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Donnelly myth endures test of time

by David Scott

130 years since family massacre


What makes a story so enduring it's retold more than 100 years after its main characters have perished?

There are not many Canadian tales of mythic qualities that have stood the test of time better than the Black Donnellys of Lucan and Biddulph Township. And there are as many Western connections to the historical tale of murder, mayhem and vengeance as there are versions of the story that culminated on a February night in 1880 at a log cabin near Lucan when an armed group of local vigilantes murdered five members of the Donnelly family and set fire to their home. There are enough dramatic elements in the story for endless seasons of theatre.

Once taboo to speak of the Donnellys, the village of Lucan is now embracing its colourful ancestors with a new Lucan Area Heritage & Donnelly Museum that opened earlier this year, front and centre on Main Street with a vast collection of memorabilia on loan from Hamilton lawyer and author Ray Fazakas - The Donnelly Album (1995) & In Search of the Donnellys (2001).

"A few years ago the annual visitor total was about 1,000 people. And we had over 1,200 people through in May," says curator Laura Garner. "Local museums are saying 'oh my gosh, are you kidding?' Even last year the entire year was about 4,000 people."

The museum had been operating for a few years in a building on the same block as the new location. Attendance shot up after the Lucan Area Heritage society funded a new museum to house the Fazakas collection that not only highlights the Donnellys but also history of the Biddulph-Lucan area. Garner went out into the Lucan community and interviewed seniors from each of the long-standing families with both Donnelly and vigilanteties - and made recordings of the meetings. "That encouraged many of them to donate more items, so we have more of a collection to work with."

One interview was with an elder member of the Hodgins family, who have always lived on Concession 5, Biddulph Township (Concessions 1 to 5 were Protestant and Concessions 6 to 10 were Catholic. Concession 6 being the Roman Line where the Donnellys lived).

"He talks about how his grandfather was out working the field when Johnny O'Connor (the lone survivor who hid under a bed in the Donnelly log cabin) came running across the day after the massacre and you can see how that would happen. You look out their kitchen window and sure enough you can see the Donnelly homestead and picture Johnny O'Connor tearing across the field saying the Donnellys had been killed. It was a really great, awesome opportunity to get those kind of stories."

Garner believes the Donnelly story doesn't only have a place in the past but with new generations. "I think it's a great story we can teach a lot of the kids about. Because immigration happens all of the's the same issue Muslims face - the persecution. How does a group of 30 decide to kill an entire family? They can't all be bad people. You don't really have the answers because nothing was resolved in court. No one was found guilty, so it keeps getting people interested."

Somehow this enduring tale has made its way on to some school curriculums. "Some high schools study it - not in Lucan that's for sure. Some teachers just do it as the Black Donnellys story and read it as a novel. And some do it where they get their students to read Thomas Kelly (The Black Donnellys, 1954  Vengeance of the Black Donnellys, 1962) and then read something more factual and compare it - and show how history can be told in two different ways. Plus it's got just the right amount of violence that kids like," says Garner.

Playwright Paul Thompson, BA'63 (Huron), DLitt'10, found the intrigue he needed in the Donnelly story as a student at Western, enough so to create two plays on the legendary Lucan family: Them Donnellys in 1974 at Theatre Passe Muraille and The Outdoor Donnellys in 2001, 2002 & 2004 at the Blyth Festival. That production involved the entire community - with live horses and stagecoaches, a blacksmith's shop and an outdoor stage with nature as the backdrop.

"My first literary connection with Donnellys was out of Alphabet (Magazine) that James Reaney (English professor, playwright and author) published when I was at Western that did a review of the most recent Orlo Miller book (The Donnellys Must Die, 1962) as I remember it," says Thompson.

Following the productions of The Farm Show and 1837 by Theatre Passe Muraille in the early 1970s, Thompson felt there was an appetite and audience for theatre portraying local Canadian culture.

The Donnellys were on the minds of more than one writer with a Western connection during that era. Reaney produced the first of his Donnelly Trilogy of plays in 1973 with Sticks & Stones. It was followed up in the next few years with The St. Nicholas Hotel (1974) and Handcuffs (1975). Thompson's Them Donnellys hit the boards in 1974 and was a lively show with music throughout. "We were trying to do for theatre what Stompin' Tom was doing for the music culture. We wrote some original songs for it, had a great singer singing in it. We focused on the fiddle music that drove people crazy," says Thompson.

