A Review of the “Legend of the Black Donnellys”

The Black Donnellys

 More than a century has passed since the murder of the Black Donnellys.  Even today, this family name carries the resonance of murders most foul. The adjective “black” implies a darkness of feuds, hatred and violence.

 Yet, this hard working family once resided on the Roman Line, just outside London.  Like many of their neighbors, they were immigrants from pre-famine Ireland and like almost all Irish of that period were impoverished, dauntless in search of a better living, and both cowed and comforted by their Catholicism.  

 The basic story is known to many in Canada.  It might be the murders, could be the Irish, or the ambition but, for years, it has intrigued this nation of immigrants.  Part of the story is certainly that of the promise of new land set against the weight of old grudges. Immigrating to Ontario, James Donnelly and his family, constrained by poverty, squatted on vacant land in Biddulph Township.  Hard work should have produced wealth and happiness but it didn’t.  Things went wrong. Over the course of almost four decades the name of “Donnellys” were first blackened and then their spirits were extinguished with the harshest of all sanctions, the ruthless taking of their lives by their own neighbors acting as vigilantes.

On August 30, 2009 – August 31, 2009 at London City Music Theatre, The Legend of the Black Donnellys will be presented by Hector MacIsaac and his musical accomplices, a Parcel of Rogues. The story of how an East Coast group came to produce this show is as much about the compelling story of the Donnellys as it is about the ancient tradition of using song to capture our storied past.  The Donnellys are history.  But how does one capture the still developing lessons we make of our various histories? What is this treachery that brings people to grief? 

 One of the unique things about the forthcoming performance is the way it recaptures “tradition bearing”.  Before mass communications did all the work of interpreting what is news, rural people used to communicate through the medium of stories and song. Some families were better “newsmakers” than others, more gifted, more astute, and better positioned to create news through story and song.   The forthcoming staging ofThe Legend of the Black Donnellys will be a chance to see this process in action.  Hector MacIsaac and company take tragedy, hatred and violence and put an epic tale to music.  It becomes a marvelous and melodious way to reflect on what happened  to these early settlers.

 Hector MacIsaac comes from a family that was immersed in this musical tradition.  A few years back, along with the Parcel of Rogues he brought back to western Newfoundland a stage production of “A man you don’t meet everyday”.  This presentation captured one fragment of that great oral tradition which was the entertainment lifeblood of every traditional culture.  Hector MacIsaac talents embody the very tradition he celebrates; it doesn’t hurt that he has a booming rich voice, that his daughter matches him note for note and that he has picked the very best of Antigonish musicians to accompany him.

 The two performances of the Donnellys given in Antigonish were sold out.  People there know Hector MacIsaac and his parcel of Rogues.  In traditional music the magic of any piece is in the uniqueness of each presentation.  Tapes and video never quite catch the passion, the pathos and the providence of a good story unfolding through narration and song. Hector MacIsaac and the Parcel of Rogues (on pipes, fiddle, guitar and vocals) in previous performances of the “Legend of the Black Donnellys” were met with thunderous applause.  It was deserved because the audience loved what the performers were doing.  This performance exemplifies the highest calibre of tradition bearing, not dull or forced or musty;  the story in song is profoundly moving not only because the voice is authentic but the musicians perform beautifully on stage.  They make the Donnelly’s live again.  That’s something you won’t see everyday.

 Dan MacInnes

Published in: on July 30, 2009 at 10:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

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