Cover Image: The Donnellys: Powder Keg

The Donnellys: Powder Keg

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

This is the first book in a two book series, by author John Little, based on the well known and largely talked about Donnelly Family, otherwise known as the "Black Donnellys".
In the 1840's the Donnelly family immigrates from Ireland to Canada where they settle in the small town of Lucan, Ontario.
Problems begin to develop almost immediately when James (the patriarch) is sent to prison for manslaughter leaving his wife Johannah to raise their eight children. They are raised in an extremely violent community, devoted to their mother and each other, which creates problems with the law and other community members. The Donnelly family's enemies increase rapidly!
Over the years many acts of violence are committed against them and they always take their vengeance.
This is an extremely well-researched, unbiased and very detailed account of one of Canada's terrible tragedies.
I highly recommend reading the next book called The Donnellys: Massacre, Trial and Aftermath: 1880-1916.

Thank you to NetGalley and ECW Press for an arc of this novel in exchange for my honest review.
Was this review helpful?
In The Donnellys: Powder Keg, 1840-1880, Vol. 1 (ECW Press, 2021), author John Little delves into the history of the infamous Irish-Canadian family known as the ‘Black’ Donnellys. The notoriety of the Donnelly family has lived on within the popular imagination of many Canadians, their crimes and escapades often being recounted by academic historians and writers of popular history alike. In the early 1840s, James Donnelly Sr. (1816-1880), his wife Johannah (1823-1880) and their son James Donnelly Jr. (1842-1877), along with thousands of their countrymen, fled a famine-stricken Ireland, ultimately settling in Biddulph Township, Ontario. Over the next four decades, James Sr. and his wife would go on to have seven more children, six sons, and finally a daughter in 1857. It is in the early period of their life in Canada that Little picks up the narrative of the Donnelly family, chronicling their early struggles to make a go of it in the Canadian wilderness and the beginnings of feuds with their neighbours which would lead to the massacre of most of the Donnelly family at the hands of a frenzied mob in February 1880. The Death of the family closes this volume of the Donnelly story. Although the actual events which saw the demise of numerous members of the Donnelly family are only briefly described in this volume, Little meticulously tells the chaotic tale of the Donnellys and their neighbours, deftly providing the backstory to why events unfolded as they did on that February night in 1880.

While much of the animosity between the Donnelly family and their neighbours was engendered by the actions of the seven Donnelly brothers, it was in fact their father, James Donnelly Sr., who instigated the first feud with a neighbour, Patrick Farrell, over a property settlement. This feud culminated in Donnelly murdering Farrell in a fight that erupted when both men were heavily intoxicated at a local barn raising bee. With James sentenced to seven years imprisonment in Kingston Penitentiary, Mrs. Donnelly was left to manage the family farm and raise eight children largely on her own. Growing into strapping young men, the seven Donnelly brothers quickly made a name for themselves in the area and were frequently involved in violent assaults and altercations which were sources of constant strife and destruction. As Little recounts with astute detail, by the 1870s the Donnelly family had earned their bad reputation, but much to the chagrin of their adversaries, few of the crimes they were charged with ever actually led to convictions against them. Although the Donnellys maintained a strong base of support, events took a dramatic turn in 1879 when newly arrived parish priest, John Connelly, created a Peace Society to bring an end to the reign of violence and arson that engulfed Biddulph. Led by James Carroll, a member of the corrupt enforcers of the law and long-time enemy of the Donnelly family, this society eventually splintered further into a group intent on driving out the family at any cost. By this time the Donnelly family had largely left their life of fighting, arson, and theft behind them, but their neighbours continued to blame them for any crime committed, even when it was obvious no Donnelly could have been the perpetrator. When both James Sr and Johannah Donnelly were accused of burning down the barns of neighbour Patrick Ryder, of which there was no supporting evidence, the community decided that they had had enough of the Donnelly family and took matters into their own hands, a decision which culminated in mass murder.

Although the sheer number of crimes and cases of mayhem that were committed by (or simply attached to) the Donnelly brothers can make for tedious reading at points, it is evident that Little has had a rich historical record to draw from for his telling of the Donnelly family story. Given the frequency with which members of the Donnelly family were before the courts, either for offenses they committed, or for those committed against them, Little has been able to piece together the progression of the Donnelly family’s fall from grace within their community with extreme precision using this cache of sources from the historical record. While it is clear that Little has researched his subjects extensively and therefore likely does not need to rely on the work of others to any great degree, he infrequently makes reference to the many other authors and historians who had studied the Donnelly family. Even though this is a work of popular history rather than an academic study of the Donnelly family, it would perhaps have been worthwhile in a work of this magnitude to have given an overview of the historiography relating the family and how they have been written about prior to this publication. 

