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The nationalist writer and the Castlebar estate

County View

County View
John Healy

FOR the majority of residents of Knight’s Park, that well-tended suburban estate on the northern fringe of Castlebar, the origin of their postal address hardly evokes much interest. But a closer inspection of the commemorative stone which marks the entrance to the estate reveals that Knight’s Park reflects a deep historical tie to the county town.
The estate is named after Olivia Knight, nationalist writer, poet and author, whose family home, now demolished, was located there. Born in 1829, Olivia Knight’s life was beset by tragedy, and she died in Australia far away from the country she loved. Her family home, later to be acquired by the Mangan family, was built in 1796, two years before the French troops came thundering down the highway to capture Castlebar. Her father, Simon, was a civil engineer, but his early death left her mother, already in poor health, to rear Olivia and her brother, Arthur.
Olivia became the breadwinner, training in Dublin to become a teacher before spending 14 years in a number of private schools in Dublin and the midlands. It was during this time that her talent as a writer and poet began to emerge. She was a regular contributor to ‘The Nation’, writing under the pen name Thomasine, a name which she is said to have taken in honour of the patriot Thomas Davis, a founder of the newspaper. Her volume of poetry, ‘Wild Flowers from the Wayside’, was introduced by Charles Gavan Duffy, editor of ‘The Nation’, and enjoyed widespread popularity for the next 50 years.
Following her mother’s death, Olivia and Arthur emigrated to Australia. On the voyage, she met her future husband, Thomas Hope Connolly, who was a writer and journalist. She continued her profession as a teacher but within two years, she suffered the loss of her brother who had first taken ill on the journey from Ireland. Her husband also died a short time afterwards, and she lived out her remaining years in Bundeberg, Queensland, until her death in 1908.
In 1943, a tablet was unveiled at the house where she was born. Years later, it would give rise to controversy when the house, thought by many to be a preserved building, was knocked to make way for the estate which now bears her name. The inscribed tablet was saved and now enjoys a prominent place close to where the front garden of the Knight house was located.
The founders of ‘The Nation’ were three young, ambitious men, John Blake-Dillon from Ballaghaderreen, Charles Gavan Duffy, its first editor and Thomas Davis. Olivia Knight was one of several women who wrote for the paper, generally under pseudonyms, among them Lady Wilde, mother of Oscar Wilde, who wrote under the name, Speranza. John Mitchel came to be editor after the early death of Davis.
All three founders had been members of Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association, which sought repeal of the 1800 Act of Union between Ireland and Britain. However, O’Connell suspected that while the trio were useful allies, their radical nature would soon see them at odds with him. That suspicion was confirmed when, in 1843, ‘The Nation’ published what was to become one of the most famous examples of Irish nationalist poetry, ‘Who Fears to  Speak of Ninety-Eight?’
Years later, Duffy emigrated to Australia where he became premier of the state of Victoria. It was the same year as Olivia Knight set out on her journey to Australia. But their paths were never to cross again.