The Black Donnellys live on, 125 years later

The Black Donnellys live on, 125 years later Richard Egan in front of his destroyed home (Nicki Corrigall, The Ottawa Citizen)

OTTAWA – Tragedy by fire seems to be in Richard Egan’s blood.

Seared into the Ottawa man’s consciousness is a 125-year-old story: Religious strife, territorial battles and family revenge led to the bloody lynching of his ancestors, the infamous “Black Donnellys” of Lucan, Ont. The mass murder was sealed with the torching of the Donnelly home: Out of the ashes, a legend — part fact, part fiction — was born.

More than a century later, Mr. Egan’s past has come back to haunt him.

Flames took his own home on Christmas Day, destroying everything he and his family owned, including many possessions that were his only connection to the Donnelly roots.

“All of my history is gone,” said Mr. Egan, an Ottawa lawyer who lived at 62 Fifth Ave. in the Glebe. “Maybe the cosmos, or the karma, of the Donnellys are following me, for God’s sake.”

Mr. Egan is a direct descendant of one of the most notorious families in Ontario history. He is the great-great-grandson of James Donnelly, the patriarch of the Irish Donnelly clan, which wreaked havoc in the Catholic settlement of Biddolph Township in the 19th century and eventually fell victim to one of the most heinous crimes in Canadian history.

On Feb. 4, 1880, vigilantes burned the Donnelly homestead, on the Roman Line near the village of Lucan, Ont., just north of London; only bits and pieces of the family’s possessions survived. Passed down from generation to generation, many of the mementoes arrived in the hands of Mr. Egan in 2001, after he inherited the family estate from his uncle Jack.

There were pictures of his great-grandmother, letters from relatives and many artifacts he had yet to catalogue. The little that he possessed disappeared in the flames.

“This is all I have left,” he said, surveying a few charred pictures that he managed to pull out of the rubble that was once his home.

“I was the gatekeeper and I blew it.”

– – –

Seated on the couch of the downtown Ottawa hotel he has called home for a month, Mr. Egan retraced his roots in detail.

James and Johannah Donnelly arrived in Canada from Tipperary, Ireland, with their first child, James Jr., in 1842. James found work in London, Ont., and a second son, William, was born there in 1844. The following year, they settled in Biddulph Township near Lucan. A third son, John, was born in 1847 and Johannah gave birth to four more sons over the next nine years: Patrick, Michael, Robert and Thomas.

In 1856, she gave birth to the couple’s only daughter, Jane, who was known throughout her life as Jennie. Jennie married a James Currie and gave birth to 12 children, one of whom was a daughter named Jane.

Jane in turn married Mike Egan. They had three children, including James Curry Egan, father of Richard Egan of Ottawa.

When a John William Donnelly died childless in Detroit in 1973, the name Donnelly of the Roman Line of Biddolph died, too.

But the Donnelly bloodline still lives on. Richard Egan’s daughter, Kelly Egan, represents the sixth generation of Donnellys in Canada.

– – –

The Donnellys started out like most other poor immigrants in Canada. Having no claim to property, they squatted on 100 acres that belonged to an absentee landlord. For many years, they were left in peace. When one day someone came to lay claim to the land, James Donnelly had no intention of giving up his home.

In 1857, Patrick Farrell confronted James Donnelly over the land. Mr. Farrell ended up with a hole in his left temple, a fatal blow that had been delivered with a handspike.

James Donnelly was on the run for a year before turning himself in. He was sentenced to death, by hanging, but his sentence was later reduced to seven years in jail.

By this time, the seven Donnelly boys had already earned a despicable reputation around town.

“The Donnellys were no saints, believe me,” said Ray Fazakas, a Donnelly expert who has spent more that 40 years researching the history of the family. “They got away with a heck of a lot more than they got caught for.”

Even for the rough-and-tumble frontier times in which they lived, the Donnellys were a violent crew. The boys were linked to countless robberies, arsons, assaults, even mutilation of horses. They were constantly getting into fistfights, causing trouble with the local girls and intimidating their adversaries.

The Donnellys became well-known as a force to be reckoned with throughout southern Ontario, yet somehow they usually managed to get around the law and avoid punishment.

“They didn’t take a back seat to anybody,” said Mr. Fazakas. “They were all aggressive and they all stuck up for each other.”

Other families on the Catholic line were eager to see the Donnelly gang pay for their crimes. Contrary to some versions of the Donnelly myth, the conflict was not between Catholics and Protestants. Everyone on the Roman Line was Catholic; some felt the family was a disgrace to the religion.

In 1879, Michael Donnelly was the first of the clan to face local justice: He was killed in a bar fight.

