Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Black Donellys

Tuesday May 2nd    In the morning Mary-Lou and Wesley accompanied me on horseback for a few miles.  Crossing the river Thames ......
 Wesley on Bailey, his black 8 year old quarter horse gelding, and Mary-Lou on Sharia, her 25 year old chestnut Arabian mare.
I had managed to plan my route along quiet back roads for the most part.....
 The Elginfield observatory, which is run by the University of Western Ontario...
After a long hot day I arrived at Elginfield, my chosen destination. But I received a decidedly luke warm reception from the posh standardbred stud I approached, and in spite of announcing that they had lots of empty stables they then directed me down the road to another property with horses!  But I landed on my dancing feet when I was welcomed by a genial elderly gentleman who turned out to be Gene Kelley.  Daughter and former nurse Diane runs a therapy with animals centre there, was delighted to help out, and even treated me to a tasty spinach and feta omelette at a Greek run restaurant down the road.
 Gene Kelley with daughter Diane and grand-daughter Emma who is apparently developing into an accomplished writer.

Diane took me to the neighbouring St Patrick's cemetery to see the gravestone of five of the notorious Donnelly family who were massacred in an infamous feud which took place in 1880.

James and Johannah Donelly emigrated from Tipperary to Upper Canada in 1842 where they raised a family of eight, initially as squatters before settling on contested land near Elginfield.  Among other activities they ran a stage coach line and there appeared to be constant friction with rival companies. These were lawless times: the Donnellys seem to have been a contentious bunch, and were certainly regarded with disfavour by a large section of the local community. But whether through jealousy or genuine disregard is unsure, as their guilt in many of crimes they were accused of remained unproven.  However it is true that James Sr served seven years in prison for killing another settler in a brawl.
In January 1880 the barns belonging to a Patrick Ryder were burned down and James Sr and Johannah accused of arson.  Following this a posse consisting of members of the newly formed 'Vigilance Society' turned up at the house of the senior Donnellys and using a pitchfork, axe, shovel and guns, massacred the occupants. The victims consisted of James Sr and Johannah, their youngest son Tom, and a visiting niece Bridget. A young visiting farm lad Jonny O'Connor escaped by hiding under a bed, and later acted as a key witness for the prosecution.  After setting fire to the house the posse continued to the house of second son William Donnelly, shooting third son John Donnelly when he came to the door.
The leader of the vigilante group James Carroll was brought to trial, but the lack of hard evidence and the influence of local feeling meant the jury were unwilling to convict him and he was acquitted.

The case attracted a lot of attention and visitors came for miles to see the original tombstone erected by William Donnelly in 1889 which included the word 'Murderd' under each name.  It was removed in 1969 as sightseers had chipped pieces from it as souvenirs.

The present gravestone was erected by family members omitting the dread word, but visitors still come and leave small tokens such as coins, pebbles and buckles on top.  The coins are apparently left in the belief that the Donnellys will grant wishes in return.
Interest in the case remains unabated and has spawned a small industry. There is a Donnelly museum  Donnelly website  and tours of the Donnelly property where the massacre took place.  You can even buy T shirts, teddies and mugs, not to mention pyjamas and baby bibs with 'I love the Donnellys' rather incongruously emblazoned on them.

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