After developing his Donnelly plays for many years, Reaney reconnected with Western grad Keith Turnbull, BA'65, who had co-directed the premiere of Reaney's The Sun and the Moon for London's Campus Players in 1965. Turnbull directed experimental works for the Second Stage of the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) from 1968-70, and was Artistic Director (AD) of MTP in 1971-72. In 1973 he was AD of Neptune Theatre's Second Stage.

But according to the Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia his theatre career is most notable for the development of Reaney's three-part epic docudrama, The Donnellys. His company, inexplicably named NDWT, toured The Donnellys across Canada in 1975. The trilogy was revived at the Banff Centre for the Arts in 1996-97.

"There was a bit of theatre mafia gang out of Western in the early 1960s. Keith Turnbull, BA'65; Martin Kinch, BA'66; Bill Webster, BA'69 (Huron, co-founder of Soulpepper Theatre) and David Fox, BA'63, who went off to teach for about 10 years before I corralled into the Farm Show in 1972," recalls Thompson.

Although they were competitors in a sense at the time with their theatre companies, Thompson was very much interested in the Reaney take on the Donnellys and went to see all three of his plays.

"My favourite was Handcuffs (Part III). I thought that's really where they embraced the potential of the violence with the theatricality they were dealing with. When they acted out the business of Michael's death I thought that was really powerful, very menacing."

While the Thomas Kelly books vilified the Donnellys, Thompson felt that Orlo Miller's book in response kind of 'angelfied' them.

"I thought the audience we were dealing with would be more interested in a less-angelic version? For me, the theory of why Donnellys has remained important is it's one of the myths, legends, actual historical incidents that remind us that we have an inner violence that was very useful externalized when we were clearing land. But not so useful when we started setting up civilization."

It's that sense of the landscape that new immigrants faced, as a physical challenge to overcome and tame, that Thompson revisited the story again with The Outdoor Donnellys in Blyth.

"I wanted another shot at the ode to the landscape because we'd come up with the idea of the town being the vehicle through which we told the story. The landscape got to play it in a really interesting way. When we did The Outdoor Donnellys the trees looked like they had been silent witnesses to the whole thing. The real horses, carriages, the real fire onstage, just for me allowed us to bring, to use in powerful theatrical ways, the kind of touchstones to life out there."

From the land, Thompson believes is where the myth of the Donnellys springs and the violence originates.

"The myth has to do with the vulnerability of newcomers in a fairly absent landscape if you'd like. So there's a kind of natural frisson (def: A moment of intense excitement; a shudder) when you talk about the Donnellys. The Outdoor Donnellys is narrated by the character of William Port. The framework of the narration draws in the audience to offer parallels to modern existence.

"One of my favourite parts of Outdoor Donnellys was at the end when the narrator says 'well, most of the people around here still don't necessarily take the keys out of the car and lock the back door.' It's still at the heart of our psyche that even if we do take in the car keys and do lock the door, we're still pretty vulnerable out there. Th is way of living is built upon a certain amount of trust and co-operation with neighbours. Because most of the people in that part of the world live in an isolated house where somebody could come in and do them in."

Port's actual diary is one of many pieces in The University of Western Ontario Archives. Many of the Donnelly Family Papers are housed at the J.J. Talman Regional Collection including "Post Mortem Reports on the Bodies of James, Julia (Johannah), Thomas, John and Bridget Donnelly, February 5, 1880."

"The best of the documents in a mile by my opinion is William Port's diary. When we did the research for Outdoor Donnellys you could still touch that with your hands, breathe the dust off it. And see the parts people had cut out because they wanted to protect their relatives," says Thompson.

Someone who spent months, maybe years reading through original paperwork on the Lucan legend was the late James Reaney. The English professor emeritus intellectually digested every existing Donnelly document available. He pored through hundreds of pages of documents that Anglican minister and author Orlo Miller had compiled during his book research.

Reaney then took it upon himself to read every word of every document that was housed in Western Archives regarding the Donnelly family of Lucan and Biddulph. The result was an amazing breadth of publications and drama that he would share with readers and audiences in the 1970s through to the new millennium culminating with The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta published by The Champlain Society in 2004. "I sense in the plays there's one kind of presentation; in the Documents there is certainly another kind. And I can hear Dad, the footnotes are very much in Dad's voice where he'll correct something or say 'why didn't they ask this' or 'ironic that?' and it's as if he's right there," says his son, London journalist James Reaney Jr.

