The Donnellys: Powder Keg (Vol. 1) by John Little

In The Donnellys: Powder Keg, 1840-1880, Vol. 1 (ECW Press, 2021), author John Little delves into the history of the infamous Irish-Canadian family known as the ‘Black’ Donnellys. The notoriety of the Donnelly family has lived on within the popular imagination of many Canadians, their crimes and escapades often being recounted by academic historians and writers of popular history alike. In the early 1840s, James Donnelly Sr. (1816-1880), his wife Johannah (1823-1880) and their son James Donnelly Jr. (1842-1877), along with thousands of their countrymen, fled a famine-stricken Ireland, ultimately settling in Biddulph Township, Ontario. Over the next four decades, James Sr. and his wife would go on to have seven more children, six sons, and finally a daughter in 1857. It is in the early period of their life in Canada that Little picks up the narrative of the Donnelly family, chronicling their early struggles to make a go of it in the Canadian wilderness and the beginnings of feuds with their neighbours which would lead to the massacre of most of the Donnelly family at the hands of a frenzied mob in February 1880. The Death of the family closes this volume of the Donnelly story. Although the actual events which saw the demise of numerous members of the Donnelly family are only briefly described in this volume, Little meticulously tells the chaotic tale of the Donnellys and their neighbours, deftly providing the backstory to why events unfolded as they did on that February night in 1880.

While much of the animosity between the Donnelly family and their neighbours was engendered by the actions of the seven Donnelly brothers, it was in fact their father, James Donnelly Sr., who instigated the first feud with a neighbour, Patrick Farrell, over a property settlement. This feud culminated in Donnelly murdering Farrell in a fight that erupted when both men were heavily intoxicated at a local barn raising bee. With James sentenced to seven years imprisonment in Kingston Penitentiary, Mrs. Donnelly was left to manage the family farm and raise eight children largely on her own. Growing into strapping young men, the seven Donnelly brothers quickly made a name for themselves in the area and were frequently involved in violent assaults and altercations which were sources of constant strife and destruction. As Little recounts with astute detail, by the 1870s the Donnelly family had earned their bad reputation, but much to the chagrin of their adversaries, few of the crimes they were charged with ever actually led to convictions against them. Although the Donnellys maintained a strong base of support, events took a dramatic turn in 1879 when newly arrived parish priest, John Connelly, created a Peace Society to bring an end to the reign of violence and arson that engulfed Biddulph. Led by James Carroll, a member of the corrupt enforcers of the law and long-time enemy of the Donnelly family, this society eventually splintered further into a group intent on driving out the family at any cost. By this time the Donnelly family had largely left their life of fighting, arson, and theft behind them, but their neighbours continued to blame them for any crime committed, even when it was obvious no Donnelly could have been the perpetrator. When both James Sr and Johannah Donnelly were accused of burning down the barns of neighbour Patrick Ryder, of which there was no supporting evidence, the community decided that they had had enough of the Donnelly family and took matters into their own hands, a decision which culminated in mass murder.

Headstone of the Donnelly Family in St. Patrick’s Catholic Churchyard 
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Donnelly_Gravesite_in_Lucan_-_panoramio.jpg
 

Although the sheer number of crimes and cases of mayhem that were committed by (or simply attached to) the Donnelly brothers can make for tedious reading at points, it is evident that Little has had a rich historical record to draw from for his telling of the Donnelly family story. Given the frequency with which members of the Donnelly family were before the courts, either for offenses they committed, or for those committed against them, Little has been able to piece together the progression of the Donnelly family’s fall from grace within their community with extreme precision using this cache of sources from the historical record. While it is clear that Little has researched his subjects extensively and therefore likely does not need to rely on the work of others to any great degree, he infrequently makes reference to the many other authors and historians who had studied the Donnelly family. Even though this is a work of popular history rather than an academic study of the Donnelly family, it would perhaps have been worthwhile in a work of this magnitude to have given an overview of the historiography relating the family and how they have been written about prior to this publication. 

As Little minutely lays out the chronology of the Donnelly family’s crimes and dastardly deeds, and in turn those of their adversaries, it quickly becomes clear to the reader that the author is firmly on the side of the Donnelly family. Little makes this clear in the early pages of the work, but it is the evidence presented that truly supports this bias in favour of the family. While they have long been remembered for their various acts of mayhem and criminal activity, it is abundantly clear that it is their enemies, almost every neighbour within the community in which the Donnelly family resided, who are the truly shocking characters of the narrative. Little is by no means an apologist for the Donnellys, laying out their misdeeds just as readily as those of who were against them, but it is made abundantly clear through the evidence presented, especially in the final chapters of this volume, that to bring an end to the presence of the Donnelly family in the community becomes an unsatiable desire for many of their neighbours and former friends. The Donnellys are certainly not blameless in the events which led to their tragic end, but the actions of their neighbours are much more unsettling than anything the Donnellys had done to earn their ‘black’ reputation. 


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About the Author: 

Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from the University of New Brunswick – Saint John and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021 he began a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspect of Victorian Britain and its global empire, with his MA thesis focusing on Queen Victoria’s interest and impact on music during her reign. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, rug-hooking, and thrifting.

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