As Little minutely lays out the chronology of the Donnelly family’s crimes and dastardly deeds, and in turn those of their adversaries, it quickly becomes clear to the reader that the author is firmly on the side of the Donnelly family. Little makes this clear in the early pages of the work, but it is the evidence presented that truly supports this bias in favour of the family. While they have long been remembered for their various acts of mayhem and criminal activity, it is abundantly clear that it is their enemies, almost every neighbour within the community in which the Donnelly family resided, who are the truly shocking characters of the narrative. Little is by no means an apologist for the Donnellys, laying out their misdeeds just as readily as those of who were against them, but it is made abundantly clear through the evidence presented, especially in the final chapters of this volume, that to bring an end to the presence of the Donnelly family in the community becomes an unsatiable desire for many of their neighbours and former friends. The Donnellys are certainly not blameless in the events which led to their tragic end, but the actions of their neighbours are much more unsettling than anything the Donnellys had done to earn their ‘black’ reputation.
Was this review helpful?
I love true crime and this was no exception!
In the 1840s, the Donnelly family immigrates from Ireland to the British province of Canada. Almost immediately problems develop as the patriarch of the family is sent to the Kingston Penitentiary for manslaughter, leaving his wife to raise their eight children on her own.

The children are raised in an incredibly violent community and cultivate a devoted loyalty to their mother and siblings, which often leads to problems with the law and those outside of the family.
Was this review helpful?
The Donnellys: Powder Keg
John Little

Release date: 02 Nov 2021

"A violent family living in violent times.

In the 1840s, the Donnelly family immigrates from Ireland to the British province of Canada. Almost immediately problems develop as the patriarch of the family is sent to the Kingston Penitentiary for manslaughter, leaving his wife to raise their eight children on her own.

The children are raised in an incredibly violent community and cultivate a devoted loyalty to their mother and siblings, which often leads to problems with the law and those outside of the family.

The tensions between the family and their community escalate as the family’s enemies begin to multiply. The brothers go into business running a stagecoach line and repay all acts of violence perpetrated against them, which only worsens the situation.

Refusing to take a backwards step, the Donnellys stand alone against a growing power base that includes wealthy business interests in the town of Lucan, the local diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, law authorities and a number of their neighbours." 

The phrase, "The Black Donnellys" is something I've heard but I never knew who they were. The book was interesting and at times, suspenseful. Little's research is impeccable. Maybe a bit long and this is only the first book in a two-part series. 

Biddulph Township in Ontario is known as the site of the brutal massacre on February 4, 1880 of five Donnelly family members, an immigrant Irish family caught up in a long-standing local feud. Nobody was ever convicted of the murders. This crime is noted to be one of the most horrific crimes in Canadian history. 

"Litigious" is the word that came to mind reading this book - it seems as if everyone was being sued or else suing someone on a daily basis. People were tried multiple times for the same crime, sometimes months and years after the fact. It was a scary time to be alive in Ontario.

I was gifted this advance copy by NetGalley and was under no obligation to provide a review.
Was this review helpful?
I wanted to like this book but I did not. It isn't even about the Donnelly's. It talks about them briefly but then is a laundry list of crimes that other people have done and got away with. It is more about the history of the town instead of the people that were suppose to be the main characters.
Was this review helpful?
The Donnellys by John Little
The Donnellys: Powder Keg  (Volume 1)
The Donnellys by John Little
The Donnellys: Massacre, Trial, and Aftermath (Volume 2)
Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

I am a Canadian, although not from Ontario. The Donnelly story didn’t make it into my school curriculum – no doubt it was considered far too scandalous, as well as too remote, having happened far away in Ontario. Constitutional development was considered a much better topic for school children to study. In spite of this, I liked reading true crime, and one of the books I read told the Donnelly’s story. I assumed, rather vaguely, that there wasn’t much more to learn. The Donnellys were clearly a group of violent brutes who got their comeuppance from their even more brutish neighbours – and wasn’t there something about English Protestants vs Irish Catholics? For those who, like me, did not grow up with their story, I’ll add here that the Donnellys were an immigrant Irish family that settled and farmed in Upper Canada, now Ontario, in the mid 1800s. Five of them were murdered by an organized mob of their neighbours during a single night in 1880.

So, I was mistaken in my conclusions about the Donnellys. There’s clearly been a vast amount of research about them, and that one book I read so many years ago was most certainly not definitive. Little has carried out an excellent review of the entire story, using both previous research and original sources to back up his own views. The results of Little’s work is laid out in two volumes, the first on the background to the crime, and the second on the crime and its aftermath.

It might seem a little excessive to have an entire book on the situation leading up to the murders, but I found that book fascinating and indeed essential to understanding the story. Rural society of the time was so different from the societies in which most of us live that the detailed explanation of how violence was routinely used as a tool to solve disputes is needed, as is the discussion of how group affiliation was essential to survival – but not impermeable or unchangeable. For example, religious affiliation didn’t always guarantee membership in the social group defined by that religion (as the Donnellys discovered) and people from one group sometimes worked with – or even led or manipulated – members of another. Little does an excellent job of explaining the situation that led up to the murders.

