“The Donnellys must die” by Orlo Miller

I realize it’s very odd for me to read non-fiction, but there is a long story to it! I live near Lucan, and while staying with friends (we are in between homes thanks to our landlady selling the house to fund her next overseas trip and a 1.8% vacancy rate) I heard about a theatre production about the “Black Donnellys” over the local radio. I had heard about them here and there since moving to this town, but no one really explained more than it was horrible and no one really knows the true story.

When the person we were staying with found out I had no idea what it was about, she lent me this book.

The Donnellys were an Irish immigrant family that were brutally murdered in their home. According to Miller, who created this narrative with evidence from newspapers at the time, court documentation, and personal journals, upwards of 200 people were involved.

This isn’t an easy crime to pin down because it traces back to Ireland hundreds of years previous. A division of religion and a martyr put the Donnelly name on the opposite side of most Irish families.

During the famine when many Irish settlers came over to Canada, tension was already high. From massive deaths on their trip over, to forced indenture. (There is a documentary called the Coffin Ship Hannah, showing everything the Irish immigrants went through and how the Canadian Government lied about most of it.) The Donnellys, to separate themselves from the death in small colonies, and the thriving hatred, they found a patch of land and …squatted there. The land itself had an absentee landlord, which Miller believes probably gave the Donnellys a chuckle. They built a home, cleared the land, and then it was something like 10 years and 20 some odd acres later that the landlord came back. Back then there was a law called “Squatters Rights”, so the Donnellys won the case.

That was the start of a rapid decline. Everyone already had a bad taste for the Donnellys, so this event did them no favors. They were already known as thieves and crooks, so this just painted them in an even worse light than before.

At a barn building event, Donnelly came face to face with the Landlord. Irish and Alcohol are a stereotype for a reason (I’m Irish-Canadian so I can say that) and a fight broke out. Donnelly, defending himself according to some accounts, dodged the axe either thrown at him, or thrown NEAR him (accounts of this event say both) and picked up a piece of Iron and chucked it. It nailed his opponent in the temple, and he died several days later. Miller believes if Donnelly had turned himself in, the end result might have been better. But instead, he ran, and hid.

This whole event sounds like a bad mix of religious intolerance, and just poor decision making. Miller states the facts as he has found them, and several times that while Donnelly may have been in the wrong, the punishment did not fit the crime.

It is an incredibly interesting story, and I learned that the reason they were called the “Black Donnellys” isn’t some like the “black mark” or “black dog” thing Scottish families use (My boyfriend belongs to a Scottish clan that has the black dog on their crest, and it means banishment from the main family/highlands), but they were literally black. I’m kind of shocked the term is still used, but I guess if that’s how they were always called, it would travel through the ages.

If you’re into interesting Canadian History, it’s a good read for sure!

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