Tuesday, August 7, 2007

blood, guts, and the real black donnellys

The St. Nicholas Hotel, WM Donnelly Prop.: The Donnellys, Part II
by James Reaney

This is another chapter in the saga of the Donnellys, the family from Ireland who moved to southwestern Ontario only to be persecuted and eventually burned to death in a massive, unsolved massacre in 1880.

O, Canada!

The Donnellys are fated to death because of their stubbornness. They refused to join an anti-Protestant group. It basically burbles up from that point to a fever pitch of violence and trauma, and the legend ends in this installment with the death of Michael Donnelly which "left a stain on the floor no ordinary scrubbing brush can ever wash away." The play is a celebration of those who stand against the mass opinion; characters like Dr. Maguire, who refuses to berate the Donnellys but instead comments on their "intelligent faces" and denies the sources of prejudice. The kindness of Maguire is contrasted with the violent aspirations of Maggie's father who would rather see his daughter dead than married to the Donnelly with whom she has fallen in love.

The women of the Donnelly family are the most demonized. Because the Donnellys allow their women to develop their own identities, and because mother Donnelly really runs the family and guides the actions of her boys, the townspeople are most "afraid of an old woman." Carroll, a leader of the violent anti-Donnelly aggressors, claims, "She's a witch and we'll never get rid of any of them unless there's someone brave enough to just -- but there isn't." Anyone willing to kill her would be the St. Patrick of Biddulph, dricing the snakes out of their township.

When the Donnelly votes sway an election, the people become more obsessed with ending this troublesome family, and in the third act we have the climactic death of Mike Donnelly. But in this act we also learn why some people continue to side with the Donnellys. As farmhand Tom tells us, "Because they're brave, [...] they're handsome, [and...] when Pa here took the ax to mother and Bridget and Sarah and me who was the only family on the whole road with enough sand to take us in? So that's why I side with them." In this act the genuine fierceness, compassion, and love of the Donnellys comes through, which is what makes the conclusion so tragic.

The conclusion of the play contains its larger message:

"I told him what I tell you now -- to look straight ahead past this stupid life and death they've fastened on you -- just as long ago your father and me and out first-born walked up over the last hill in Ireland and saw what you will see now -- for the first time in our lives we saw freedom, we saw the sea."

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