three daughters, one dying in infancy, and two sons. Cáit suffered from ill health for many years prior to her death in 1972.
Abetted by his acquisition of a Bachelor of Commerce (B.Comm.) degree (1941) and a diploma in public administration (1943), both from taking night classes at University College Dublin (UCD), he served (with interruptions) as private secretary to several ministers for justice from the mid-1940s to 1953. He was promoted to higher executive officer in 1950 while being temporarily based in the Department of Health. His appointment in January 1953 as registrar of the newly established Adoption Board was made against his wishes and at the behest of the Minister for Justice Gerry Boland (qv), who wanted someone reliable in this politically sensitive posting.
Once he saw how many ‘unwanted’ (i.e., born outside marriage) children were being kept in state and religious institutions, Woulfe took to his task with alacrity, realising that the Adoption Board’s power to confer legal title on adopting parents, something previously absent in Irish law, would make adoption respectable within Ireland, thus expediting the transfer of these children into the custody of families better able to care for them. The board’s unpaid voluntary members, including its part-time chairman, relied heavily on Woulfe, who impressed with his efficiency and dedication in establishing an administrative machine and in clearing the large initial backlog.
A quasi-judicial tribunal, the board adjudicated on arrangements whereby children had already been placed with families in Ireland, sometimes by private individuals, but mainly by registered adoption societies, most of which were controlled by the catholic church. Given no effective power to regulate these societies, the board was under political pressure to ratify their handiwork, which it largely did. In 1959 a board member complained that whenever she or her colleagues sought to examine the adoption societies’ operations, Woulfe stated that there was no time. He overlooked concerns about slapdash practices in many adoption societies and prioritised maintaining the catholic church’s forbearance, believing that the Adoption Board could not otherwise attract applicant parents. Partly thanks to his success therein, a large majority of the children born outside marriage in Ireland during the 1960s were adopted in Ireland, drastically curtailing the practice whereby catholic adoption societies effectively sold surplus babies to American couples; the Adoption Board had no jurisdiction over this semi-clandestine human trafficking.
As the reduced workload no longer justified his salary, he returned to department headquarters in May 1961 and was promoted to assistant principal officer. Reappointed registrar of the Adoption Board in May 1962, presumably as a stopgap, he then became chief superintendent of prisons in November 1964. He was credited with instilling a more humane spirit into what had been an autocratic prison service bureaucracy.
In June 1969 he resumed as Adoption Board registrar, charged seemingly with suppressing the board’s growing reformist inclinations. Certainly, his admiration for the work done by catholic clergy in education and social services – one of his daughters became a nun – put him at odds with those board members who were more sceptical. Matters came to a head in November 1970 when three board members resigned, accusing him of hindering their attempts to impose legally enforceable standards on the adoption societies, and of generally behaving like the department’s watchdog rather than as the agent of an independent statutory body. During the 1970s, controversy also arose over the board’s policy of never allowing adoptees to see their original birth certificate without the natural mother’s consent. As registrar, he emphatically upheld this practice, maintaining that the mother’s wish for anonymity took precedence and that it was better for the adoptee to ‘shut the door on the past’ (Irish Times, 9 Apr. 1997).
Retiring from the civil service in 1979, having signed some 20,000 adoption orders, he later joined the management committee of the catholic church-controlled St Patrick’s Guild adoption society, which placed about a quarter of all the legal adoptions in Ireland from 1953. He was the committee’s chairman in 1997 by when the society was attracting criticism for giving adoptees misleading information about their natural parents; it was later found to have falsified birth certificates and illegally placed children with families during the 1950s and 1960s.
Woulfe is best known known for his GAA activism. On first moving to Dublin, he had overcome his loneliness by involving himself with the Civil Service Gaelic Football Club, which he helped found in spring 1935. He had already committed to the Dolphin club but transferred in 1936, dropping from senior to junior football. The ‘Service’ graduated to senior status in 1937, and he was on the team that won the Dublin football league in 1942. Retiring from serious football in 1943, he was managing his former teammates when they won the Dublin football championship in 1944.
