The James Reaney Memorial Lecture series celebrates the life and work of Southwestern Ontario poet and dramatist James Reaney, who was born on a farm near Stratford, Ontario and found a creative home in London, Ontario.
Our thanks to Wordsfest and the London Public Library for their support of the lecture series, and to Poetry Stratford and the Stratford Public Library for their support in hosting the earlier lectures (2010-2015).
In the summer of 1961, James Reaney wrote and illustrated a story for children called The Boy Who Lived in the Sun. He made 36 watercolour illustrations to go with the text, stitched them together, and for many years it was only shared with family and friends.
In the story, a boy who lives in the sun dreams of going to earth to meet other children. He discovers that it’s not easy for a luminary being to have contact with humans, and that the process of becoming human will require lengthy and celestial labour on his part.
Note from Susan Reaney: The Boy Who Lived in the Sun existed from my early childhood and was never published. I always thought of it as unfinished because I could not accept the ending. The boy returns to earth and is reunited with his family, but does he remember being a boy who lived in the sun? Now I think perhaps he does.
In the Summer 2019 issue of Queen’s Quarterly, Thomas Gerry’s article“Marvellous Playhouses” celebrates James Reaney’s emblem poems. For Gerry, the poems “put into play” Reaney’s artistic process, a “magnetic method” he developed for generating meaning through the use of wit.
The emblem poems are theatre-like devices that draw readers into the activity of making meaning. As with audiences for dramatic performances, emblem-readers’ participation is vital. [Queen’s Quarterly, Summer 2019, page 196]
For a full discussion of all ten emblem poems and James Reaney’s artistic process, see The Emblems of James Reaney, available from The Porcupine’s Quill.
May 4-5 in London, Ontario — In celebration of Canadian composers, the Village Opera directed by Adam Corrigan-Holowitz will present The Great Lakes Suite, which features six poems by James Reaney set to music by John Beckwith.
Reaney and Beckwith became friends when they were students at the University of Toronto in the late 1940s. The Great Lakes Suite is from The Red Heart (1949), James Reaney’s first poetry collection. Inspired by the poems, John Beckwith created a chamber cycle for two voices accompanied by a trio.
James Reaney’s poem“Lake Superior” begins the suite:
I am Lake Superior Cold and gray. I have no superior; All other lakes Haven’t got what it takes; All are inferior. I am Lake Superior Cold and gray. I am so cold That because I chill them The girls of Fort William Can’t swim in me. I am so deep That when people drown in me Their relatives weep For they’ll never find them. In me swims the fearsome Great big sturgeon. My shores are made of iron Lined with tough, wizened trees. No knife of a surgeon Is sharper than these Waves of mine That glitter and shine In the light of the Moon, my mother In the light of the Sun, my grandmother.
A fool once caught a crow
That flew too near even for his stone’s throw.
Alone beneath a tree
He examined the black flier
And found upon its sides
Two little black doors.
He opened both of them.
He expected to see into
Perhaps a little kitchen
With a stove, a chair,
A table and a dish
Upon that table.
But he only learned that crows
Know a better use for doors than to close
And open, and close and open
Into dreary, dull rooms.
James Reaney, 1949
“The Crow” is from The Red Heart (1949), James Reaney‘s first collection of poems.
The monograph, edited and introduced by James Reaney, recounts the story of The Biddulph Tragedy of February 4, 1880, where “a body of men, blackened and masked, entered the dwelling of the somewhat notorious Donnelly family and murdered the inmates, the father, the mother, one son, and a girl, a niece”* in Biddulph Township near Lucan, Ontario.
James Reaney heard about the tragedy as a child: “The effect of my first hearing this story was paralyzing… It was my first glimpse of evil close to home.”**
*London Free Press Weekly, 12 February 1880 (See The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, page xv and page 118)
**From the Introduction to The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, page xxiv.
Poems Written About The Donnellys To Assist
The Renewal of The Town Hall at Exeter, Highway #4 *
Around Borrisokane, in Eire, the roads twist
After cowherds with willow gads, after wise woman’s spells,
After chariots and the widest go-around found in a mare’s skin.
