Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

THE BLACK DONNELLYS: CANADA'S TRAGIC ROUSTABOUTS

Setting the Scene

"You're welcome, Mick, to foreign lands,
Where'er the Celt may roam,
Your caubeen, pipe and blackthorn
Shall find a cozy home."

Rev. James Keegan, You're Welcome, Mick McQuaid

What became known, as "the Donnelly Massacre" was the culmination of a 30-odd years feud between one Irish immigrant family and their Irish immigrant neighbors. It reeks of obsessive pride and prejudice. It is a landmark example of an ancient and bitter religious opposition in one country spreading thousands of miles across an ocean to affect human lives in another.

According to an article that appeared in the Toronto Globe the day immediately following the tragedy, "The Donnelly family, to a marked degree, bore quarrelsome characteristics when they were not fighting among their neighbors, they constantly fought among themselves." It is a description that supports that of Johannah Donnelly, matron of the sparring Gaelic clan that appears in Thomas P. Kelley's Vengeance of the Black Donnellys. In the book, Kelley quotes Johannah as saying, "From the time they could toddle, I taught my seven sons to be foin fist-and-club fighters. Sure, an' 'tis I who taught them how to gouge, bite off an ear and crack in a head with a club; showed them the best way to send a fast punch to the chin."

A local axiom at the time taught, "The farther one lives down Roman Line Road, the tougher one is. And the Donnellys live at the end of the road."

But, many of the citizens with whom they quarrelled in and around Lucan, Ontario, were neither timid nor lily white. Equally headstrong, equally superstitious, equally prejudiced, yes, and equally Irish, they also clubbed and gouged and bit and cracked and kicked. Unfortunately for the Donnellys, they were a mite tougher and unrelenting and, therefore, in being so, disposed their own hides to the harder lesson forthcoming.

The Donnellys were Ireland born. Considering the climate of the Emerald Isle in the latter half of the Eighteenth Century and the fact that nearly all of Lucan's citizens were immigrants from the same county in Ireland the fate of the Donnellys, in retrospect, seemed pre-destined. The "ould sod" they left behind had been torn by a religious animosity that existed since that Protestant Protector, William of Orange, himself, crossed into Roman Catholic Ireland in the late 1100's. After four decades of religious civil war, the situation worsened when, in 1697, Oliver Cromwell's re-design of Ireland land rights left English Protestants the major landlords and the Catholics mere serfs in their own beloved Erin.

"This awful state of affairs was at its worst in (County) Tipperary, where James and Johannah Donnelly came from," reads The Official Donnelly Home Page, which is dedicated to the family's colorful, albeit bloody, saga. "The Roman Catholics' poverty became...abject."

Rebel elements fought back, very much as the Irish Republican Army does in Protestant-owned Northern Ireland today, often with violence. Then, a society called the Whiteboys, its members known only to each other, exacted revenge, sometimes sanguinely, on the anti-papist landlords. But, the revenge only began there, for the all-Catholic Whiteboys judged as the greater devil those of their own religion who patronized the Protestant British who traded commerce with them, bought from them, sold to them, drank with them. These very-much-Catholic citizens, while yearning for a free Ireland, merely chose to abide and live peaceably. But, in the eyes of many of their own faith, they were reputed as cowards and traitors to both their country and God. Pinned with the name Blackfeet, they found themselves outcasts in their own thatched villages; they were forced to escape Ireland in order to avoid chastisement.

James Donnelly, no photograph is known to exist (PEI)
James Donnelly, no
photograph is known
to exist (PEI)

The Donnellys, although Mass-attending Roman Catholics, were Blackfeet. Nowhere in Ireland were Whiteboy families more influential than in Tipperary. When Great Britain zealously began hunting them down and hanging them, however, they found it necessary to flee Ireland to other parts of the globe. In doing so, they clung to their intolerance and, if meeting a known Blackfoot in their new land, caused the Blackfoot misery. Cases of such predisposition existed in both America and Canada.