From 1938 to the early 1950s, he played a growing role in the development of club grounds at Islandbridge, Dublin, helping to transform an urban wasteland into an attractive playing field. In 1947 he became secretary and treasurer of the committee established to develop a permanent pavilion with modern dressing rooms. This committee raised £2,300 for an unauthorised construction that was completed in 1951 without incurring prosecution; it was twenty years ahead of its time in GAA terms.
The club chairman (1949–51) during this pivotal period, Woulfe resumed as such from 1959 to 1968 and continued as the club’s mainstay for decades, serving as its president from 1973 until his death. His unstinting efforts and willingness to perform the most menial tasks helped sustain a club that, lacking community roots, had no fans, no underage teams and a small membership (essentially the players), which was composed mainly of rural transplants to Dublin, few of whom were civil servants after the 1950s. Unusually, the players ran the club, making it markedly progressive.
He sat on the Dublin county board for over twenty years from 1940, acting as the board’s treasurer (1942–4) and as manager of the Dublin senior football team in 1944. Intermittently representing Dublin at the GAA’s annual congress into the 1980s, he served during the 1960s and 1970s as chairman of the Dublin board’s social and cultural committee, and as a member of its grounds and disciplinary committees. Under his aegis, the Civil Service club became notable for bringing well-thought-out reforming motions before the Dublin board’s annual convention, then onwards to the GAA’s annual congress if they were national in scope. (He was busily drafting such motions into his eighties.) While many were implemented, his more visionary ideas, such as those for an open draw All-Ireland championship or for the GAA to issue £1 million in public loan stock (in 1964), elicited knee-jerk rejections.
Nothing, however, compared to the uproar provoked by his campaign against the GAA’s prohibition on its members playing or even watching soccer, rugby, hockey and cricket. Originally a supporter of ‘the Ban’, he had served on one of the vigilance committees responsible for anonymously denouncing members guilty of such transgressions. He recalled with shame how in the late 1940s he had a reported someone who was duly suspended and quit the GAA. Deriving from his time in the Defence Forces during the Emergency, when he served alongside soccer and rugby players, who he found to be no less patriotic than the typical GAA member, his doubts regarding the Ban ripened in the mid-1950s into firm opposition under the influence of an Adoption Board member, the former IRFU president William G. Fallon. Many within the GAA, including most of the players, thought similarly, but they preferred to await the demise of a dominant older generation of administrators steeped in the dogmas of the war of independence era; apathy also prevailed because the Ban was rarely enforced in counties, like Dublin, where ‘foreign games’ were popular.
Convinced that the GAA would suffer irreparable reputational harm if the Ban persisted for much longer, on 30 November 1959 he took the Dublin convention unawares by advocating an enquiry into the enforcement and effects of the Ban. The far-reaching terms of his mooted enquiry sparked a lengthy, acrimonious and inconclusive debate; these terms, moreover, were published verbatim in the next day’s Irish Independent, prompting clubmates alarmed by their scope, and the resultant publicity, to accuse him of deception. Although his recommendation was narrowly seen off at the readjourned convention three weeks later, the exercise had revealed a surprising degree of open opposition to the Ban.
In late 1961 he was back with a properly flagged motion calling for an enquiry. He laid the groundwork by circulating to convention delegates a memo on the history of the Ban, which was cited in the national newspapers (and published in full by the Irish Times). His research showed that the Ban was bitterly contested within the GAA up to the late 1920s and shattered the widespread belief that it unambiguously reflected the ideals of the GAA’s principal founders. The convention approved his motion, placing it on the agenda for the 1962 annual congress where it was rejected overwhelmingly. In proposing the motion at congress, Woulfe’s eloquence temporarily deserted him, as he received a hot reception from a bastion of elderly die-hards. His speeches eschewed bombast and emotionalism with a view to encouraging rational debate.
The Ban could only be considered every three years at congress, which delivered further rebuffs in 1965 and in 1968, on these occasions to motions explicitly seeking its removal. In the interim, he kept the pot boiling by publishing his arguments in the press, by participating in public debates across the country and by appearing on television and radio. Feeding journalists with advance copies of his speeches, complete with short summaries, he also wrote letters to local and national newspapers for anti-Ban associates to sign, before dispatching pro-Ban rebuttals under a pseudonym. He relished his notoriety, giving as good as he got in debates while shrugging off the angry phone calls and letters.
