Father Hugh Boyle: Ballymena-born missionary with a passion for faith, family and pleasure

FR Hugh Boyle’s wonderful gift for music led to him being dubbed the “Salesian minstrel” by one of his fellow missionaries.

The Ballymena-born priest was also proficient on piano, clarinet, saxophone and guitar and had a beautiful singing voice, his party pieces being My way and boy Danny.

He was a natural extrovert and enjoyed acting, putting his talents to good use in mass or to produce musicals for schools in Swaziland and South Africa where he spent most of his life.

In Swaziland, now Kingdom of Eswatini, he established the country’s first brass band which is still regularly called upon by the king and the government to play at public events.

These students recently remembered him at a memorial mass in the kingdom, thinking of his work to develop their gifts and talents in faith, sport and music.

Father Hugh was also an excellent dancer – in the sand dunes of the Western Cape, where parishioners had been driven from their homes by the South African apartheid regime, he organized a charity ballroom dancing event where he stole the show.

He attributed his dancing and performing skills, with typical humility, to the fact that he came from a large family – having nine sisters and a large extended family from Belfast and Derry, he was never lost to a dance partner or a captive audience.

Hugh was the seventh of 11 children and was brought up by Hugh and Martha Boyle in Warden Street in Ballymena, just up from the town’s football ground and close to All Saints Church. Religion and sport will become the passions of his life.

Along with a close relative of Dunloy, his namesake Hugh Boyle, already a priest in South Africa, his parents sent 11-year-old Hugh to Pallaskenry Salesian College in County Limerick with a life of missions service in mind.

They would be very proud of his academic training and his journey to the priesthood with the order founded by the Italian priest-educator Don Bosco, dedicated to helping young people living in poverty. He had great devotion to the teenage saint, Dominic Savio, all his life.

Hugh enjoyed Gaelic football while at school in Limerick – he won a senior county football medal with Balysteen – and trained as a physical education teacher. He also enjoyed swimming, tennis and golf and was able to get his fellow novices in England a full Ballymena United FC kit.

He first traveled to Swaziland, a small kingdom almost entirely bordered by South Africa, as a Salesian brother in 1966 and after meeting Fr Boyle – now Archbishop Boyle of Johannesburg – he decided to return home to study the priesthood at Maynooth and was ordained in 1974 at Harryville, Ballymena.

After a short assignment at Glenravel that summer, he returned to Swaziland and served as headmaster of the Salesian Primary School until 1983, establishing the school’s famous orchestra.

Over the next three decades he would become an extremely popular figure in various Salesian parishes, schools and communities in Swaziland and South Africa, particularly in the Michell plain in Cape Town, before finally retiring to the community of order in Dublin.

He has suffered from skin cancer for the past few years, embracing his daily treatment with quiet courage and determination, and moved last summer to live with his fellow Salesians in Crumlin, Co Dublin

Father Hugh had spent Christmas with his family in Ballymena, reuniting with loved ones and celebrating the Eucharist, before his sudden death at the age of 84 on New Year’s Eve.

At his funeral at All Saints Church, the Salesian Provincial of Ireland, Fr Eunan McDonnell, said that in his gifts for sport and music, Fr Hugh imitated Don Bosco, who used games and music to engage young people.

The patron of the order, Saint Francis de Sales, from whom Don Bosco took the name of Salesian, said: “It is not that we glimpse God despite the people around us, but we find God precisely through and with these other people”.

Father Eunan said: “Father Hugh was also a very pastoral man, who enjoyed visiting the sick and the housebound and spending time with the bereaved.”

“He was a very gentle presence, and in his presence among people he often spoke with a smile – that smile itself said a lot.”

The death of Father Hugh was followed a few days later by that of his older sister Peggy McQuillan.

Predeceased by their siblings Johnny, Mary, Nuala, Kathleen, Anne and Connie, they are survived and dearly missed by sisters Jean, Denise and Yvonne and their family circle.

Father Hugh Boyle with his sister Peggy McQuillan, who died a few days after him