Boland, John Pius (1870–1958), politician and tennis player
by G. Martin Murphy

Boland, John Pius (1870–1958), politician and tennis player, son of Patrick Boland (1840–1877), businessman, and his wife, Mary Donnelly, was born at 135 Capel Street, Dublin, on 16 September 1870. His father, the wealthy proprietor of the largest bakery in Ireland, died in 1877, and his mother in 1882, leaving their seven children under the guardianship of Mrs Boland's half-brother Nicholas Donnelly, auxiliary bishop of Dublin. John Pius Boland owed his second name, which caused him some embarrassment in youth, to the fact that his baptism followed shortly after Pope Pius IX's loss of temporal power upon the capture of Rome by Victor Emmanuel. He was educated by the Marist Fathers at the Catholic University School, Lower Leeson Street, Dublin, and then from 1881 to 1890 at the Oratory School, Birmingham, where he was a contemporary of Hilaire Belloc. In 1890, after a semester at the University of Bonn, he proceeded to London University, where he graduated BA in 1892. In January 1893 he matriculated at the University of Oxford from Christ Church, where he read jurisprudence, and graduated BA with fourth-class honours in 1896 (he proceeded MA in 1901).

At Oxford, Boland was a prominent sportsman and debater. In the spring of 1896 he travelled to Athens at the invitation of Constantine Thrasybulos Mano (1869–1913), a Greek undergraduate at Balliol during 1894–5, who was involved in the organization of the first Olympic games of the modern era. On the spur of the moment Boland entered the singles and doubles in lawn tennis; he was paired in the doubles by Fritz Traun of Germany, and despite having to play in leather-soled shoes and with ‘a tennis bat of sorts, secured at the Panhellenic Bazaar’ (journal, fol. 103, 10 April 1896), he emerged victorious in the finals (11 April 1896) of both events. Boland thus ranks as Ireland's, and Britain's, first Olympic champion.

On his holidays in the south-west of Ireland Boland was disturbed by the illiteracy prevailing in districts where lessons were taught in a language—English—which the children did not speak. He now committed himself to the twin causes of home rule and the Irish language. Though called to the bar from the Inner Temple in 1897, he never practised. He was elected MP for South Kerry in 1900 and held the seat for the next eighteen years. In 1902 he married Eileen (1876–1937), daughter of Dr Patrick Moloney, a wealthy Australian, and with her had one son and five daughters.

Appointed a nationalist party whip in 1906, Boland soon became adept at manipulating the rules of parliamentary procedure, turning unlikely subjects such as the Maltese language question in an Irish direction. A vice-president of the Irish Industrial Development Association, he was active in promoting Irish trade, and it was due to his efforts that an Irish trade mark was patented in 1906. His main speciality, however, was education, the cause for which he had entered politics. After the passage of the Irish Universities Bill in 1908, he was appointed as one of the ten commissioners charged with the establishment of the new university based in Dublin, which at his suggestion was named the National University of Ireland. As a lawyer he was much involved in drafting the statutes, and he brought to the commission a broad experience of three universities. It was on his insistence that competence in the Irish language was made a condition of matriculation.

In 1918 Boland became acting chief whip of the Irish party, but later that year lost his seat in the general election which brought Sinn Féin a majority of Irish seats. In recognition of his work for education he received a papal knighthood. Disillusioned by the turn of events in Ireland, he retired from political life and settled in London, where from 1926 to 1947 he served as secretary of the Catholic Truth Society. In his memoir, Irishman's Day: a Day in the Life of an Irish MP (1944), he evoked the camaraderie of the Irish Parliamentary Party in its final phase under the leadership of John Redmond. His contribution to Irish university education was honoured in June 1950, when the National University conferred on him an honorary doctorate in laws.

Boland died at his London home, 40 St George's Square, Westminster, on 17 March (St Patrick's day) 1958. One of his daughters, Mrs Honor Crowley, represented his old constituency of South Kerry in the Dáil for some years as a Fianna Fáil deputy. Another daughter, the novelist and playwright Bridget Boland, paid an affectionate tribute to her parents in her memoir At my Mother's Knee (1978).



C. White, ‘John Pius Boland’, UCD News [international edn] (1986) · C. White, ‘The 80th anniversary of the National University of Ireland’, UCD News (1988) · J. P. Boland, Irishman's day (1944) · B. Boland, At my mother's knee (1978) · The Tablet (22 March 1958) · WWW, 1951–60 · F. C. Burnand, ed., The Catholic who's who and yearbook (1910) · I. Buchanan, British Olympians (1991) · WWBMP · J. P. Boland, journal, British Olympic Association, London


British Olympic Association, London, journal |  NL Ire., letters to John Redmond, MS 15171


photograph, c.1907, repro. in Boland, At my mother's knee

Wealth at death  

£6886 8s. 3d.: probate, 23 June 1958, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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John Pius Boland (1870–1958): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/58692