In this scene from Act II of Sticks and Stones, Mr Donnelly (James Donnelly Sr) has given himself up to the constables for the killing of Patrick Farrell. In July 1858, Mrs Donnelly gathers signatures from friends and neighbours to petition the court in Goderich to change her husband’s death sentence to imprisonment. George Stub, the local grocer and magistrate, buys the Donnelly’s mortgage in anticipation of acquiring the land once Mr Donnelly is hanged. As Mrs Donnelly makes her forty-mile journey from Biddulph Township to Goderich, Stub builds the scaffold for the pending execution.
MRS DONNELLY: And now I’ll walk with these names to Goderich
WILL DONNELLY: When my mother heard that the Governor General was to be there for the celebration opening the railroad from Goderich to Brantford to Buffalo, she determined that she would meet him with the petitions we had helped and friends had helped her gather up.
(The road from Biddulph to Goderich is represented by a series of short and long ladders held up firmly by the cast. Mrs Donnelly climbs over these ladders. We hear road sounds – barking of dogs, etc. – that accompany her journey.)
MRS DONNELLY: At Marystown the dogs barked at me
CHORUS: And people who had signed wished her good luck.
(Generally repeat this solo and choral response arrangement between Mrs Donnelly and the other actors.)
MRS DONNELLY: At Irishtown the grain wagons were all going south
CHORUS: North she was going, north through their dust.
MRS DONNELLY: There at St. Peter’s is he buried whom my husband killed
CHORUS: His cold hands across reached the road and held back her feet.
MRS DONNELLY: I dare not enter there to pray for his soul
CHORUS: The chapel has no shadow. It is noon.
VOICE: Last spring a man and a woman came to a sudden death…. It is not known how, and were buried in their own field in Biddulph.
GEORGE STUB: Twelve hundred feet of pine lumber at ten dollars per M.
MRS DONNELLY: Now I’ve reached the borders of Biddulph
VOICE: Sarah Stratton, an old woman who was found dead… on the north boundary of Biddulph going to Exeter out of Biddulph.
MRS DONNELLY: Well, she almost made it, but once past this tollgate and I am
CHORUS: out of Biddulph! Past two tollgates, there are twelve still to
MRS DONNELLY: Oak tree with your shadow Indian dark
CHORUS: Lie and rest beneath my speaking saying leaves
MRS DONNELLY: The whip of that carter touched my cheek
I look like a beggarwoman tramping the roads
CHORUS: Clean white tower clouds walk in the sky
STUB: Nine hundred feet of hemlock scantlings, seven dollars per M, six dollars and thirty cents.
MRS DONNELLY: Tollgate of the setting sun show me your latch
CHORUS: Twilight rain on this roof from those clouds
MRS DONNELLY: Falling down down as I sleep till the earth wheels
CHORUS: Down to the dawn whose tollgate opens to all
MRS DONNELLY: I’ll pray for the dawn with these winter stars
CHORUS: In the chill dark starting out before there were proper shadows
STUB: Detlor & Sons for nails, hinges and bolts, two dollars and ninety cents.
CHORUS: Francistown Rogersville Hensall Kippen
Brucefield Rattenbury’s Clinton and turn
MRS DONNELLY: I’m on the Huron Road now and I turn west to
CHORUS: Holmesville where her member of parliament lived.
MRS DONNELLY: Yes Mr Holmes. Hurrah for Holmes will be our cry from now on in. Our family’s vote is Grit forever and I’ve seven sons who’ll agree or else. Why sir, you’ve garnered almost as many names from this township as I have from Biddulph. My family’s blessing on you and your family forever. And our eight votes, sir, someday. Except for the one I’m carrying, God bless her.
STUB: Nolan’s account for Staples & Ring &c.
MRS DONNELLY: The road’s like a knife I cut through the bush with
CHORUS: She climbed up the hill, the last tavern hill before
STUB: Rope from W.E. Grace twenty-four cents. Four long poles at one dollar each.
MRS DONNELLY: From this hill I see the river. I see the blue lake
CHORUS: The ship in the harbour flew a red and gold flag
STUB: Twenty cedar posts, one piece of five-by-six maple scantling.
MRS DONNELLY: I’ll have time to see the mayor of the town. I’ll change my dress, comb my hair somewhere. Somewhere. I won’t see Mr Donnelly till I’ve delivered the petitions. What’s that hammering sound I hear? My own heart more than likely….
James Reaney’s comments on the historical context for this scene:
“… Oral tradition has it that Judith Donnelly walked to Goderich from Biddulph [in July 1858] to make direct appeal to the Governor General, probably gathering signatures on her passage through Holmesville. Apart from gathering the petitions, on 11 June 1859, she took out a mortgage from a London money lender for $100 for three years at twice yearly payments of $24.70 [A1]. All of this, as well as caring for her two-year-old daughter, Jane? Nothing was impossible for this indomitable woman.” [See The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, Introduction, page lii, The Champlain Society, 2004.]
James Reaney’s three plays about the Donnellys — Sticks and Stones, The St. Nicholas Hotel, and Handcuffs — are available in one volume from Dundurn Press.