The Boyds of Ballymacool
We have already seen that Patti Boyd, wife of George Harrison and Eric Clapton, holds ancestral links to the town through the Boyds of Ballymacool. But who were they and why were they in Letterkenny?
Following the Ulster Plantation, the dispossession of lands from Irish Catholics continued throughout the 17thand 18thcenturies so that by the 1770s, only 5 per cent of the land of Ireland was in the possession of Catholics. Allied with this transfer of land ownership, there arose a ruling class of aristocrats, landlords and prosperous lawyers, commonly referred to as ‘The Protestant Ascendancy’. Estates that were characterised by stately mansions and large tended gardens arose around the ever growing town of Letterkenny with several privileged families such as the Wrays of Castlewray and Ards, the Mansfields of Oakpark, the Groves of Castlegrove, the Stewarts of Gortlee, the Chambers and Stewarts of Rockhill and the Boyds of Ballymacool creating Letterkenny’s very own Ascendancy class between the 17th and 20th Centuries.
The Boyd family hailed from Kilmarnock and first came to the town through their family connections to Lady Johanna Marbury, wife to Sir George Marbury, founder of the Market Town of Letterkenny. Three brothers John, William and Robert Boyd arrived in Letterkenny in the 1660s with John Boyd building the family mansion in the town in 1672, approximately in the area where the former Charles Kelly Hardware shop stands on the Main Street.
John Boyd was married first to Isabel Smith but following her death he married Helena Ewing, daughter of Alexander Ewing of Letterkenny in 1673 and was granted the lease of the Manor, Tolls & Customs of Letterkenny in 1679. He died in 1710 aged 78 and was succeeded by his eldest son John, who obtained the grant of the Letterkenny Mills and lands in 1709 and a confirmation of the Manor, Tolls & Customs of Letterkenny in 1711.
He married Eleanor Orr in 1695 and had a son, John, who succeeded him as head of the family upon his death in 1722. This John Boyd was a Captain in the Donegal Militia and was High Sheriff for County Donegal in 1740. He married Anne Gamble in 1736 and died in 1764. His son, John Boyd, was a Major in the Donegal Militia and High Sheriff for County Donegal in 1772. He was a Magistrate for County Donegal and received the family mansion in Letterkenny upon his father’s death in 1764. It was this John Boyd that purchased the lands at Ballymacool in 1783.
Following the Plantation, the land at Conwal and Ballymacool was owned by the Established Church but in 1735, the Bishop of Raphoe, John Oswald, sold the lease of Ballymacool to Rev. William Span, Rector of Conwal, which was passed onto his son Rev. Benjamin Span, who sold it to his relation, Samuel Span, a merchant of Bristol for £3000 in 1776. Having no time for the upkeep of the estate, Samuel Span sold the estate in 1783 to John Boyd who built a new palatial mansion on the grounds. Ballymacool was now to be the new official residence of the Boyds as the family mansion on the Main Street was sold to William McMonagle who pulled it down and opened livery stables on the site.
John Boyd of Ballymacool married Martha Stewart and had three sons, William, Robert and the eldest, John, who inherited the estate upon his father’s death in 1810. He served as High Sheriff of County Donegal in 1806 and was a Barrister-at-law. He married Frances Hayes in 1799 and upon his death in 1836, the estate passed to his son, John Robert Boyd who was called to the Irish Bar in 1830 and served as High Sheriff of County Donegal in 1846, as well as serving as Chairman of the Town Commissioners of Letterkenny from 1858. He also erected a Town Clock for Letterkenny at the Market Square around this time, which stood for almost 100 years.
He died in 1891, childless, and so the estate was left to his nephew, William Henry Porter, under the condition that he assume the surname Boyd, which he did by Royal License in 1891. His daughter, Mary Rosalie Treharne Boyd went to South Africa in 1911 and settled in Port Elizabeth where she won three “Bardic Chairs”, South Africa’s highest literary award, for her poems “The Veldt” (1921), “Drought” (1930) and “Table Mountain” (1931). In 1900, William Henry Boyd sold the Corn Mills to Charles Kelly Ltd., which had been in the family since before 1710 while in 1910 he sold Kiltoy Lodge and the Corn Market to the Kellys where they built their shop and yard. William Henry Porter Boyd died in 1913 and is buried on the grounds of the estate. Upon his death the estate passed to his eldest son, Col. John Boyd.
Parties of Anti Treaty IRA forces occupied both Rockhill and Ballymacool Houses in 1921. The Boyds were ordered to leave the house within a few minutes and told never to return. During this occupation, a priceless salver (plate) was taken which had been in the family since 1467, when Thomas Boyd was married to Mary Stewart, daughter of King James II of Scotland. The salver was never recovered but the Boyds reported receiving several letters from someone in Letterkenny who offered to inform them of its location for a large sum of money, an offer that was never accepted. The location of this priceless treasure is still unknown.
Following this experience, Col. John Boyd left Ballymacool House and his mother, Charlotte Agnes Boyd, left for England in 1930. Mrs. Boyd was described as a:
“smallish woman with fine eyes and regular features and when she drove into Letterkenny in her carriage and pair, she was dressed with the sober magnificence suitable to a woman of birth and wealth. She had a strait-laced, severe appearance which everybody found intimidating.”
In 1938 the Ballymacool Estate was sold to the Kellys for less than £2,000 and the era of the Boyds of Ballymacool and Letterkenny was no more.