Publication15 March 2023
Born, Newport, County. Mayo, Ireland, 1832. Died Toronto, Canada, 1901.
Author: William Jenkins
If Toronto’s Catholics of Irish origin were polled in 1900 to choose whom they felt was their most effective lay spokesman to date, most would have likely put journalist and publisher Patrick Boyle at the top of their list, including those who disagreed with him. Boyle spent most of his adult life in Toronto, helping to build a cohesive sense of community and identity among the city’s Irish Catholics, while simultaneously seeking to shape local opinion on matters relating to Irish nationalist politics and society.
Boyle emigrated to the United States with his family in 1844 and came to Toronto in 1846, in time to witness the dramas associated with the Irish famine migration and the rise of sectarian tensions between Catholics and the Protestant majority, and especially members of the Orange Order. He learned the printing trade in the office of the Globe, then the leading daily newspaper and, anxious to help advance local Catholic fortunes, joined the Young Men’s St Patrick’s Association in 1855. Boyle later took his printing talents to New York and then New Orleans before returning to Toronto at the beginning of the American Civil War.
Boyle joined the Hibernian Benevolent Society (HBS), an organization formed in 1858 that favoured an assertive expression of Catholic Irish identity in the city. While the HBS offered a range of social and cultural activities, it was infiltrated by the New York-based Fenian Brotherhood, a secret revolutionary organization committed to establishing an Irish republic by force. In 1863, when Boyle was secretary, he became co-publisher and editor of a HBS-financed weekly newspaper, the Irish Canadian, later becoming sole publisher. Early editorials used melodramatic nationalist language to recount past and present English “despotism” and “tyranny” in Ireland. Although Boyle issued repeated demands for Irish self-government in editorials, he stopped short of advocating a republican ideal given the reality of his Canadian location. Behind the scenes, however, Boyle privately sold Fenian bonds to advance the cause of revolution in Ireland, though he opposed the idea of Fenians invading Canada and denounced the border raids of 1866 as futile and injurious to Irish Catholics.
The Fenian alarm of the mid-1860s and the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee in 1868 intensified suspicion of the HBS and its Irish Canadian mouthpiece. Boyle, now HBS president, was arrested and jailed along with his co-publisher and brother-in-law James Hynes in connection with potential involvement in McGee’s murder. Following his release on a technicality, the Irish Canadian returned, although HBS membership rolls suffered. Boyle was unenthused by Canadian Confederation in 1867, and with the failure of Fenianism, he channeled his energies once more into projects geared towards the cultural and political uplift of Toronto’s Catholic Irish. He was a co-founder of the Ontario Catholic League in 1869, which sought to improve Catholic political representation at the provincial and federal levels. Here, the Irish Canadian supported Alexander Mackenzie’s federal Liberals in the early 1870s, but later accepted funding from John A. Macdonald’s Conservatives when hoped-for Liberal patronage did not materialize. Brian Clarke describes Boyle as an “accomplished chameleon, who shifted his views and tactics as the situation demanded.”
Boyle was now widely known and an influential voice within and beyond Toronto’s Catholic Irish circles, though he was not an elite figure. Nor did he seek such status. His dealings with the powerful Archbishop of Toronto, John Joseph Lynch, illustrated wider struggles between laity and clergy for leadership of the city’s Catholic Irish community in the 1870s and 1880s. Boyle and Lynch’s party-political preferences did not always align, and Boyle defended lay autonomy in the management of Toronto’s Separate (Catholic) School Board. In 1888, for example, the Irish Canadian backed the Irish nationalist-minded members of the Board who demanded the use of ballots in school-board elections to ensure that Lynch would not interfere in the voting.
Although Boyle and Lynch both retained an interest in Irish political developments through these decades, Boyle’s public articulations of his Irish nationalist outlook retained a defiant edge. He denounced “West Britonism” among Toronto’s Irish Catholics and was underwhelmed by Isaac Butt’s proposals for Irish Home Rule in the early 1870s. He was more taken by agitators such as the maverick Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and Charles Stewart Parnell, Butt’s successor, whom he welcomed to the city in 1878 and 1880 respectively. Boyle then became vice-president of the Toronto Land League in 1880, formed in the wake of Parnell’s visit. By 1885, when Home Rule became the avowed goal of Irish nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic, Boyle joined Toronto’s branch of the Irish National League. In the 1890s, the latest arrival on Toronto’s Catholic associational scene, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, welcomed Boyle into its ranks. It was an appropriate outlet for his devout Catholicism and enduring interest in Ireland.
While Boyle’s interest in Irish affairs never wavered, he had come to see himself as a loyal Canadian. He was, however, ambivalent at best about the link to Britain that was fervently cherished by most English-Canadians, and often critical of the British Empire. Although the Irish Canadian flourished for most of its existence, with no party-political financial backing and a dwindling readership, operations ceased in 1892, and Boyle became the printer and business manager of its replacement, the Catholic Register. In 1900, Boyle sought once again to make a success of the Irish Canadian, but this venture ended in financial disaster. This reflected the wider generational transition within Irish Catholic Toronto and the fact that far fewer people were now animated by Irish homeland issues in a city where imperial fervour reigned supreme.
Boyle married Bridget Ellen Hynes of Cornwall, Ontario, and their family numbered three daughters and a son. Boyle was predeceased by his wife and son and was living with daughter Harriet when he died suddenly of heart failure on August 1, 1901. Within weeks of his burial, an assortment of friends and associates set up a fund to provide for his unmarried daughter.
Brian P. Clarke, Piety and Nationalism: Lay Voluntary Associations and the Creation of an Irish-Catholic Community in Toronto, 1850-1895 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993).
Mark McGowan, “Patrick Boyle” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/boyle_patrick_13E.html (accessed February, 2023).
Gerald Stortz, “The Irish Catholic Press in Toronto, 1887-1892: The Years of Transition,” Canadian Journal of Communication 10, no. 3 (1984), 27-46.
David A. Wilson, Canadian Spy Story: Fenian Revolutionaries and the Secret Police (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022).