But in Biddulph, Canada, in Mount Carmel’s brooder stove, St Peter’s fields,
The roads cross at right angles, a careful Euclidean net, roods, rods
Spun by surveyors out of Spider stars – Mirzak, Spicula, Thuban, Antares.
Like serpents, twitchgrass roots, dragons – the Irish roads twist,
The old crooked roads twist in the cage of the straight new.
We were horsemen, dressed well and from my brother’s entire horse,
From his entire horse came the colt fast fleet hoofhand with which
We seized and held onto the path through Exeter down to London.
We lifted the hills, creeks, rivers, slaughterhouses, taverns,
We lifted their travellers and those who were asleep when we passed
And those who saw us rattle by as they plowed mud or whittled.
We lifted them like a graveldust pennant, we swung them up and out
Till they yelled about wheels falling off, unfair competition, yah!
And we lie here now – headless, still, dead, waggonless, horseless,
Sleighless, hitched, stalled.
As the dressmaker hems my muslin handkerchiefs,
The night the Vigilantes burnt down one of their own barns,
As I sit waiting for a cake to bake and my gentle niece with me
I realize I am not doing what you want me to do.
You – bored with your Calvinist shoes chewed to pieces
By streets of insurance, streets of cakemix, packages, soap, sermonettes.
You want me to – you project a more exciting me on me.
She should be burning! Clip! Ax! Giantess! Coarse, I should curse!
Why should I accept these handcuffs from you?
James Reaney, 2005
* Respectively, the three speakers of these poems are William Porte, the Lucan postmaster, Tom Donnelly and Mrs. Donnelly.
“Entire Horse” is from Souwesto Home, a collection of James Reaney’s poems from 2005 and published by Brick Books. Listen to Jeff Culbert read “Entire Horse” here.
Scene from the play: In Act I before the Donnelly stagecoach leaves the City Hotel in London, Mike Donnelly (driver) says:
“Are there any more ladies and gentlemen for Calamity Corners as ’tis sometimes called, St. John’s, Birr — my old friend Ned here calls it Bobtown, the more elegant name is Birr. Elginfield known to some as Ryan’s Corner’s, Lucan that classic spot if it’s not all burnt down, Clandeboye, Mooretown, Exeter and Crediton. If Ned here hasn’t sawn it to pieces, the coach is waiting for you at the front door and it pleases you.”
In Act I of James Reaney’s play Sticks and Stones, local boys taunt young Will Donnelly for his crippled foot. In this scene, Mrs Donnelly asks Will for his birthday wish.
MRS DONNELLY: What day is it today of all days, William Donnelly? WILL: It’s my birthday. MRS DONNELLY: Tell me one wish.
WILL: Well, mother, ’tis something other than a prayerbook. I’d like a horse – a black stallion. And a sword. Then I’d ride up and down the line and I’d cut the heads off all those who call me – us – names.
MRS DONNELLY: Go over to the old tree the storm fell down, Will. Will, what would you call this big black horse? WILL: Lord Byron. But he wouldn’t be lame, you see.
MRS DONNELLY: Now see what you find there hidden among the roots. (He searches, crawling into the barrel; searching around it.)
OTHERS: (softly and rolling over) Then they took me out of that and Threw me into a well. They left me there for a space of time, And me belly began to swell. 
WILL: It’s a parcel. (Actually it is just two sticks.) MRS DONNELLY: But it’s not likely your father and I would give you a brown paper parcel for your twelfth birthday. What’s it a parcel of, Will?
WILL: A fiddle. Is it just for today, mother? Just mine for my birthday? But tomorrow will my brothers get at it?
MRS DONNELLY: No, Will, it is for you – and only you. To be your music for your entire lifetime. Remember what I’ve told you today.
(Will mimes the fiddle with two sticks; at edge of stage, a real fiddler follows.) WILL: (as he tunes) What did happen to father when he wouldn’t kneel and he wouldn’t swear?