"With the massive Irish immigration...in the early 1800s, most of the time the Irish were easily assimilated into the mixing pot of (other) cultures, but not in Biddulph Township in Ontario," continues the Official Donnelly Home Page. "In Biddulph, with its heavily Irish population, there was a perfect balance of Whiteboys and ...Blackfeet."

Keep in mind that most of the Roman Catholic population was not of Whiteboy partisanship they were non-violent devotees of their faith; existing by the principle of live and let live. But, albeit only a fraction of the population, the Whiteboy party became the "squeaky wheel" that made the most racket in town. Feuding with known or even suspected Blackfeet was most prominent.

Recognized Blackfeet such as the Donnellys were thereupon referred to in the new country of Canada with the abbreviation "Black" plunked insultingly before their surname...the Black O'Fagins, the Black McGarritys, and the Black Donnellys. Throughout the years following the feuds, these families, especially the volatile Donnellys, were assumed to have earned the adjective because of their moods, but that supposition is wrong. While indeed the Donnellys were earthy, coarse, rough-and-tumble as well as dark of eye and hair the term was actually meant to scoff, not heed.

However, the popular vernacular is not altogether incorrect, for when things combusted when James Donnelly found himself with a brood of strapping, iron-fisted sons who fought back they did indeed score the blackest reputation in Western Canada.

*****

Before resuming with the history of the Donnellys in Ontario, let's very briefly examine socio-political developments in Canada that led the Donnellys and others of their heritage to choose the Dominion as their new home, once they left Ireland. These elements must be understood so that the case history will be better realized in context of time and place.

What was referred to at one time as Upper and Lower Canada were both under the domain of Great Britain. The Territory of Canada was expansive, hard for Britain to manage, and rebellions were common. Canadian peoples, largely comprised of British, French and Indian, had long been at odds with themselves over land rights, customs, and nationality. Despite a brief feeling of nationalism enjoyed against American invaders during the War of 1812, there was otherwise little sense of crown-loyalty.

In 1838, Britain enacted the Province of Canada to unite the Upper and Lower districts under Lord Durham, who oversaw the peaceful transition. He helped create an assembly of legislators, representing both one-time singular populations to more fully meet the needs of the new Province. The Province included Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario). This successful unification eventually evolved into a confederation known as the Dominion of Canada under a national prime minister in 1867.

Under the initial Province, the Canada Land Company realized the need for people to help farm and civilize the wilderness; commerce was necessary to sustain the growth of both Ontario and Quebec as a new era of industry, trade and shipping were becoming apparent. The territory begged for farms to produce Canadian foodstuff, roads to move Canadian produce, and waterways to ship Canadian supplies. People from the United Kingdom were summoned to settle the land as tenant farmers with an option to buy. From across Ireland, Wales and Scotland came people who knew the toil of hard work and who believed they could successfully create a garden in the wilderness. The Donnellys were among these.

During the first half of the Nineteenth Century, most immigrants settled in southern Ontario where rich soil promised good agriculture and whose position along lakes Huron, Erie and Ontario demanded new ports of commerce. By 1851, the population had increased to nearly one million people in this sector farmers who grew corn, apples, tobacco, wheat and hay; contractors and carpenters who built wharves where muddy banks had been, tradesmen and entrepreneurs who built towns seaside and inland. Cities grew. Toronto, a crossroads hamlet, boomed. Forest City renamed itself London after evolving from a lumber camp into a metropolis resembling a miniature version of that great English capital across the sea.

Main Street, Lucan, Ontario (Earl Heywood)
Main Street, Lucan, Ontario
(Earl Heywood)

At a geometric angle north of London and east of Toronto, the village of Lucan rose up a couple stories high under slat board, peg, mortar and brick; a little town but important in that the rail lines ran through it to ship the local farmers' wares across Canada and, in turn, provide the farming community with seed and supplies. Lucan, and its surrounding countryside, was almost exclusively Irish. The influx had come almost exclusively from Tipperary.

James Donnelly brought his wife here in 1844 and, Blackfoot or not, he was determined to stay.

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