London area alumni weren't quite finished offering up other Donnelly perspectives for audiences. Sure the Donnellys had their bad side. They were fiercely competitive with their stagecoach business from Lucan to London. Did they really cut the tongues out of competitors' horses? Could it be that kind of hearsay culminated into driving vigilantes into a murderous rage?

The outcome of the massacre was really anticlimatic. No one was found guilty in the ensuing trial held in a London courtroom. That's where the late Chris Doty, BA'89 (English, Political Science), MA'91 ( Journalism), stepped in with a great vision to recapture not only the evidence presented at the time but took his theatrical creation The Donnelly Trial a step further by inviting some audience members to be actual jury members, to render a verdict to audiences each night and fi nally to stage the play in the original courtroom where the vigilantes were tried in 1880. Doty premiered Trial in 2005, the 125th anniversary of the massacre and the trial, to great success and sell-out crowds.

"I think I was in the jury (for one production). It demonstrated it was a powerful work and beautifully organized and beautifully presented. It demonstrated the power of the Donnelly story. I was pleased that James Carroll, the weasel murderer, was found guilty when I was there," says Reaney Jr. An overwhelming majority of the productions of The Donnelly Trial ended in a guilty verdict for the vigilantes from the modern day jurors.

Doty's Donnelly creation "meant a lot to Dad," says Reaney Jr. "It speaks to Chris' brilliance and one of the aspects of him that we continue to miss."

Sadly, Doty took his own life in February 2006. His death was a great loss to the London arts community. Later that year in June, The Donnelly Trial was reprised by Grant Doty, BA'95 (Political Science), Chris' younger brother, and director Jeff Culbert, BSc'78 (Physics), BEd'79, MA'86 (Philosophy), originally from Lucan, at the Old Middlesex County courthouse in memory of Chris Doty.

"The courthouse was going to be the setting (for Chris). There was no other way you could do it. The only time he didn't do it that way he did two shows before the Trial itself in Lucan. He kind of gave back to the Lucan community by doing it inside the Lucan Community because the Donnelly Trial did so well in London, he wanted to make it a production that he could do almost every year, like an Anne of Green Gables ? where visitors would come on tours of London and actually see the Donnelly Trial always being reenacted.

Grant and Culbert have talked about remounting the play again in the future. "I think of Chris as an historian with all his research, but all his stories centre around a figure or a happening that the public rallied against. Or had a lot of reaction to. He said in your hometown there are always events going on around you."

One of those events is The Lost Souls Stroll that happens every October and was created by Chris Doty.

"People can walk through London and there are stories about people who died in these certain ways. You say 'these things happened in London?' Th ese are stories that had national significance. Chris brought history to life. Everyone said that: 'He brought history to life in London,' " says Grant.

Another Western alumnus, Jason Rip, BA'93 (English/Drama), BEd'94, did his own version of Doty's Lost Souls Stroll, called the Odd Souls Stroll, at a recent London Fringe Festival. Delving into Doty's repertoire must have stirred some interest in the Donnellys too, because the latest off ering from a Western alumnus on the Lucan legend comes this fall in the form of The Donnelly Massacre by Rip. He's teamed up with Fanshawe Pioneer Village to create adult-oriented entertainment with "Haunted Village Hayrides" telling the tales of the Donnellys right before Halloween, starting in mid-October.

The Donnelly massacre happened 130 years ago - will people still be talking about it 200 years after it happened?

"I think it's kind of cyclical. Every second generation or so has to rediscover these things. I think somebody, sometime, probably from Western, will find that people supposedly have forgotten about it, then dig deeper and all of the sudden it will come out again," says Thompson.

Until then, maybe we should lock our doors at night?

The Donnelly Family

James Donnelly - patriarch (1816-1880)
Johannah Donnelly - (n?e Magee, or MacGee) his wife, and mother of all the children (1823-1880)
James Donnelly Jr. - son, (1842-1877)
William Donnelly - son, born with a clubfoot (1845-1897)
John Donnelly - son, the first child born in Canada (1847-1880)
Patrick Donnelly - son (1849-1929)
Michael Donnelly - son (1850-1879)
Robert Donnelly - son (1853-1911)
Thomas Donnelly - youngest son (1854-1880)
Jenny (Jane) Donnelly - the last child, and the only daughter (1857-1917)
Bridget Donnelly - Patriarch James' niece from Ireland (1858-1880)
(Those marked 1880 were killed on February 4.)

This article appeared in the Summer 2010 edition of Alumni Gazette
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