Peggy Roche Boyle, who taught Irish dance for over 40 years, has died at 73
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The Garden of Daisies. Shoe the Donkey. The Stack of Barley. The Blackbird. The Piper in the Meadow Straying.
Traditional Irish dances have lyrical names that conjure up an agrarian past when celebrations centered around harvest time and a good rest after a hard day’s work — or sometimes just the beauty of a songbird on a fine spring day.
Peggy Roche Boyle was a heel-clicking, tapping, leaping link to the line of teachers who kept those steps alive.
She learned those steps from her father Patrick Roche, who learned them in 1917 from an itinerant dance master who tapped them out on the floor of a creamery in his native Kilkee, near the County Clare town of Doonaha. He immigrated to America and became the master of ceremonies at Chicago’s 1933-1934 World’s Fair and an influential dance teacher.
His students — and his students’ students — taught people who became masters in their own right, including Mark Howard of Chicago’s renowned Trinity Academy of Irish Dance and Michael Flatley, whose shows have taken Irish dance from modest “feis’’ [festival] competitions to lucrative Las Vegas-style extravaganzas.
Later this month, Mrs. Boyle’s family will carry some of her ashes to Kilkee. She died April 14 at her Brookfield home of heart problems related to diabetes, according to her daughter Meghan Larson. She was 73.
She grew up on the West Side in St. Thomas Aquinas parish, one of four children of Patrick and Kathleen Roche. She was about 4 when her mother died of a brain tumor. A few years later, her father married Grace Dorgan, and four more children followed.
At 13, she became her father’s dance driller, counting out steps and demonstrating them for students.
After Siena High School, she worked a day job as a bookkeeper for Armour meatpacking. Later, she worked for Aer Lingus, Marshall Field’s and Kohl’s.
To become a certified teacher by An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha — the Irish Dancing Commission — she had to learn the melodies of 30 dances and memorize how to perform at least eight of them, according to her friend Katie Flanagan, founder of the Flanagan Irish Dancers in Winona, Minnesota, and author of “Steps in Time: the History of Irish Dancing in Chicago.”
With the Pat Roche School of Irish Dancing, young Peggy gave lessons at Connolly’s pub on Devon, the Doonaree Room on North Avenue and Emerald Catering at 3653 N. Cicero. She also taught at the American Legion Hall in Brookfield and the West Dale Gardens community center next to Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside.
A no-nonsense instructor, Mrs. Boyle could quiet a room with just a look.
Still, “It was about having fun,” Flanagan said.
“Although she was excited for us to win a competition, it was much more important to her that we loved Irish dancing,” said former student Molly Riley.
“She encouraged a sense of camaraderie amongst her students and promoted friendships,” said Riley’s sister Marita Sullivan, also a former student.
“You can get up and dance a jig if the music is there, whereas it’s kind of hard to get up at a party and dance your tap routine, or to do ‘Swan Lake,’ ” Mrs. Boyle, who taught Irish dance for more than 40 years, said in a 1977 interview with the Library of Congress. “It’s kind of a homey type of thing, and you do it at all the weddings and parties.”
For her own wedding, she traveled to St. Angela’s Church in a horse-drawn Irish jaunting cart.
She and her guitar-playing husband Jimmy Boyle formed the Traveling People, a group that performed throughout Chicago. She danced, sang and played the tin whistle. And some said she was one of the finest spoons players they’d heard, according to her son Seamus.
The Boyles settled in Brookfield. As their family grew, Mrs. Boyle scaled back on dance instruction. After the couple’s fifth child, she started teaching adults at St. Xavier University, and she taught children at her home.
Mrs. Boyle also worked for travel agencies including Gaffney Travel on the South Side.
She went on to found her own agency, Roche Tours, which led groups to Ireland.
“She did it for 30 years,” said her sister Kathleen McDonnell.
But with the silvery beauty of the Atlantic encircling the little seaside town, her sister said, “She was always drawn back to Kilkee.”
Mrs. Boyle was a gifted cook who loved “Barefoot Contessa” Ina Garten’s recipes.
“Irish soda bread was her way of comforting so many,” said her daughter Siobhan Luedtke. And, “No holiday was complete without her signature chocolate eclair ring.”
She’s also survived by her children Kathleen Farnan and Patrick, sisters Collette McGrath and Mary Pat Kulak, brothers Kevin, Michael and Patrick and 15 grandchildren.