The murders, while horrifying, were not particularly mysterious. The mystery lies in the inability of the law to convict anyone for the murders in spite of the evidence that was available. This, too, is discussed in detail by the author. That there were such strikingly different narratives arising after the murders shows the attempts by different factions to resolve the situation in a way that was satisfactory to them, and also demonstrates the depth of the cultural divisions within the country. The differences in the reporting in rural and urban newspapers of the time was particularly striking. 

This very detailed description of an infamous crime provides a much more detailed and nuanced view than I had obtained from my casual reading years ago, and is well worth reading for its clear exposition of a famous historical crime. There are parts of this story which are echoed today; for example, in high crime areas in large cities. All it needs for murderous violence to  take place and remain unpunished is for people, voluntarily or through fear, to accept the authority of factions rather than either the authority of their own moral code or that of one or more of the structures that are used to create and protect civilizations where people can live together peacefully. In the Donnelly story, religion, the legal system, and the government all failed, making the tragedy inevitable.
Was this review helpful?
Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

I have no idea where I first heard of the Black Donnellys. It must have been some book about Canada, but I have no idea which. I had heard of the attempted rescue of one of the Donnellys’ lady loves from her father somewhere. Yet, my knowledge is more of a general sense than specific. I knew that several members of the family had been killed in an attack on their farmstead.

This first volume in Little’s two book series about the Donnellys and their murder ends before the murder occurs He takes the time to look at the charge – both by legal authorities and by rumor -that were laid at the Donnellys’ door. He looks at the times that the Donnellys had to appear in court, the times family members were imprisoned as well as the stagecoach wars. His analysis of the Donnellys’ guilt in terms of some rumor charges (the harming of horses for instance) is packed up with evidence from a variety of sources. He dispels some rumors, such as how the matriarch of the clan was seen (she was actually charged with having foul mouth when a man shoved gun in her face) as well as breaking what appears to be some new ground in the lives of some of the sons.

Part of this is because Little takes the time to present not a historic overview of Biddulph Township in Ontario (then Upper Canada). This includes the area’s initial development but also the tensions between the Catholics and Protestants, tensions that Little suggests contributed to the attack on the Donnellys. He makes sure the reader understands the time and place that the Donnellys were in, noting the very hardships that the family would suffer though. In America, we would say that Biddulph was a bit like the stereotypical Wild, Wild West, and Little makes sure that there is understanding about how tough and hard the people could be in Biddulp at the time. This includes not only the Donnelly neighbors but their priest as well.

In terms of background for the rural area of Ontario during the period as well as for background about the Donnellys themselves, this an good read.

Highly recommend for those interested in Canadian history and folklore.
Was this review helpful?
Part one of Little's two-part exploration of the Black Donnelleys is an enthralling piece of history and a disturbing tale of violence and non-conformity.  Little presents the family as thoroughly unpleasant and indefatigably contrarian.  The blood feuds of the Ozarks and Appalachia have found their equal in this sordid Upper Canadian case study.  Little is particularly strong in his examination of the surrounding townsfolk and the various grievances they held against the Donnelleys, some justified and some less so.  I particularly enjoyed the economic assessment of many of the grievances, painting a more rational portrait of all the participants than in other works on the subject.  I look forward the the conclusion of Little's work.
Was this review helpful?
Thankyou to NetGalley and the author,  John Little,  for the opportunity to read The Donnellys; Powder Keg in exchange for an honest and unbiased opinion. 
I was hooked to this book. 
Well written and very informative. 
Worth a read for fans of True Crime.
Was this review helpful?
Date reviewed/posted: August 15, 2021
Publication date: November 2, 2021

I live very close to the Donnellys' town of Lucan and have heard many many things about them, and I am sure that some of them are true. This book is a great telling of the story between 1849 and 1880 - the companion book  The Donnellys: Massacre, Trial, and Aftermath: 1880-1916 covers what happened afterwards. I learned a lot about the case that I had never heard before and I thought that I had read everything about the Donnellys.

The books are both well-written and should be read as a set and if you have the time and live nearby, be sure to visit the museum in Lucan and live the history.

I will recommend this book to friends, family, patrons, book clubs, and people reading books in the park as we do … I have had some of my best conversations about books down by the Thames!

As always, I try to find a reason to not rate with stars as I simply adore emojis (outside of their incessant use by "🙏-ed Social Influencer Millennials/#BachelorNation survivors/Tik-Tok and YouTube Millionaires/snowflakes / literally-like-overusers etc. ") on Instagram and Twitter... Get a real job, people!) so let's give it 🔫🔫🔫🔫🔫
Was this review helpful?
I received this book for free for an honest review from netgalley # netgalley

Awesome true crime read. A little long but good
Was this review helpful?