The Black Donnelly’s story begins

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They came from County Tipperary in the mid-19th century to settle in a new land. Most made their way to Lucan, Ontario, to be with their own countrymen and to carve small farms out of the wilderness.

It was a tempting proposition. Land could be purchased for a mere 13 shillings an acre. The new immigrants worked hard and they played hard.

One of their number was Jim Donnelly, a small, handsome man, who preceded his wife Johannah and son James to the new land. Two years after Jim’s arrival, Johannah and her little son joined him in Lucan.

A year later, Johannah gave birth to a second son, William, who was born with a club foot. In the years to follow, five more boys, John, Patrick, Michael, Robert, Thomas and a lone girl, Jenny, would bless the union.

Whatever reputation Jim Donnelly was to later attain, no one has ever claimed he was a lazy man or lacked ambition. He settled on a piece of vacant land along the Roman Line, so called for the large number of Roman Catholics whose farms faced the road.

The lot Jim settled on belonged to John Grace. In 1855, Grace sold half the site to Michael Maher, who, in turn, leased it to Patrick Farrell.

Patrick Farrell wanted his land and therein lies the crunch. One must take sides when studying the saga of Jim Donnelly and his family.

At every turn he could be painted either as a moody bully or a man justified in fighting for his rights and maintaining his principles. It is for the reader to decide.

The Irish had brought with them to the new world all the superstitions and feuds that had been passed down through generations back in Tipperary.

Alliances were soon formed along the Roman Line. Neighbour fought neighbour. Disputes about land boundaries, livestock and rights of way were sometimes settled in court.

More often, they were settled with fists outside Keefes Tavern, one of 12 watering holes which prospered in the small town.

Now, Patrick Farrell wanted the land that he legally owned.

He and his wife, with the help of their small boys, had worked year after year, from dawn to dusk, clearing the land until it was a functioning farm. By all that was holy, it was his property. After all, others had squatted on land with little regard for legal formalities.

Farrell rode up to the Donnelly homestead. Jim came out of the barn, which still stands, 111 years later, grim witness to the events which were to follow. Farrell gave Jim an hour to get off his property. Words were exchanged. Blows were struck.

Farrell towered over Jim and outweighed him by at least 40 pounds. Despite these inequalities, Jim is reported to have given Farrell a severe beating, as Johannah and the boys cheered him on.

Farrell took his case to court. The results of the court action didn’t sit well with Jim Donnelly. Farrell was awarded the south 50 acres, while Jim was given legal title to the north 50.

The two men became blood enemies. Donnelly is said to have taken a pot shot at Farrell, who lived close by his farm. The shot missed, but Farrell was convinced that his enemy had attempted to kill him. He formally charged Jim with “felonious shooting.’’

Just before New Year’s 1856, Jim stood in the Goderich Courthouse and swore to keep the peace for one year and not to molest Patrick Farrell.

For the next two years, Farrell would claim Jim was responsible for the string of misfortunes which befell his farm. Cows took ill and suddenly died. Farrell’s barn mysteriously caught fire.

Legend has it that it was Farrell who first coined the phrase “Black Donnellys.” As things turned out, he had good reason to be the originator of the derogatory description. The second confrontation between

Jim Donnelly and Patrick Farrell took place on June 27, 1857.

In pioneer days, it was the custom to hold work bees to clear land or raise a barn. The menfolk of the community donated their labour and animals to complete the work in record time.

On that fateful hot day in June, several men were engaged at a logging bee on the small property of William Maloney. Some of the men brought jugs of whisky. Others relied on Maloney to provide the sauce for the day’s labour.

Big Pat Farrell was there. So was Jim Donnelly.

Oxen grunted and chains were pulled taut. Sweat-stained men stripped to the waist. It was hard work, conducive to taking long deep slugs of whisky from Maloney’s liberal supply.

According to reports of the events which transpired, it is certain both Farrell and Jim were drinking that day. Most likely, Farrell was intoxicated.

Each time the two men came close to each other, a nasty remark would pass between them. Jim and Pat teed off against each other, but were separated before any harm was done.

Jim is reported to have taunted Farrell into continuing the fight. Big Pat grabbed the nearest weapon, a big hand spike. The hand spike, a three-foot long piece of hardwood, was used as a lever to move large logs. It made a formidable weapon.

Within minutes, Farrell faced Jim, who had also picked up a hand spike. Once again, cooler heads prevailed. The two adversaries were separated.

It is reported that Big Pat fell to his knees, either from a push or from the effects of Maloney’s whisky. At that precise moment, Jim raised his hand spike and brought it down full force on Farrell’s head.

A few moments later, Patrick Farrell died. The logging bee came to an abrupt halt. Ashen-faced men looked at Jim Donnelly. Jim slowly left the scene and walked home.

Two days later, an inquest was held into Farrell’s death. Jim Donnelly didn’t show up, but the inquest jury managed just fine without his presence. They came to the conclusion that Jim had murdered Pat Farrell and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Jim was nowhere to be found. He had fled, but not far. Jim was hiding out in woods, which skirted the rear of the farms along the Roman Line.

Jim’s older boys, James, 15, Will, 12, and John, 10, brought their father provisions. Sometimes Jim donned women’s clothing and managed to work his distant fields while being sought by the law.

With the coming of winter and the severe windswept snows that swirled along the Roman Line, Jim had much more difficulty staying at large. Often he would spend nights in a farmer’s barn.

There is some evidence that friends of the Donnellys allowed him to stay in their homes for short periods of time.

Still, life in hiding was no life at all. Johannah needed her man. Jim’s children needed a father.

On May 7, 1858, after being at large for a year, Jim Donnelly turned himself in to the local sheriff. Jim was tried, found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang.

Johannah Donnelly’s nature wouldn’t allow her to sit back while her husband’s life was in jeopardy. She went about getting signatures on a petition for clemency. Some of the citizenry’s hatred of Jim Donnelly was overcome by their sense of fairness.

The death had taken place during a drunken brawl. Had Pat Farrell’s wild swings connected, it would be Farrell who would be in the shadow of the hangman’s noose.

Johannah wandered far afield in search of men who knew her husband and regarded him quite differently than his enemies in Lucan. No less a personage than Attorney General John A. Macdonald, who would later become prime minister of Canada, commuted Jim’s sentence from death to seven years imprisonment.

The cold iron gates of Kingston Penitentiary closed behind Jim Donnelly. Two months later, Johannah gave birth to Jenny.

One can only imagine the plight of Johannah Donnelly, with seven boys and a baby daughter to care for and a farm to run, living amongst many who hated the Donnelly clan with a passion. It is a tribute to this remarkable woman’s resolve that she was successful in running and improving the farm during her husband’s absence.

Seven years passed. Despite petitions, Jim served every day of his prison term. Now 48, he returned to his family.

His oldest son, Jim, was a young man of 23. Jim Donnelly was back in town and life in Lucan would never be the same.

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