Taaffe, Olivia Mary (1832–1918), founder of St Joseph's Young Priests Society, was born 24 June 1832 in Annagh House, Ballyglunin, seven miles from Tuam, Co. Galway, daughter of John Joseph Blake of Ballyglunin Park and Elizabeth Blake (née Bodkin). A few months later her mother died, and Olivia and her sister (later Sr Mary Ignatius of the Presentation Sisters, Midleton) were raised by their grandmother and two aunts. Olivia was tutored by a succession of French governesses and completed her education in Paris; as a result she spoke and wrote French with facility, and her character and religious sensibilities owed much to her love of France and the impression made on her by the splendour of the second empire of Napoleon III. She married (1869) John Joseph Taaffe of Smarmore Castle near Ardee, Co. Louth. The Taaffes settled in that area at the beginning of the fourteenth century and, despite remaining catholics, retained some of their extensive patrimony. For over twenty years Olivia helped her husband to administer the estate. She was attentive to the needs of widows and orphans, particularly in the lean years that followed the partial famine of 1879, and her popularity with the people helped ease tension in the district during the land agitation of the 1880s. In later life she told friends and acquaintances that the years at Smarmore were the happiest of her life. However, they ended in tears. Her husband, who was plagued with ill-health throughout his life, died in 1890. Her only child, George Robert, a student (1890–91) at UCD, became, like his father, seriously ill and eventually died of tuberculosis (1894). There followed a legal challenge to her ownership of Smarmore Castle and estate. As they were under an entail, a nephew of her husband was declared to be the rightful owner and she had no choice but to end her link with Smarmore.
Of a pious disposition and from her early adult years committed to works of charity and religion, Olivia Taaffe became more single-minded in this regard. From 1867 onwards she was a lifelong friend of Canon Joseph Léon Roy, who established an archconfraternity and shrine to promote devotion to St Joseph at Maranville, 160 miles from Paris. She now became, in effect, administrator and secretary of an Irish branch of this archconfraternity. In 1895 she persuaded Fr Joseph Darlington SJ to publish St Joseph's Sheaf, an Irish edition of the archconfraternity's La Gerbe de St Joseph, and a ‘drawing-room meeting of workers for the apostolic students of St Joseph’ (nucleus of what became known from 1898 as the St Joseph's Young Priests Society) financed the education of two Irish boys who wished to serve as priests in China and the far east. In 1896 Fr Henry Browne (qv), SJ, became editor of the quarterly Sheaf; it reflected Taaffe's enthusiastic support for the foreign missions and gave ample coverage to fund-raising events, which were remarkably successful, not least because of the entrée she enjoyed in fashionable society. These activities were at first almost exclusively presided over by her and a few friends. However, before she died (3 May 1918) she ensured with the help of Browne and Darlington that the Society was so organised that its work would continue to flourish. By 1923 it was financing the education of 36 boys in various Irish colleges. By 1997, with some 100,000 members in 475 branches, contributing almost £1m in that year, it was financing 711 seminarians, 90 of whom had been ordained that summer. Appropriately, the last words of this remarkable woman were ‘Oh, one can never do enough for God’.