Today’s interview is with poet laureate Mary Ann Mulhern about her latest book The Midnight Moon Sings of Murder. This is her 8th full book of poetry, and it focuses on the tragic murder of the Donnelly family. Please enjoy this interview and excerpts!
Q: Can you tell us how you decided to write about this topic and how your retelling is different from anything that came before it?
MM: I first heard of the Donnelly tragedy when I was in grade 11 in high school. There was a public-speaking contest, and I decided to give a speech about the Donnelly tragedy. I think my research at the time was biased, and perhaps unfair.No one in the audience had ever heard this story of an Irish Catholic family in Lucan, ON, who had been murdered in their beds, and, for whom, there was never justice. My speech won first prize, and I gave the speech in several high schools in south-western Ontario. I must say, teachers and students were both surprised and shocked by this story of murder, in which all the killers were released, set free to just “go on with their lives”.
For some reason, “The Donnelly’s” came back into my consciousness a few years ago, and I decided to do a lot more reading, and to write a book of poetry about this tragic family. I was especially drawn to young Bridget Donnelly, a niece from Tipperary Ireland, who the Donnelly family had sponsored to come to Canada a year before the murders. For some reason, Bridget has been written out of every previous account. With the advice of my editor, John B. Lee, I decided to be the writer who “gave Bridget Donnelly a voice”. And, thus Bridget speaks in The Midnight Moon Sings of Murder. This makes my book very different from anything else that has been written about the Donnellys.
Q: Can you tell us the story behind the first poem in the collection, “Ghost In a Coffee Shop”?
MM: Yes, this is indeed somewhat of a mystery to me! I had visited St. Patrick’s cemetery in Lucan and had “said a prayer” over the graves. Johannah Donnelly, the wife of James Donnelly, and mother of the eight Donnelly children, is buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery, along with most members of her family.
Maybe I was drawn to her grave.
When I returned to Windsor, I went to a coffee shop where I saw a woman I’d never seen before, never since. She was dressed in a very old-fashioned way, and, her hair was pulled back severely. I looked at her, and, she looked back at me. I had a very strange feeling about this woman, and I wrote the poem, “Ghost in a Coffee Shop”. I’ll never know who this woman really was. I just had a strong sense at the time that this woman was “The Ghost of Johannah Donnelly”. Given that I’m Irish, maybe this influenced my thinking. Regardless, I’ve never seen this woman again, and most likely, never will! Who knows about these things? I only know that she left a very strong impression, and, I’ll never forget her! Thus, I wrote “Ghost in a Coffee Shop”.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from The Midnight Moon Sings of Murder?
MM: I sincerely hope readers appreciate that there was never any justice for the Donnellys. How does a violent group of neighbours gather in a schoolhouse, get drunk, and choose weapons? How do they break into the Donnelly home and brutally murder every Donnelly there? What they did not know is that a young farm-hand, Johnny O’Connor, was there, hiding under a bed, a witness! Johnny O’Connor later gave witness in the Old London Courthouse, but was ignored. The verdict was “not guilty”. The surviving Donnelly family grieved this the rest of their lives!
I also want people to be aware of “the innocent”, Bridget Donnelly, who had come to Canada in search of a better life.Her murder, Feb. 4, 1880, was just so unjust, as were all of the Donnelly murders! I also want readers to be aware that some books, such as The Black Donnellys and Revenge of the Black Donnellys, are fictional, not based in fact. The goal was to sensationalize the Donnellys, and sadly, these books achieved that.
I met a woman who was the great granddaughter of Jenny Donnelly, the only daughter of James and Johannah Donnelly.This woman was ashamed and fearful of her family heritage. She was certain that she would bear “black babies”, which, of course, she did not. I’ve also recently met a man related to the Donnellys, who wept when he read my book! This makes the writing worthwhile!!
Q:Do you have any ideas for your next book?
MM: Actually, due to Covid 19. I have not been able to do any readings! I really want to read at the “Donnelly Museum” in Lucan, maybe at the Donnelly property, presently owned by Rob and Linda Saltz, who have welcomed me to their home. I really feel that there’s a lot of “unfinished business” with this book, and I want so much to “do it justice”.
Far too many people still refer to the Donnelly family as “The Black Donnellys”. It’s time to realize this is a great injustice. And, indeed, injustice has followed the Donnelly family into this century! I don’t want that to be true in the future!
I have not given any thought to my next book- could be a collection of “covid poems”. We’ll see!
Q: Can you give a list of poets who inspire your work and explain how they impact your work?
MM: I must say John B. Lee and Marty Gerais greatly inspire my work! This is also true of Marilyn Gear-Pilling, Terry Ann Carter, and Susan McMaster!
These are all “narrative poets”, who have mastered the art of “story-telling”. As I mentioned earlier, I am the child of Irish immigrants, and, I love “a story”. Thus, any writer who attends to “the story” impresses me! And, all of the pre-mentioned writers do exactly that!
Ghost in a Coffee Shop
a woman, tall, sturdy, plain, woollen skirt, winter boots
stares at me—a poet—
I’ve stood over the grave
of Johannah Donnelly
something in this woman’s eyes
speaks to me of another place another time
I look away
silence spins around me
shadowed presence close
cold and sad and dark
The Same Monsters
In this house
There are whispers
I’ve heard before
Night raids, barn burnings
Cattle tortured in fields
The same monsters
Protestant, Catholic, Orange
Have followed me here
each day Father Connolly
touches the Donnelly monument
every side of black stone echoes “murdered”
James, Johannah, Tom, Bridget, John
he tries to bless our graves
holy water turns red
stains his fingers, consecrated hands
every vestment in the cedar closet
white altar cloths