A voice from 18th Century Ulster is recalled by Melanie Ward
Olivia Elder was born in 1735, the daughter of the Reverend John Elder, who ministered to a Presbyterian congregation at Aghadowey, near Coleraine. As ‘non-conformists’, Presbyterian Ministers – like Catholic priests – were not eligible to receive tithes. This meant that in addition to their religious duties such as leading Sunday services and conducting marriages, baptisms and funerals, they also worked the land – buying and rearing cattle, planting and harvesting crops and attending markets.
There is very little biographical information available on Olivia Elder and only scant detail is known of her life. We know that she was born on 21 January, 1735, and died 45 years later. She never married and lived with her parents at Aghadowey all her life, acting as her father’s housekeeper.
Olivia was able to read and write, and, as well as being familiar with the work of Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift – both famous poets and satirists – she also knew some Latin and also a little Greek. She probably had access to books and learning through her father and is thought to have begun writing poetry in her early thirties, collecting her poetry in a quarto notebook.
Though she longed for recognition of her talent (her poems bear comparison with other poets of the time) as far as is known only one of her poems – a virulent attack on the Church of Ireland Rector of Coleraine – was published during her lifetime.