Felix and Margaret Boyle are my only Irish ancestors who are not from County Cavan, and the first of all my ancestors to come to the New World. Felix was born in Donegal, in the northwest of Ireland, a county where the Boyles have a long history. MacLysaght's Irish Families reports that the O Baoighills, as the name would be spelled in Gaelic, "were a strong sept in Co. Donegal with a regularly initiated chieftain seated at Cloghineely: They shared with the O'Donnells and the O'Doughertys the leadership of the north-west." p>There is a town in Donegal, Ballyweel, whose name means "village of the Boyles." The symbol of the Boyle family was an oak tree.
The Boyle clan was founded by a Donegal chieftain named Aneisleis O'Baoghail, whose surname meant "grandson of Baoghal"; the name of his grandfather, in turn, has been translated as "peril" or (more positively) "having profitable pledges." (To the English ear, the Gaelic name sounds like "Boyle.") Baoghal was a distant cousin of Domhnall, for whom the O'Donnells are named, which explains the O'Boyles' alliance with that powerful clan. Both Baoghal and Domhnall claimed descent from the famous Irish high king Niall of the Nine Hostages, through Niall's son Conall Gulban. Niall in turn was said to descend from a long line of Irish kings, including Cormac MacArt, Conn of the Hundred Battles and Ugainy Mor.
The descendants of Conall Gulban were known collectively as the Clan Conaill. The family's most illustrious member was St. Colum, better known as Columba or Columcille, born December 7, 521 in Garten, Co. Donegal. Known as one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, Colum had an notable career in both history and legend (though which is which is sometimes in dispute). He was of the generation that converted from Celtic paganism to Christianity, and his education seems to have been bardic as well as monastic. He is said to have been involved with the first copyright dispute, when he copied a psalter belonging to his teacher St. Finnian without permission, and further to have incited the O'Neill tribe to rise up against King Dermot in 561 when the king ruled in favor of Finnian, saying "to every cow its calf; to every book its copy." Allegedly in penance for inciting this war--which resulted in the defeat of Dermot--Colum left Ireland in 563 for Scotland, where he founded the famous monestary of Iona. While in Scotland, Colum is said to have converted the Picts and confronted the Loch Ness Monster. In Scotland, the Clan Conaill were known as the Kindred of Columba, and their ties to Iona made them a significant political force.
Samuel Lewis, author of Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, was no fan of Donegal: "The cabins of the peasantry, especially near the coast," he wrote, "are wretched and extremely filthy, the cattle and swine generally associating with the family, a custom also observable in the champaign country."
Writing in 1837, just two years before Felix's birth, Lewis described everyday life in Donegal: "The fuel is turf: the food, potatoes, oaten bread, and fish, with some milk and butter; the clothing mostly frieze, though articles of cotton are common, especially for the women’s wear. The English language, pronounced with a Scotch accent, is general in the flat country, but in the mountain region it is little spoken." Even today, Donegal has one of the nation’s highest percentages of Irish speakers--though its name in Irish, Dun-na-nGall, means "Fortress of the Foreigners," a reference to a Viking settlement.
Felix was born in Letterkenny, the largest town in Donegal--though it isn't very large. (It had 2,160 residents in 1837; today it has about 15,000.) The name means "Hillside of the O'Cannanans," referring to the clan that ruled Donegal prior to the rise of the O'Donnels. Letterkenny is on the River Swilly, which takes its name from Suileach, a man-eating water monster that was chopped in half by the St. Colum, who was born not far from the town.
Felix Boyle's father was Mathew Boyle, who lived
just outside of Letterkenny. He was born about 1793; since there
don't seem to be any other Boyles native to Letterkenny,
it's quite possible that like most of his clan he came from the
west of Donegal. Today in Letterkenny one can see a
monument to the children who were brought to Letterkenny from the
county's impoverished west coast to be indentured
servants, who were apparently little better than slaves.
In the Irish-speaking west, it's quite likely that
Mathew's name at birth was Mahon, meaning "Bear," and later anglicized
to Mathew. In the 1850s, at least, when Griffith’s Valuation was conducted, Mathew
was a poor man, living on next to no land in a
house valued at only 10 shillings. His profession was given as
"labourer" on his death certificate.
The woman Mathew married, however, came from a markedly more upscale family. Katie Meehan, born about 1809, was the daughter of James Meehan, who lived on Letterkenny's main street, with a "house, offices, yard and small garden" valued at 12 pounds listed in Griffith’s. (One can only imagine the prosperous James Meehan’s reaction to his daughter marrying a poor laborer 16 years her senior.) Born about 1791, James was listed as a "wine and spirits merchant" in Slater’s Directory of 1857, meaning that he was a wholesaler of liquor to Letterkenny’s several pubs. It's much the same business that his great-great-granddaughter, Adeline Kearney, would run with her husband Christopher a century later in Pennsylvania.
The Meehan clan--in Irish, O Miadhachain, meaning "honorable"--is originally from south Munster, but moved to Co. Leitrim, south of Donegal, in the 11th Century. There is a town in Leitrim called Ballymeighan, or Village of the Meehans. Like several Irish families, they trace their line back to the Ulster hero Fergus MacRoy and Queen Maeve of Connacht. The Meehans are most noted for passing on a holy relic, the manuscript of St. Molaisse of Devenish, from generation to generation for more than a thousand years.
Mathew died of bronchitis on October 23, 1868, aged about 75. Katie died 20 years later, on June 30, 1889, in a Letterkenny workhouse, where she apparently worked as a cook; the cause of death was given as "senile decay."
