________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 16 . . . . April 15, 2005


The Black Donnellys: The Outrageous Tale of Canada’s Deadliest Feud. (Amazing Stories).

Nate Hendley.
Canmore, AB: Altitude Publishing (Distributed by Knowbuddy Resources), 2004.
127 pp., pbk., $9.95.
ISBN 1-55153-943-8.

Subject Headings:
Crime - Ontario - Lucan.
Murder - Ontario - Lucan.
Donnelly Family.

Grades 5-10 / Ages 10-15.

Review by Thomas F. Chambers.

*** /4


The two enraged fighters got up off the ground and exchanged blows at close range. Their punches lacked precision, but not power. At one point, it looked like Farrell was winning. He was extremely angry and badly wanted to avenge the beating Jim had given him the year before.

Some witnesses would say that Farrell grabbed an axe and waved it above his head, ready to slam it down on Jim's skull. Other accounts have it that Farrell was determined to subdue Jim with his fists alone. In any case, Jim grabbed a handspike (a device used for climbing trees) and brandished it as a weapon. He slammed the handspike into Farrell's head and the staggered away.

Farrell collapsed and writhed on the ground, bleeding profusely. As drunk as he was, Jim knew it was doubtful that Farrell would recover from such a blow. The farmers gaped at Jim in shocked eyes. "If Farrell dies, that makes you a murderer," one of them said. The possibility was terrifying even to a man as fearless as James Donnelly. The strictest penalty for murder was death by hanging.


The Black Donnellys is the tale of a wild, boisterous family that made their own law and order. It begins in Tipperary, Ireland in the 1840s where James Donnelly, the patriarch of the family, was born. Like many Irish families at the time, James and his family had a hard time surviving in Ireland because of the potato famine which killed millions and caused several million others to sail to North America. Unable to feed his family, James decided to move to Canada and settled near what is now London, Ontario. The book traces the Donnellys' history from their arrival in Canada until the death of James' daughter, and last surviving offspring, in 1917.

     James Donnelly was not a typical immigrant farmer. He would rather fight than talk. Having no money, he and his family settled on land they did not own and fought anyone who tried to remove them. Because of his foul temper, James and his sons were soon know as the Black Donnellys. It was a nickname they richly deserved for the Donnellys intimidated and beat up their neighbours, burned their barns, destroyed their crops and poisoned their cattle. James even murdered a man, a crime for which he was only sentenced to seven years in prison.

     It has often been said that truth is stranger than fiction. This cliché certainly applies to the Donnellys. It would be a challenge to find a more unpleasant fictional family. Indeed, The Black Donnellys does not seem like a history book but reads more like a novel. Hendley used only secondary sources. No primary ones are mentioned. In the telling and retelling of the story over the years, it may have been embellished to make the Donnellys sound worse than they were. Hendley points out that this did happen but that he has tried to stay as close to the truth as possible.

     Nate Hendley is a freelance journalist who has written numerous articles for Canadian newspapers. He also wrote a biography of bank robber, Edwin Alonzo Boyd. In The Black Donnellys, his style is colourful and sometimes melodramatic as in the following example. "James Donnelly screamed and flew backwards, his chest a mass of gaping holes. He collapsed in the doorway, gurgling blood and gasping in pain." It is unlikely that Donnelly's chest was full of holes, but readers will certainly understand that a violent act was committed, and they will probably enjoy the journalistic hype.

     The use of feud in the title may be confusing. It usually refers to a long and bitter quarrel between families, clans or individuals. In this case, the Donnellys' feud was with the whole community in which they lived.

     The Black Donnellys has a brief bibliography but no other teaching aids. It is illustrated throughout the book with a few black and white photographs of members of the Donnelly family. They are useful because they help the reader form a better picture of this strange family. Its lack of aids reduces the book's value as a teaching tool, but young readers will enjoy reading it for pleasure.


Thomas F. Chambers is a retired college teacher living in North Bay, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.