Local History by Seán Beattie

Emigration, Malin Head, The White House

A Malin Head Link to the White House

A Malin Head Link to the White House

President William McKinley (1897-1901) had family links to Malin Head

As they look across the great blue waters of the Atlantic, tour guides visiting Malin Head are often heard to remark that the next parish is America. For hundreds of Malin Head folk that comment became a reality, as they boarded the ships of Cooke and McCorkell and the great liners for a new life.

One Malin man who made that journey was David A. Doyle who left Malin Head in his childhood. His family settled in Brooklyn and as an adult he became involved in the religious and commercial life of New York. He was a founder of the Embury Church in Brooklyn. The late 1800s were not a happy place for the Irish in America. On the lowest rung of the social ladder stood the black population, who still remembered the evils of the slave industry. The Irish were just one step above. In general, the native-born Americans welcomed the Irish, especially when they acquired the right to vote and became an influential sector in the electorate by virtue of their numbers.  A minority group of fundamentalists, however, known as the Nativists harboured a deep hatred for the Irish whom they regarded as a threat to the American way of life. Their Catholicism was seen as an enemy of their Protestantism; they argued that crime levels were high among the Irish and that if they were involved in politics, they would corrupt the political system because of their numbers. Portraying the Irish as a blight on American society, the Nativists strove to limit the advance of the Irish both politically and economically. It is hard to accept these realities about life just over a century ago.

David Doyle’s achievement was that he overcame these obstacles which his fellow Irish men faced as day labourers and manual workers. It is estimated that within a ten year period after 1900, a quarter of the Irish climbed the social ladder in the worlds of business, transport, crafts, policing, the fire service, trades and office management. Doyle made his name in the world of business in New York. He opened his first trunk and leather store in the heart of the business district of Manhattan and a second in the old Astor House. His merchandising was brash, displaying his goods on the pavements to the annoyance of some politicians. He was a skilled communicator who believed in networking and over the years, he became friends with some of the great celebrities in New York.  Among his circle was Abner McKinley, a brother of the President, William McKinley (1897-1901). David Doyle was a cousin of the President. The McKinleys were originally of Scotch-Irish stock who came from Co. Antrim. It is not known if David was ever a guest in the White House, but his family links to the President provided a stepping stone into the higher echelons of American society.

McKinley is remembered today for two reasons. First, he believed in making America great and as a believer in protectionism introduced tariffs on imports to protect US trade, known as the McKinley Tariffs. The tariffs were very unpopular in Ireland where they almost destroyed the cottage industries and the Lace Schools producing home-made goods for the US markets. He is also remembered as one of four US Presidents to die in office, at the hands of an assassin.

David Doyle died on 20 January 1939, leaving a wife, Mary Jane Platt Doyle, three daughters, a son and two brothers, George in Brooklyn and John in Ireland. No plaque bears his name in Manhattan but he may be regarded as an icon for the hundreds of emigrants from Donegal and elsewhere who climbed to the top of the social and economic ladder in the New World.

Seán Beattie, Culdaff, March 2020


  1. raymond blair

    Very interesting Sean – thank you raymond

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