Boyce, John (1810–64), priest and novelist, was born in Donegal town, one of five children of Jerome Boyce, a hotelier who owned much of the town, became a magistrate, and was ‘a moderate upholder of the English administration’. Two of John's brothers, Jerome (d. childless, 1851) and James, inherited their father's property. James's descendants remained prominent in Donegal clerical and political life. Another brother, Patrick, emigrated to St Louis, Missouri, while their sister Margaret (Mrs O'Flaherty) remained in Donegal. The youthful John was well-known as an athlete and wrote verse from the age of 10. His first publication (at the age of 17) was a verse satire in a local newspaper on an unpopular official. Deciding to become a catholic priest, he studied classics locally before preparatory studies at St Finian's Catholic Academy, Navan, Co. Meath. He was an outstanding student at Maynooth (1830–34).
Boyce was ordained in 1834 and served as curate in Glenties (1834–6) and Fanad (1836–45), then pursued his ministry among Irish emigrants in America. Politics influenced his emigration. He was an occasional contributor to the Nation and criticised O'Connellite priests; a brother sheltered the fugitive Thomas D'Arcy McGee (qv) in 1848. After a year in Eastport, Maine, Boyce moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, remaining parish priest of St John's church till his death and travelling throughout central Massachusetts on missionary work.
Boyce's first novel, Shandy Maguire; or Tricks upon travellers (1848) began as a short story; Benedict Joseph Fenwick (1782–1846), bishop of Boston, commanded Boyce to extend it. The book combines resistance to landlords, Orangemen, and state forces by the trickster-Ribbonman Shandy Maguire with a melodramatic plot about the persecution of catholic aristocrats which rewrites the novels of Lady Morgan (qv), O'Donnell and The O'Briens and the O'Flaherties. The book attacks landlordism and ‘second reformation’ proselytism, drawing on Boyce's famine memories and contrasting virtuous tenant poverty with aristocratic debauchery. Boyce's father complained about its denunciations of the land system. It was extensively reviewed by British journals and translated into German. A stage adaptation by James Pilgrim was popular in America (where Shandy was played by the comedian Barney Williams) and Europe (where Tyrone Power (qv) starred). The book was praised by D'Arcy McGee, who cited its depiction of the conversion from compromise to revolution of an elderly parish priest (based on Archbishop Daniel Murray (qv) of Dublin), but it was criticised by the New England catholic convert and publicist Orestes Brownson (1803–76), who accused Irish-American catholics of subordinating catholicism to Irishness, criticised Young Ireland, and argued that the Irish should work for reform through Westminster. Brownson was a major literary ‘gatekeeper’ and constant irritant to Boyce.
In The satisfying influence of catholicity on the intellect and senses (1850) Boyce defended devotional catholicism against Brownson's emphasis on logic, stressing its multifarious appeals to different religious appetites (Shandy Maguire notes the failure of intellectualist bible-preaching evangelical missionaries to comprehend catholic devotionalism). This implied that intellectual pursuits were reserved for an elite; Boyce believed in a hierarchical society and was disturbed by American social fluidity. Boyce wrote as ‘Peter Peppergrass’, an authorial or editorial persona like Scott's ‘Jonas Dryasdust’. His second novel, The spaewife (1853), heavily derivative from Scott, depicted persecuted sixteenth-century catholics entangled in intrigues surrounding the secret birth of a child to Elizabeth I and the earl of Leicester. It contrasts Irish steadfastness with English willingness to abandon catholicism for ‘beef, beer, and bibles’ (Boyce intended to write a sequel eulogising Mary, queen of Scots, as a catholic martyr). Orestes Brownson's intellectualism is satirised in the pathetic pedant Sir Geoffrey Wentworth, a recusant who immerses himself in the church fathers as his world disintegrates. Boyce's third and final novel, Mary Lee; or the Yankee in Ireland (1860), returns to Donegal and recycles features of Shandy Maguire. Its gentler tone reflects mellowed political views; Boyce now believed rebellion against Britain impractical but hoped Ireland would become independent through ‘moral force’. While Mary Lee contains an evangelical landlord villain, a trickster figure, and a romantic rebel based on D'Arcy McGee, there are sympathetic protestant characters and social criticism is muted. Boyce responds to anti-Irish stereotypes by contrasting a mean-souled and materialistic Yankee visitor with idealised Irish peasants who outwit him at every turn and recall mistreatment of Irish immigrants in New England. (The Yankee is morally superior to Irish evangelicals since he openly subordinates religion and morality to self-advancement without hypocritical religious pretensions.) A character based on Brownson is ‘catholic in head but not heart’; the pious lives of Irish catholic peasants convert protestants antagonised by his tactless polemics. Boyce challenges Brownson's insistence that all non-catholics are damned and literature should be judged exclusively by didactic moral standards, and excoriates his view that Irish-Americans should forget Ireland.
John Boyce's literary fame was a source of pride to New England catholics, and he corresponded with writers including Dickens, Lever (qv), Thackeray, and Eugene Sue. He was a popular preacher and lecturer for charitable Irish and catholic causes. He was also a painter. He spent the income from his literary work on charity, leaving his finances in disorder when he died on the night of 1/2 January 1864 from liver disease caused by a drink problem; he had earlier ordered the destruction of his manuscripts and correspondence. He was buried in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Boyce's importance lies in his activities as an Irish-American catholic spokesman, his social criticism contained in Shandy Maguire and its contemporary popularity, and his role as precursor to later priest-novelists who blended devotional catholicism with nostalgic images of rural Ireland for émigré audiences and worried about the role of the priest amid the breakdown of older social hierarchies.
The principal source for his life is a short memoir prefixed to a reprint of The spaewife by an anonymous member of the Jesuit community at Holy Cross College, Worcester, Mass., who knew Boyce in his later years. In 1941 Boyce's grandnephew, Fr Charles Boyce (PP Termon and Gartan) anonymously published a ‘new and revised edition’ with some additional information: Biographical sketch of Rev. John Boyce D.D. (1810–64); this edition should be consulted in conjunction with the original memoir, as Charles Boyce omitted what he saw as embarrassing details, such as his grand-uncle's liver disease and his financial predicament at death.