Turning Back the Pages: The Donnolly’s created a ruckus, bringing their history to Golden

By Colleen Palumbo

It’s like Christmas for me. We have recently been gifted a large lot of old legal documents that pertain to some of the homesteads in the area. I had to just sit and look at the boxes for a couple of weeks but now I have enough time that I have been able to begin looking through them in earnest.

The names on the paperwork are really the who’s who of early Golden and the packages begin with the original application for homestead. One of the larger packages was assigned to James M. Carroll, and over the next two weeks I will share the story of Carroll.

Many characters existed in the history of an area, and many of those characters have past lives that we know nothing about. Some of them have done great things and some have dark pasts that are best unknown.

This story begins in Ireland in the middle 1840’s when the battles between the warring Whiteboys (who were Roman Catholic and anti protestant) and the Blackfeet (who were both Roman Catholic and Protestant but definitely anti Whiteboys).

James Donnolly, a good looking, heavily built man of medium height, married Johannah Magee, a plain heavily built woman, in their native Ireland in 1841. Johannah soon gave birth to a son, James, in 1842. James wanted more than poverty, famine, and conflict for his small family and made the decision to bring them to Canada.

Thousands of people were pouring into Canada from Ireland at that time, and when a family arrived they were brought into an immigrant shed to await clearance. Like the ships that brought them, the immigration shed were filled with poverty, starvation, and disease. Most people arrived with little or no money but they had the hope that they had left the worst behind.

Once they arrived in Canada, the family was moved from one shed to another until they reached the end of the line in London, Ontario. Finally leaving the shed, they took a wagon north into Biddulph county. At Elginfield they came across Andrew Keeff’s tavern, the sight of a desperate battle that had taken place in 1845. This was probably when the Donnolly’s first found out that the Tipperary feud had followed them to the new land.

The inn itself was the border between the Tipperary Protestants of London Township and the Roman Catholics of Biddulph. Donnolly immediately made it clear that we was a Blackfoot.

They didn’t have enough money to buy a farm of their own so they did what many people did, they found a piece of vacant land, squatted and planted crops.

The Donnolly’s stuck to themselves and gained the reputation of being Black Irish. After 10 years on the land, the absentee owner sold the land to Patrick Farrell. Donnolly was not going to be thrown off the land that he had worked so hard on for 10 years so they went to court and was awarded 25 acres for his years spent working the land. A restless peace returned to the farm.

At a barn raising on June 27, 1858, Donnolly and Farrell got into a fight and while defending himself from an ax wielding Farrell, Donnolly picked up a handspike and threw it at Farrell. It lodged in the man’s temple and he died three days later. A warrant was sworn for the arrest of James Donnolly for the murder of Patrick Farrell.

For two and a half years Donnolly hid out in different parts of the country before finally giving himself up. A short trial found him guilty and he was sentenced to hang. Johannah was not about to see her husband hanged and she appealed to their family friend and local constable Jim Hodgins. They began a petition asking for clemency. It worked and Donnolly’s sentence was reduced to seven years in prison.

Although her hands were full with her husband in prison and eight children of her own, James Carroll asked his wife to care for Billy Farrell, the son of the man he was imprisoned for killing. With James in prison things were quiet for a time. That is until William Donnolly started a stage line in direct competition to one that already existed.

Fights broke out all over, barns were burned, stages and animals destroyed. The whole situation in Lucan was about ready to burst, and while they had no proof to back them up, many people were sure that the Donnolly family was responsible for the problems that were erupting. In the winter of 1875 a vigilante committee was formed, headed by Patrick Breen who was determined to bring the family to justice.

Are you wondering yet how this story ties to Golden? Hang in there. It will all become apparent next week.

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