Felix was probably born to the couple on May 6, 1839. (Felix’s death certificate says he was born in 1840, but his marriage certificate, closer to the fact, gives the earlier date.) "Felix" is probably an anglicization of Feidhlim (pronounced Feelim), a popular Gaelic name. When he was about 23, he emigrated to the United States--for reasons that we may speculate had to do with one Margaret Logan.
Margaret Logan Boyle
Margaret was born Margaret Logan in Ireland's Co. Tyrone. Logan--from the Gaelic O’Leoghain, perhaps meaning "radiant"--is a fairly common name in Tyrone (where it is sometimes spelled Lagan), but the clan is originally from Co. Westmeath, where it had a seat at Gailenga Mor (Morgallion). Many were driven across the River Shannon by the Anglo-Norman invasion.
The names of Margaret's parents are not known, though her children’s names would suggest that her father's name was Owen. The Tithe Applotment books don’t show any Owens in Tyrone in 1837, but they do show two John Logans, both living near the town of Strabane--one in the townland of Leck, the other in Lower Kiltinney. It's quite likely that one of these is Margaret’s father, as the name Eoghan (pronounced "Own," and meaning "well-born") has been anglicized as both Owen and John. (The name Eoin, an Irish form of John, may also have been translated both ways.) This would be an appropriate name for a Tyrone ancestor, for the county’s name in Irish is Tir-Eoghain, the Land of Eoghan.
The naming pattern suggests that Margaret's mother may have been named Mary (in Irish, Maire), or perhaps Muireann, meaning "long-haired."
Geographer Samuel Lewis gave Tyrone a good report in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland: "The peasantry are very industrious," he noted. "The houses of the farmers are built in some parts of stone, in others of clay; slating is becoming more prevalent than thatch for roofing.... The food consists of potatoes and oatmeal, and in seasons of scarcity, barley-meal; milk is used in summer and autumn; in winter, herrings. Sometimes a pig is killed at Christmas, or several labourers join in the purchase of a cow."
Tyrone seems to have been rather a pagan place at the time of Margaret's birth. "A belief in fairies, called here the Wee People, is universal among the poorer peasantry," wrote Lewis; "as is the custom of driving their cattle round fires lighted on Midsummer Eve. A kind of hurling, here called 'common,' is a favourite amusement of the young men: formerly they devoted eleven days at Christmas to this exercise, now they give only one; a proof of the increase of habits of industry."
Margaret was born about 1839. While it is not certain where in Tyrone she was born, most Logans in the county lived near the town of Strabane, which happens to be the nearest town in Tyrone to Letterkenny. It's quite possible that Margaret and Felix met, in either Letterkenny or Strabane, and fell in love. At that time in Ireland, however, marriages were usually arranged by parents, and mates were often selected with an eye to the economic betterment of the family; few parents would see the son of a poor laborer like Mathew Boyle as a good match for their daughter.
And a common solution for couples who could not get their parents’ permission to wed was emigration to the New World. "Those who dared defy the now-ubiquitous 'match' and dowry systems risked poverty, parental displeasure, communal contempt and loss of caste," historian Kerby Miller wrote of post-Famine Ireland. "Love-struck adolescents could escape such dangers only through 'runaway matches' and emigration."
While there’s no proof that Felix and Margaret knew each other in Ireland, both had come to the United States by April 19, 1863, when they were married in Camden, New Jersey. And it's likely that they had not been in the country long: Few came from Ireland to the United States in the first years of the U.S. Civil War, as an American depression and fear of conscription kept the Irish at home. In 1863, however, emigration soared, as the sheer number of men involved in the fighting created a booming labor market.
Felix Boyle was remembered as "a real good man." He is said to have run a tavern near Philadelphia, and later was the yard boss at the coke works at Bridgeport, Pennsylvania. He died on November 16, 1909, in East Huntington, Pennsylvania, of chronic heart disease.
Margaret was a very short, petite woman. Despite many complaints about her health, Margaret kept active--she was said to be a woman who would "go anywhere at the drop of a hat." In her later years, she lived with her daughter Mary Ann's family; her granddaughter, Adeline, who was said to take after her in temperament, used to do her shopping. She died on April 10, 1925, at the age of 84, older than virtually any relative of her generation.
Felix and Margaret had five children: Catherine, Matthew, Margaret, Owen and Mary Ann. Catherine Boyle, known as "Katie," married James Hughes and lived near Pittsburgh. Matthew Boyle married Catherine McAndrew and lived near Masontown, Pennsylvania, where he was boss at the Puritan Works, one of the few non-Frick operations. He had twelve children, including Mildred, John, Edward, Walter, Philip, the twins Sylvia and Sylvester, and Margaret, who became a nun.
Margaret Boyle, who was called Maggie, died in childbirth at age 17, along with her baby. It is said that Maggie’s life could have been saved by sacrificing the baby, but that it was thought to be a sin to choose between the life of a mother and child.
The youngest child of the Boyle family was Mary Ann, who is said to have been born on May 15, 1868, in Philadelphia. (Her death certificate, however, gives her birthdate as May 29, 1868.) She met John Murtha in about 1882, when he boarded with her parents in Buckeye, Pennsylvania. They were married two years later, on April 30, 1884. Family tradition recalls her age at marriage as 16, but she actually seems to have been at least two weeks shy of her 16th birthday.
Next: John and Mary Ann Murtha.
This page was created by James Kearney Naureckas. Please email him with any corrections, suggestions or questions.