Varian (née Treacy), Elizabeth Willoughby (‘Finola’) (1821–96), poet and nationalist, was born in Ballymena, Co. Antrim, one of four children (three girls and a boy) of John Treacy (d. 1843) a protestant landowner of Brigadie House, Ballymena, and his wife Anne Treacy (whose previous husband John Love had died in 1812). After her father's death, her siblings all married and she alone remained living with her mother at Brigadie House. Although her family was unionist, she was a nationalist and under the pseudonym ‘Finola’ published patriotic poems in the Nation and the Irishman in the 1850s. She does not, however, appear to have written for the original Nation in the 1840s. Her romantic and didactic verse was considered by many to be the equal of that of ‘Speranza’ (Jane Francesca Wilde (qv), née Elgee). Her Poems (1851) were published in Belfast; ‘The convict ship’ shows her sympathy with Young Ireland prisoners transported to penal colonies, a subject on which she wrote to William Gladstone. She also evokes her Antrim heritage in the poem ‘The capture of Red O'Neill’. The Nation observed that her poems were ‘Irish to the core . . . though not often, or very successfully, Irish in their language and idioms’ (O'Toole, 122). She appears to have had little personal contact with other nationalists, although in 1858 she wrote to William Smith O'Brien (qv) (to whom she claimed a distant kinship), urging him to found a new political party to agitate for self-government.
Ralph Varian (1820?–1886), a nationalist editor and poet who held an interest in a Cork brush-making firm, collected a selection of her work in his anthology The harp of Erin (1869). The two married in 1871 and she moved to Blackrock, Co. Cork. Never forsake the ship, and other poems (1874) was her second volume of verse, and she dedicated it to all creeds and classes in Ireland. Her nationalism was strongly in the moral force tradition and her poems generally avoided martial imagery. Instead they were often strongly sympathetic to the poor (especially women and children) and implicitly critical of social inequality. Her sense of social justice was strongly based on her Christian beliefs, and she deplored sectarianism and religious hypocrisy.
During the 1870s she attempted to recruit Ulster protestants to the home rule movement and agitated for land reform and amnesty for Fenian prisoners. She continued to write, and published The political and national poems of Finola (1877). She lectured in Ireland and England in support of the Land League and an independent Irish parliament, and on 12 September 1883 delivered a paper entitled ‘Ireland as it is: north and south’ to an enthusiastic audience in Belfast. Preceded by the Emmet pipe band and introduced by the nationalist MP Joseph Biggar (qv), she claimed that only self-government and peasant proprietorship could halt emigration. After the death of her husband in 1886 she spent the last years of her life in penury in Blackrock, surviving on charity provided by sympathetic friends. These were unhappy years in which she lived in great dread of ending her days in the poorhouse. During a serious illness in 1893, some of her work was collected in The new spirit of the Nation (1894). She died 30 November 1896 in St Patrick's hospital, Cork.