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DONNELLY, JAMES, farmer; b. 7 March 1816 in County Tipperary, Ireland; murdered 4 Feb. 1880, near Lucan, in Biddulph Township, Ont.

James Donnelly emigrated from Ireland in 1844 and settled with his family in Biddulph Township, Canada West, in 1847. By 1857 Donnelly and his wife Johannah Magee had a family of seven boys, but had been able to purchase only half of the 100 acres they had been living on; in 1856 they had been ejected from the south 50 acres. Somewhere at the bottom of what later came to be known as the “Biddulph Tragedy” lies this divided farm; it may also lie behind Donnelly’s quarrel with neighbour Patrick Farrell at a logging bee on 25 June 1857, when he threw “a certain wooden handspike of the value of one penny” at Farrell and killed him. After hiding out for a year, Donnelly was eventually tried and on 5 Aug. 1858 for this “unlucky stroke” given “in liquor” was sent down to Kingston Penitentiary for seven years.

But the “Roman Line” where Donnelly lived was already notorious for darker, more premeditated crimes than his. And in contrast too, unsolved and unpunished. Arson, a secret society with a hate target, faction fighting, and assassination are in evidence, some as early as the mid-1840s. Tipperary had been like this for years; it was once written that its inhabitants “look with indifference upon the most atrocious acts of violence, and by screening the criminal, abet and encourage the crime.” The Roman Line settlers had come from County Tipperary; the trouble was they still dreamed there. All this made the Roman Line a very dangerous community to live in; when Donnelly came back from prison in 1865 he was to survive its growing hatred and violence for only 15 more years.

But the rest of Donnelly’s story is really that of his seven sons and their defiance, sometimes of the law, frequently, some would say, of the neighbourhood’s secret power structure. In 1867 the Donnelly barn is burnt down; in 1874, since the Thompsons would not let her marry him, Will Donnelly twice attempts to abduct Maggie Thompson; in 1875 the Donnelly stage coach line is in such fierce competition with a rival line that stables on both sides eventually go up in flames; at the beginning of the next year Will’s elopement with Norah Kennedy makes for himself and his family one more determined enemy – the girl’s brother John who develops a mania about Will disinheriting him. To a community that was dangerous to live in, the Donnelly boys (some of them dangerous enough already) replied by being dangerous themselves, and extremely independent.

For, in the federal election of 1878, the family voted against their Conservative Catholic candidate; after this action their ability to hold their own on the Roman Line seems to weaken, partly because two sons are dead, partly because their opponents suddenly become well organized. In 1879 the Donnellys are denounced by the new parish priest and a mob riots at the homestead in daylight. January 1880 brings charges of incendiarism against the Donnelly parents, charges intended to climax a long and skillful campaign of dignity erosion and slander. After the harassment and boycotting the Donnellys had suffered, any other family would have left the community; the Donnellys would not and so, on 4 Feb. 1880, with a well-planned attack, another mob, at night this time, effected a final solution. For this date a diarist noted “. . . news of a most atrocious murder . . . perpetrated last night at Lucan 17 miles from London the victims were the Donnelly family. Father Mother two sons and one niece and then their house had been set afire to cover the crime four of the bodies were burnt to a cinder. The people in the city were terrified to hear of such a diabolical and lawless crime.”

But “Others again go so far as to say that the Donnellys were so bad that it would be better to leave things alone; that it was a good riddance. . . .” Prejudice such as this probably influenced a jury to acquit their alleged murderers even in the face of strong evidence. As one notes, however, the large amounts of hearsay behind the evidence of this prejudice, perhaps one should hear Will Donnelly: “My mother told him [the parish priest] that there were worse than her sons in the neighbourhood, but that the biggest crowd was against them, and that herself and her family was persecuted.”

In any case one would still have to admit the magnetism of the love the Donnellys showed for each other and the typical aplomb old Donnelly displayed early one September morning in 1879 when he awoke to find his yard filled with a mob carrying clubs: “I told them I would be there if the devil would burn the whole of them, I was not in the least afraid of them.”

James Reaney

Middlesex County Registry Office (London, Ont.), land records, 1800–48 (copies at PAO). PAC, RG 5, C1, 529, no.1653. PAO, Sir Aemilius Irving papers, package 25, no.12. University of Western Ontario Library, Huron County, Ont., clerk of the peace, assessment rolls for Huron District, 1843–45, 1847–48; 13–15 (Huron County, Ont., clerk of the peace, coroner’s inquests, 1841–1904); 25 (John B. Cox diaries, 1878, 1880); 28 (Donnelly family papers); 49–72 (Huron County, Ont., clerk of the peace, criminal cases, 1841–1933); 73–79 (Huron County, Ont., clerk of the peace, criminal justice accounts, 1840–1928); 292–331 (Middlesex County, Ont., clerk of the peace, criminal records, 1844–1919); 368–405 (Middlesex County, Ont., Court of Chancery, cases); ulm 56–44 (Biddulph Township, Ont., assessment rolls), collectors’ rolls for 1853.

The Biddulph tragedy (London, Ont., 1880). London Advertiser, 17 May 1880. Weekly Globe (Toronto), 20 Feb., 12 March 1880. City of London and county of Middlesex general directory for 1868–9 . . . , ed. James Sutherland (Toronto, 1868), 8. Thomas Laffan, Tipperary’s families: being the hearth money records for 1665–6–7 (Dublin, 1911). W. P. Burke, History of Clonmel (Waterford, Ire., 1907). T. P. Kelley, The black Donnellys (Winnipeg, 1954). Orlo Miller, The Donnellys must die (Toronto, 1962).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

James Reaney, “DONNELLY, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 22, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/donnelly_james_10E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/donnelly_james_10E.html
Author of Article: James Reaney
Title of Article: DONNELLY, JAMES
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1972
Year of revision: 1972
Access Date: December 22, 2014