GAA leaders were discomfited and outraged by his willingness, extraordinary for a member of his standing, to attack them through the media over such a fundamental issue, the more so because it emboldened a previously deferential press corps. Sunday Press GAA columnist Eamon Mongey, Woulfe’s Civil Service clubmate and a two-time All-Ireland football winner with Mayo, was his most influential backer and a shrewd source of advice. Regularly the butt of thinly veiled denunciations from GAA platforms, Woulfe accused its officialdom of practising censorship and intimidation. Attendant to his Ban campaign, he pressed for greater accountability and democracy within the GAA, continuing to do so for the rest of his life. His maverick reputation meant that useful proposals emanating from him, or his club, were often dismissed out of hand.
Although he advanced over-optimistic claims about the benefits to be derived from the Ban’s demise, his most telling argument was simply that it had become a socially unacceptable, and inconsistently enforced, infringement on personal freedom, which was bringing the GAA into disrepute while encouraging cynicism among its members. His prescience was borne out amid quickening cultural changes from the mid-1960s, particularly as television acclimated rural Ireland to rugby and soccer. No longer a lone crusader, he could count on the vocal support of politicians, catholic clergy and GAA stars, past and present. He took a step back from the campaign, partly for tactical reasons, partly because of his wife’s illness.
The Ban’s end was hastened by its defenders’ failure to see the danger, first when the 1968 congress authorised a committee to report publicly on the Ban’s validity, and then when the 1970 congress directed all clubs and counties to vote on the Ban prior to the 1971 congress. (It helped that he played no part in either initiative.) He held his fire, waiting for the committee’s published justification of the Ban to create a storm of protest in November 1970, whereupon he urged GAA members to make their views known in the upcoming club referenda; his appeal was published in the Sunday Independent and highlighted in various local newspapers. An anti-Ban landslide ensued as club and county conventions voted over the next several months.
Victory was certain, but even so he refrained from watching his son Maurice play senior schools rugby for Terenure College in early 1971. When congress assembled in Belfast that April, GAA President Pat Fanning announced that the Ban would be abolished without a vote and gave Woulfe the honour of seconding the motion. As he had hoped, the jolt thus administered helped spur the GAA into subsequently overcoming the challenges posed by urbanisation, its underdeveloped club facilities, televised English soccer, and the decline in Irish cultural nationalism.
He regained his arch-dissident status at the 1979 congress when he was the only delegate to oppose the watering down of the rule describing the GAA as a non-political organisation. This change enabled that and the next two congresses to pass motions that associated the GAA with acts of republican violence in Northern Ireland, drawing condemnations from politicians, the media and the Garda Representative Association. He made a prominent contribution to this chorus: hailing from a pro-treaty family, he had always been critical of the GAA’s predilection for advanced nationalist posturing, maintaining that it should stay out of politics. Many GAA members, and particularly the leadership, bitterly resented his stance for discounting the fragility of the GAA’s position in Ulster, particularly in the febrile circumstances of the 1980–81 hunger strikes.
For years after 1979 he advanced proposals for restoring the original politics rule and for abolishing the ban on members of the British security forces joining the GAA, to no avail. He received death threats and had a smoke bomb thrown at his house before the nationalist and anti-nationalist passions generated by the hunger strikes slowly faded, leaving most GAA representatives content with the status quo. Not so Woulfe, who continued his active campaigning on the security forces ban into the mid-1990s, seeing it and the GAA’s refusal to allow other sports the use of its grounds as indicating the persistence of a ‘Ban mentality’.
He lived long enough to savour the demise of the security forces ban (2001) and the temporary opening of Croke Park to rugby and soccer (2007–10), enjoying a spritely, mentally sharp old age, helped by his habit of cycling everywhere – he never drove. Regularly visiting Kerry by bicycle, stopping overnight at a friend’s house in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, he finally ended these cross-country excursions in his late seventies but kept cycling around Dublin for another decade. He was still living independently in his Rathgar home some months prior to his death in the Mater Hospital, Dublin, on 7 May 2015. His remains were buried in Bohernabreena cemetery, Co. Dublin.