It started as an innocent question about the Donnelly history. However…

There are no innocent questions about the Donnelly story.

It was the middle of May, and I was in the production headquarters of the Black Donnelly film set, outside of Petrolia, Ontario waiting for my friend, actress Judy Cormier, to take me around the set.

To make small talk, I asked a woman there about the backstory of the Donnelly saga. I was under the impression it was a story of religious intolerance fueled by a simmering hatred for a brutal family.

She corrected me, suggesting that it was instead a tale of how this awful family tormented the locals. Someone else walking by overheard her and suggested otherwise. This set off a sidebar conversation about the Donnellys that was still going on when I left the office.

black donnellys movie
On the set of the Black Donnellys movie, which is being screened in London Oct. 14.

This is why there are no easy questions, or small talk for that matter, about the Donnellys, especially in Southwestern Ontario.

The story endures because it was never settled

It’s a story with a long tail that stretches from 1880 to this day. For the uninitiated, a quick wiki: unpopular Irish family is set upon by residents of Lucan and Biddulph Township, their house torched and five murdered. Two trials later, no convictions. In short, nothing was settled.

Were the Donnellys bullies and thugs, or were the townspeople bloodthirsty bigots who never took well to the Irish immigrants? There are as many theories to this tale as there are citizens in Lucan.

Books were written, plays produced and at one point Oscar winning director and former Londoner, Paul Haggis had the story in his sights. To date, all he’s done is mine the name for a TV series.

In Lucan, the Donnelly story never ended

Being a de facto outsider in London in the early 90s I once asked a woman with relatives in Lucan about the Donnelly legacy. She told me it was still a taboo subject with many families in the town, still taking sides in the ugly tale.

It was only in 2009 that the community came to terms with its ‘shame’ and opened up a museum that cautiously embraced the unfortunate story.

This was the tricky landscape that the producers of the new Black Donnelly film had to navigate as they brought the story to the screen. Producer Dan Huggett was keenly aware of it when when he and Director Aaron Huggett were researching the story in Lucan 13 years ago.

“We came across people in Lucan who didn’t want to talk about it,” he explains. “They were concerned about how the story would be told.

“We’re trying to make it as historically accurate to the facts as we can while making it interesting for people to watch. The hard part for us to not make it as violent and real as it actually was.”

A delicate role to play

Actress Judy Cormier also felt the same responsibility in her portrayal of fiery Donnelly matriarch Johannah Donnelly.

“Because the story is from this area and so many people know the story, I worried about that,” she says. “So many people still don’t want to talk about it.

“When we were screening the film in Lucan the other week, there were some arguments about it during the Q and A. One gentleman, probably in his 80s said very fervently ‘They should have hung for those murders! Why weren’t they convicted?’

Cormier pauses, then adds, “He was very angry Those emotions are still there.”

Black Donnellys is currently screening across the province including London on Saturday, October 14.

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