The Next Chapter

Keith Ross Leckie revisits the infamous 19th-century murder of the Black Donnellys in his novel Cursed!

The Ontario scriptwriter and writer stopped by The Next Chapter to discuss his latest novel.
Keith Ross Leckie is a Toronto-based screenwriter and author. (Douglas & McIntyre, Adrian Lyons)

This interview originally aired on April 11, 2020.

The story of the Black Donnellys has become a fabled piece of Ontario history. The Donnelly family emigrated from Ireland to the township of Lucan Biddulph in the Ontario countryside. They found themselves, after a few years, in conflict with the local people.

In February 1880, an armed mob descended on the family, burned their farm and killed the family members. The life and death of the infamous family has been the subject of TV programs, plays and books.

Keith Ross Leckie's novel Cursed! Blood of the Donnellys is a fictional account of the notorious family and that time in Canadian history. He stopped by The Next Chapter to chat about why he wrote the book.

A twist on the old

"What I wanted to do with this novel was to bring this whole story to a younger and a more contemporary audience. I think what has been done about the Donnellys in the past was very melodramatic and two-dimensional in terms of showing what they were like. I wanted to get deeper into the characters. 

I think what has been done about the Donnellys in the past was very melodramatic and two-dimensional in terms of showing what they were like.

"My writing in the past has been primarily in dramatic television and I love historic fiction. The Donnelly story was one that I've thought about for so many years. 

"When I was 11, my father — who grew up on a farm just west of London, Ont. — took me to Lucan. We went into a general store and he asked the proprietor about the Donnellys.

"The proprietor said, 'We don't talk about the Donnellys.'

"There was this level of hostility that I sensed as an 11-year-old that really had me intrigued. Many years, decades later, here I am writing a book about it and enjoying it. I'm trying to figure out where that tension came from." 

What might have happened

"What I believe happened, and what hasn't been portrayed in the other versions of the story is that, at first, when the Donnellys were massacred there was a great outpouring of sympathy for the family.

I think it has been unfair to portray them as monsters.

"There were a few survivors but at the trial there were six men charged and became defendants in a big murder trial. People began to lose sympathy in the Donnellys and actually developed sympathy for the six defendants because these were men that were heads of households in Lucan — and if they were found guilty they would all hang. 

"The public began to sympathize with these men and public opinion turned against the Donnellys. The only thing they could do to protect the town was to portray them as monsters.

"And I think that's what has held for 140 years. I think it has been unfair to portray them as monsters."

Keith Ross Leckie's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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