The vendetta against the Donnellys and their eventual murder
Mrs Donnelly’s hope that their troubles from the old country are behind them proves unfounded, and the vendetta against them continues unabated until their murder some twenty years later (4 February 1880). During that time, Will Donnelly grows up to play his fiddle at weddings and dances and have a black stallion called Lord Byron (see James Reaney’s The Donnellys Part II – The St. Nicholas Hotel).
On 2 September 1879, five months before the murder of five members of his family, Will Donnelly frightens away a mob come to terrorize him by playing a tune on his fiddle. In writing the play, James Reaney was particularly impressed by this:
“When on 2 September 1879, the mob who had just terrorized his parents at their farm arrived at his house in Whalen’s Corners, William frightened them away with a fiddle tune! None of the commentators ever make enough of this. Nor of the mother risking her life to warn her son that a mob was about to confront him. From now on, I have nothing but admiration and sympathy for the Donnelly family, and a feeling that their bravery also betrayed them. But, of course, what they couldn’t possibly have known was that the whole affair of the cow and resultant trial was a dry run for another visit to the Donnelly house at night.…”(See James Reaney’s The Donnellys: An Ontario Vendetta, Introduction, page xcix, The Champlain Society, 2004.)
 These lines sung by the Others are from the Barley Corn Ballad, an old Irish folk tune that James Reaney uses to underscore the Donnellys’ fate. As James Noonan writes in the Afterword to the published version of the play, “The ballad is so fitting to illustrate the fate of the Donnellys that if you substitute ‘Donnelly’ for ‘barley grain’ you have the story of the Donnellys told in ballad form.” (Afterword, page 350)
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.
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.
In this excerpt from an August 2001 interview conducted by Tim Struthers and published in the Spring 2013 issue of the journal Short Story, James Reaney sheds light on his fascination with the Donnelly massacre of 1880.
James Reaney first heard about the Donnellys from his stepfather when he was a child in the mid-1930s.
JR: I remember saying to my stepfather at the time, “Wouldn’t they have a door with a lock on it?” And he said, “Noooo, they wouldn’t have had a door with a lock on it. They had a piece of burlap bag across a hole in their shanty” … so that was pretty dreadful. Anyway I was scared out of my wits. It was only twenty miles away from our farm. We were pretty much right next to it all at one time. And I just couldn’t believe it.
In 1946, local historian Alice MacFarlane gave a paper on the Donnellys at a meeting of the London and Middlesex Historical Society at the public library in London.
JR: [Alice MacFarlane’s paper] had all the usual elements of the story that Kelley tells, that people tell about the Donnellys still. And when she got to the part in her paper about how the Donnellys cut out the tongues of horses … an old man rose up out of the audience and came at her with a shillelagh … And he said “They never cut the tongues out of horses. Out of people, yes!” … And then he stomped out…
But I was fascinated as I read this in The Globe and Mail … And I realized the Donnellys had friends. I never thought that before, you see.
TS: When was this?
JR: It would be 1946.
TS: While you were an undergraduate at the University of Toronto.
JR: Yes. I’d been thinking about writing a play about them. The Kelley thing [Thomas P. Kelley’s The Black Donnellys] had not been written by that time. He’s 1954. And you couldn’t write a play about the story my stepfather told. So finding out that they had friends made a big difference. I began to think in terms of a play about them that would be a tragedy, rather than the kind of thing where it’s not tragic at all and they should be exterminated as soon as possible (laughter). Like many a modern horror film.
Note from Susan Reaney: This interview is excerpted from the Spring 2013 issue of Short Story, New Series Vol. 21 No. 1, pages 115-116. See also “Winter’s Tales”, a poem James Reaney wrote in 1949, which makes an oblique reference to “…the massacre at Lucan / Where the neighbours killed all of the McKilligans dead.”
James Reaney wrote a trilogy of plays about the Donnelly family and the tragedy: Sticks and Stones (1973), The St. Nicholas Hotel (1974), and Handcuffs (1975). He also edited and wrote the introduction to The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, published by The Champlain Society in 2004.