Mary Taaffe and Smarmore
a native of County Galway, Olivia Mary Taaffe, founder of
St Josephıs Young Priests Society, spent nearly a third
of her long life in County Louth and is buried alongside
her husband and only son at the graveyard at St Catherine's
church, Ballapousta, Ardee.
From the time of her marriage to John Joseph Taaffe in 1867,
Olivia spent the next 27 years of her life at the castle
near Ardee before a disagreement led to the entailment of
the Smarmore estate and she returned to Dublin where she
spent her final 24 years.
Olivia Mary Taaffe had a life-long devotion to St Joseph
and for many years prior to the formation of St Josephs
Young Priests Society in 1895, she was a devoted member
of the archconfraternity of St Joseph, founded Canon Joseph
Leon Roy near Maranville in France.
Part of the confraternitys mission was to assist in
the education of young priests and to that end published
a newsletter called St Josephs Sheaf (La Gerbe de
Saint Joseph). Shortly after leaving Smarmore she fulfilled
a long held ambition to produce an English language version
of La Gerbe.
In an early edition of her newsletter she published an appeal
seeking financial support for a young man whose parents
could not afford to educate him for the priesthood. From
this the society was born and continues to flourish to this
Olivia Mary Blake was born on June 24, 1832 at the home
of her maternal grandparents at Annagh House, Ballyglunin,
County Galway, seven miles from Tuam. Her father John Joseph
Blake and her mother Elizabeth Bodkin, were both from well-off
Catholic families. Her father also had an estate in Offaly.
Both families were well established in the area, the Blakes
being one of the 14 tribes of Galway. She had a twin brother
who died at birth, while her mother passed away a few months
later, leaving Olivia and her sister Harriet to a strict
upbringing under her maternal grandmother.
In 1842, Olivia moved to Monkstown House, County Dublin
along with her sister, grandmother and two aunts. There
at the home of her cousin John James Bodkin MP, she was
educated by a French governess.
The famine had an adverse effect on the fortunes of the
Bodkin family and after death of John James Bodkin in May
1847, Olivia and Harriet together with their grandmother
returned to Annagh House, where the impressionable teenager
would have witnessed the impact of the famine on their neighbours.
In 1852, Olivia, Harriet, their grandmother and two aunts
were on the move again, this time to 7 Eblana Terrace, Dun
Olivia finished her education in France where the upsurge
in religious devotion and the splendour of the Second Empire
of Napoleon III had a profound influence on her. She detailed
those impression in letters (in French) to Harriet.
As a young woman she was chaperoned very carefully on the
social circuit and charity functions. Post-famine Ireland
experienced an upsurge in religious devotion, spearheaded
by Cardinal Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Armagh (1850-52)
and Archbishop of Dublin (1852-78).
Harriet entered the Presentation Convent in Midelton, County
Cork where she spent the rest of her life teaching. Olivia
was the solo beneficiary of her fathers will and thus
was a wealthy heiress with excellent marriage prospects.
Though she enjoyed the company of religious she was quoted
as saying; Nun I am not and nun I shall never be.
She spent freely from her own resources in support of the
confraternity. She also persuaded many of the landed Catholic
gentry to become members and she raised £200 annually
(a considerable sum in those times) in support of Maranville.
She met her future husband at the wedding of a cousin and
she married John Joseph Taaffe at St Michaels Church,
Dun Laoighaire in May 29 1867. In her time she had many
suitors and once complained that she had been prevented
from marrying the person she was most attracted to.
Nevertheless her marriage was a happy and successful one
despite her husbands ill-health which stymied his
own religious vocation. Olivia regarded his love of the
Jesuits and devotion to St Joseph as marks in his favour.
Following his proposal of marriage Olivia suggested a novena
to St Joseph before deciding to accept and they also decided
that if they had a son he would become a Jesuit.
The Taaffes were one of the few Catholic families to retain
a significant proportion of their lands during the political
upheavals of previous centuries. They had resided at Smarmore
since the 14th century.
The newly married couple shared their new home with Olivias
brother-in-law Myles, his mother and five sisters. For their
honeymoon they undertook a grand tour of Europe during which
they had a papal audience with Pope Pius IX.
Her only child, George Robert, was born in 1872 and the
following years Myles Taaffe died leaving John Joseph, who
proved to be a just and sympathetic landlord, as head of
Throughout her marriage she continued her work in support
of the confraternity of St Joseph. Olivia had a shrine in
honour of St Joseph erected in St Catherines Church,
Ballapousta that included a side-aisle window depicting
In a tree plantation near Smarmore Castle she built a shell-studded
shrine to her favourite saint and following Harriets
death in 1888 a stained glass window in honour of St Joseph
was installed in the mortuary chapel at the Presentation
Convent in Midelton. After the death of George Robert from
tuberculosis, Olivia saw to it that a statue of St Joseph
was put up in his memory at his alma mater, Clongowes Wood
Famine loomed again in 1879 and also the following year,
but Olivia helped look after the needs of local widows and
John Joseph Taaffe was 63 years old when he too succumbed
to TB on April 23, 1890. Olivia continued to reside at Smarmore
for four years after his death. Land agitation had made
life difficult at Smarmore. In addition, Olivia had spent
a lot of money looking after the medical needs of both her
husband and son.
She brought George Robert to Switzerland in a bid to alleviate
his condition at the winter resort of Davos Platz where
he died on January 5, 1894. Olivia also took on the burden
of clearing the debts at Smarmore and even sold some of
her own possessions.
The Taaffe family feared she might present Smarmore to the
Jesuits and brought an action against Olivia. The estate
was entailed and handed over to her late husbands
nephew Captain George Joseph Taaffe. Olivia vacated Smarmore
in November 1894.
She spent a few years at the Presentation Convent in Lucan.
Olivia was a close friend of the Superior, Mother Mary Conception
Kennedy as well as being a benefactor of the convent. The
latter entitled her to accommodation at the convent, which
she availed of before moving back to Eblana Terrace in 1896.
In another example of her devotion to St Joseph she had
another stature erected at the convent after she moved on.
A woman of independent means, she bought a house in Killiney
and moved to 10 Shanganagh Terrace in the affluent south
County Dublin town in 1898. She worked tirelessly to promote
vocations to China and the Far East.
During her time in Lucan she published the first English
language version of St Josephs Sheaf on April 1, 1895.
It was produced with the assistance of an English-born Jesuit,
Fr. Joseph Darlington, who acted as editor. He was succeeded
soon after by another Jesuit, Fr. Henry Browne.
The Sheaf was published quarterly and after 1917 it stopped
carrying the mast head of the Archconfraternity of St Joseph
at Maranville. Around the time Olivia moved to Killiney,
she was persuaded to lessen her workload.
In 1907, she sold up and moved to 43 Eglington Road, Donnybrook.
Olivia claimed the sea air didnt agree with
her, but it also allowed her be near the city which allowed
to continue the various apostolic works she was engaged
Olivias health began to deteriorate after she turned
80 and she died on May 3, 1918 just a few weeks shy of her
85th birthday and in keeping with the terms of her will,
she was buried alongside her husband and son.
St Josephs Young Priests Society was set on a solid
footing early on and continued to grow. One of its early
presidents was Lieutenant Colonel Sir John Foster C. Ross
of Bladenburg KCB, who was Chief Commissioner of the Dublin
It has over 400 branches that contribute generously to the
education of students priests worldwide. The organization
owes much to an unlikely driving force, a 19th century well-to-do
Irishwoman who overcame her own setbacks in life to use
her privileged upbringing in the service of those less fortunate
from Wee County 2004