The Black Donnellys
Kelley, Thomas P. 1993. The Black Donnellys. Richmond Hill: Firefly Books. 179 pgs. ISBN 1-895565-24-3. Catalogued as adult non-fiction 364.15230922 Donne-K.
Spring 1847. A small Ontario town with a population of approximately thirty-three. New settlers. Disputed land. So begins a feud that ended in one of the most gruesome mass murders in Ontario history. The Black Donnellys tells the tale of an Irish Catholic family from Tipperary that found its way to Lucan, Ontario in search of a better life. According to Kelley, both Jim and his wife Johanna were barbaric individuals ready to take on anyone who stood in their way. They taught their children to watch and learn as they fought all who disagreed with them. Their boys learned their lessons well and it didn’t take long for the family name, “Donnelly”, to become synonymous with terror in the Township of Biddulph. Barns were burned in the night, horses had their tongues cut out, men were beaten and maimed for life. Local residents were so frightened that no one would ever testify against a Donnelly. Their reign ended when James Carroll, then a special constable of the county, formed a vigilante group that took justice into its own hands. The family was brutally murdered in February, 1880, thirty-three years after their arrival. Carroll was tried for the murders and cleared by a jury as not guilty. As the old song quoted on the last page of the book states,
“Oh all young folks take warning,
Never live a life of hate,
Of wickedness or violence, lest
You share the Donnelly’s fate.
Their murdered bodies lie today,
A mile from Lucan town,
But the memories of the awful feud,
Time never will live down!”
To learn more about the Donnellys visit “The Official Donnelly Website” and, if you should ever find yourself on the Roman Line in Lucan just outside of London, Ontario, listen for the whispers of the ghosts of the Donnelly clan and all those who got in their way.
As an aside to the above synopsis, “The Official Donnelly Website” describes this book as fiction and, while it could just be an error, one of the things that kept coming to mind while I was reading this book was the already tenuous state of affairs between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestents in Ireland prior to Jim and Johanna Donelly’s arrival in Lucan. I wondered, for example, the degree to which bias coloured the newspaper articles and interviews that were used by Kelley for the research of this book. Was it possible that the Donnelly attitude was a reaction to negative treatment or were they really just very nasty people? I suppose we will never know for sure. This book does ring true but I wonder what the Donnellys would have to say if they were able to tell their story.