THE BLACK DONNELLYS: CANADA'S TRAGIC ROUSTABOUTS
"Falling is easier than rising."
Ancient Irish proverb
Days after the massacre, the local police received an anonymous letter that began: "For some time past, a great deal has been said about the Donnelly family. They have been blamed by the Biddulphers as perpetrators of many crimes throughout the township. A vigilance committee was formed by a few pretended honest settlers as a means of protection from these outrages. But, the question is, who needed protection? Well, I think the Donnellys needed protection more than the vigilance committee did..."
Such was the epilogue sentiment of many in fact, of most guilt the generator. In testimony to the guilt that thunder-stoned the township, the township packed the pews of St. Patrick's Church for the Donnelly funeral. Gaping mouthed, sullen mourners on the verge of tears broke down in entirety at the heart-wrenching sight of young Jennie Donnelly come to bid her parents goodbye, her cheeks tear-stained. Appearing from the foyer, she followed two coffins one bearing John Donnelly, the other bearing what was left of the four others. Her surviving brothers braced her by the elbows to keep her from collapsing. The town had truly appreciated the amiable Jennie, had celebrated her wedding and now had slaughtered her family.
An organ boomed. Services began. In the front row of the church, William, Patrick, Robert and, yes, surely Jennie, couldn't help wondering who in the congregation behind them had, less than 48 hours ago, taken part in the carnage. God's sacramental house was not the place to cast the evil eye, but one can imagine their dark brows as they watched certain personages from the community shuffle past the closed coffins. William had heard some of their voices in his front yard. He heard their laughter. And he knew their faces well those who had sneered in his direction and spat in his path many a day John Carroll, John Kennedy, Mike Slattery, John Purtell, Joe McIntyre, Martin McLaughlin, and others. These, the ones who now, for the first time in their lives, kept their heads down, their gobs shut, their eyes averted, and actually flushed a vivid red under the gaze of the Black Donnellys.
Of the funeral, the Toronto Telegram wrote, "The melancholy cortege arrived at St. Patrick's Church and the coffins were deposited in the aisle of the church. At 12 o'clock precisely, Mass was celebrated by the Rev. Father Connolly. (He) undertook to address the congregation with which the church was crowded to suffocation. (At one point) his reverence completely broke down, being overcome by the intensity of his feelings...Then with his handkerchief over his eyes, and staggering back against the altar, he threw himself upon it and wept like a child."
For days following, the town stilled itself in whisper. Winter nonetheless, a heat of intensity stifled the air and choked all loud talk. Ugly forms of cumuli scratched the sky to splatter the town in shadow. Everything seemed out of joint. The stench of the burned timbers at Donnelly house drifted into town, said some, to sting the nostrils of, especially, the guilty. Sparse movement was habitual, and dreamlike.
What animation there was came from the county detectives who fell upon Lucan in great numbers to investigate what happened the morning of February 4, 1880. They knocked on doors, pulled doorbells, and interviewed, interviewed, interviewed. Compiling testimony from the O'Connor boy and others (it is believed many pointed fingers at their brethren), the authorities arrested six men whom they believed had engineered the calamity. These half-dozen included James Carroll (the constable who came to "arrest" the Donnelly men), John Kennedy (William Donnelly's perturbed brother-in-law), and four others whose actions prior to the tragedy seemed suspicious. In the fall, they were tried at the Middlesex County Courthouse, but the proceedings netted a hung jury. A second trial in January, 1881, concluded hastily with a "Not Guilty!" verdict for all defendants. By that time, the law's interest in justice seemed to have greatly faded.
But, the vigilance committee wagged on. When their own were freed, they met them at the Lucan train station with bugles and with drums, with banners and with speeches. Then, in parade, the assembly marched back to the Central Hotel where a hot dinner prevailed in their honor. Nothing was too good for these six men who they had crowned "redeemers of the community".
But, justice was coming. The Banshee had been taking notes.
"A startling story had spread throughout he district like wildfire; one which brought varied fears and emotions to its inhabitants," relates Donnelly biographer Thomas P. Kelley. "It was a story that told of the Donnelly wake, (which had been held the day after the murders) at the O'Connor farmhouse...Soon after midnight a lengthy series of wails and sobs, drawn out and eerie, floated from a distant, snow-covered field as stars twinkled above it...(It) had been heard by most of those assembled at the farmhouse for the wake."
If more clever, the guilty might have known the Banshee wailed for their souls. The harbinger returned again and again after that time, even years later, to decree death to many of the architects of the massacre. Perhaps, say the old timers, Johannah Donnelly rode with her. Rumors persisted that Mrs. Donnelly, moments before she died her bloody death, vowed to return from her grave to inflict violent death to each of them. Folkloric in substance, but breath-taking in speculation.
"Oddly enough," says author Thomas P. Kelley, "a surprising number of the thirty or so men suspected of having been members of the mob...actually did know a tragic demise; some of them almost inexplicable. One of those men, more than a decade after the massacre, is said to have groaned as he writhed in his death agonies, after being gored by a bull: 'It was her last words, the awful curse of Johannah Donnelly, that brought this upon me!'" Mike Slattery's throat was slashed with a broken bottle in Windsor, Ontario. John Purtell drowned. His corpse bore a look of horror.
Joe McIntyre, the sibling of Christiana McIntyre whom Tom Donnelly had courted before her family squelched the affair, admitted to a minister years later that he had been the one to chop off Tommy's head. "Life has been a living hell on earth for me," he sobbed, "and I have seen Johannah Donnelly a thousand times in my dreams. She points an accusing finger at me and gives a terrible smile. She comes in the night to haunt me, and I can't go on much longer." Two weeks after his confession, he hanged himself in his barn.
Today, Biddulph Township remains a farming area. It bears tribute to the hard-working Irish element that kept their noses clean, unprejudiced and out of the bloody business of feuding. Irishmen were responsible for cultivating much of this wilderness, clearing many of its forests, building many of its towns. Most of the Irish, Catholic or Protestant, had no time for bigotry. The incident at Lucan is an exception.
Outside Lucan, Roman Line Road still cuts through the rural topography as it did in 1880. Along it, a home that William Donnelly built on the site of his parent's original house still exists and is cared for well by a private owner. The barn, which Squire Donnelly constructed in 1877, and which survived the fire, stands sturdily snubbing its roof beams at the century. Four miles away in the tiny cemetery behind St. Patrick's Church both the cemetery and church have hardly changed a headstone marks where the Donnellys rest in peace.
Standing before the monument might recall to mind the verse by the late General Sir William F. Butler:
Give me but six-feet three (one inch to spare)
Of Irish ground, dig it anywhere;
And for the poor soul say an Irish prayer
Above the spot.