On Feb. 3, 1880, Thomas was on trial for robbery and John was awaiting trial for perjury. The parents were to have gone on trial on an arson charge the very next morning.

They wouldn’t live to see the dawn of that day.

Just past midnight on Feb. 4, about 35 vigilantes committed a vicious crime of vengeance.

The raid was led by James Carroll, the supposed leader of the Biddulph Peace Society, and included at least two justices of the peace and the parish priest. Armed with shotguns, rifles, hatchets, axes and shovels, they rapped on the farmhouse door.

James Donnelly, 63, wife Johannah, 56, son Thomas, 25, and niece Bridget, 21, were home, as was an 11-year-old hired boy named Johnny O’Connor. (Johnny, the only survivor, later recounted the events of that night at Mr. Carroll’s trial.)

Thomas answered the door, was arrested and handcuffed. One of the men yelled, “Hit him on the head with a spade.” The butchering began. A man slammed Thomas with a shovel, another buried a pickaxe in his head and a third decapitated him with the shovel’s sharp blade.

Inside, they handcuffed James, then bludgeoned him to death. His wife was killed with shovels. Bridget ran screaming for the stairs. She was pulled back and battered to death.

Johnny O’Connor hid under his bed. He heard two thuds as Thomas’s body and head were heaved back into one of the bedrooms. The boy escaped just as the house was being torched.

Meanwhile, the vigilantes had moved on to William’s farm, five kilometres away. John answered the door and was riddled with bullets. The raiders apparently thought it was William they had killed. William recognized the voices outside his window.

One of the men said: “I guess that takes care of my brother-in-law.”

Six people were brought to trial for the murders. None were convicted.

– – –

“The Donnelly Massacre,” or “The Biddolph Horror” as it also became known, emerged as the stuff of legend: dozens of fiction and non-fiction books were written; plays were staged, songs composed and museums filled.

In 1954, Thomas Kelly popularized their tale in his fictional bestselling novel, The Black Donnellys. Although the family was never called “black” in their lifetime, the moniker stuck, as did the blemish on their reputation.

Richard Egan’s daughter, Kelly, a filmmaker who lives in Toronto, hopes to make a movie some day about her ancestors. While she is fully aware of the negative associations attached to her family, she remains proud of her heritage.

“It’s almost a privilege to be part of Canadian history,” she said. “It’s really an honour to be related to that, despite what the tale is about.”

Shrouded as it is by myth and mystery, it’s difficult to know exactly why the story has captivated so many over the years.

“I’ve been trying to answer that question most of my life,” said Mr. Fazakas, 73, author of The Donnelly Album, widely recognized as the most authentic account of the events.

“First of all, it was a lynching,” he said. “You don’t get many of those in Canada and the lynching was done by their closest neighbours and fellow parishioners. Everybody knew who did it; they knew at the time and we know now who the perpetrators were. But nobody was ever convicted, and they would never be convicted.”

“It’s got everything,” added Robert Salts, who currently lives on the Donnelly plot just outside Lucan. “Love, hate, murder, justice denied, betrayal, lying, stealing, cheating.”

For years it was taboo to even utter the name Donnelly in and around the town of Lucan.

“At one time, you couldn’t come to this town and talk about the Donnellys; you’d be driven out of town,” said Sheila Hodgins, secretary of the Lucan Area Heritage Association, which operates the Donnelly Museum. “The murderers were still in town. Their descendants are still here.”

To this day, there are people in Lucan who will not discuss the Donnellys.

Given this history, it is easy to understand why Mr. Egan’s roots were concealed from him until he was almost 30 years old.

In 1976, he attended the funeral of his grandfather, Mike Egan. There, he met several people from Lucan.

“Someone said, ‘Better watch out for the Donnellys,'” he recalled with a laugh. “And then someone said, ‘We are the Donnellys.’ ”

He was told by his parents he was kept in the dark for his own protection. “To keep the bullies away,” he said.

Mr. Egan said being Irish, and a Donnelly at that, made him somewhat of a fatalist. Although he stopped short of using the word “curse,” he did acknowledge the irony of losing some of the few remnants left of his storied family’s history.

“The karma follows you,” he said. “It’s a shame that all that went down in the fire.”

Mr. Egan has had a hard year. Last January, he lost his father. In August, his mother-in-law passed away and, in September, his mother died. All this time he continued to battle colon cancer. The fire that destroyed his home brought to an end a horrific 2004.

However, he said the lessons of his family history have helped him cope with his latest hardships.

“You’ve got to get on with your life,” he said. “There is a will to live and I guess that is the Donnelly story. What you gain from all this is the strength to keep going.”