Olivia Mary Taaffe and Smarmore

Though 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 Joseph’s 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 confraternity’s mission was to assist in the education of young priests and to that end published a newsletter called St Joseph’s 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 day.

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 Laoghaire.

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 father’s 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 Michael’s 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 husband’s 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 Olivia’s 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 the family.
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 Catherine’s Church, Ballapousta that included a side-aisle window depicting him.

In a tree plantation near Smarmore Castle she built a shell-studded shrine to her favourite saint and following Harriet’s 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 College.

Famine loomed again in 1879 and also the following year, but Olivia helped look after the needs of local widows and orphans.

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 husband’s 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 Joseph’s 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 didn’t’ agree with her, but it also allowed her be near the city which allowed to continue the various apostolic works she was engaged in.

Olivia’s 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 Joseph’s 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 Metropolitan Police.

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 than herself.

Taken from Wee County 2004