UPDATE: Watch clips from the series here
This is the text of an article that appeared in The Irish Independent two months ago now about the series “Mobs Cheanada” which was about to start at the time.
They were the bank robbers, drug barons, gangsters and murderers whose crimes formed the dark side of the Irish diaspora. They included Canada’s most notorious family, the Black Donnellys. For years they were at the centre of mayhem in Ontario and were eventually massacred themselves by vigilantes.
The story of the refugees who left Ireland for America during the Famine and afterwards is a familiar one. Poverty-stricken and oppressed, some clawed their way up to the highest ranks of politics and the law; others became notorious criminals.
The legacy of the dispossessed Irish who flooded into Canada, however, is not as well documented, but Daithí Keane, writer and director of a TV series on the other side of the Canadian dream, plans to change all that.
Last November, Keane accompanied an Abú Media film crew to Canada to chart some of the more colourful stories of the Irish immigrants for ‘Mobs Cheanada’.
The series, which features interviews with ex-gang members, families and the law, highlights the story of the disreputable Black Donnellys, murdered by their own neighbours, as well as the careers of bank robber John Hamilton, John Dillinger’s right-hand man, the legendary Stopwatch Gang, an Irish-Canadian bootlegger and drug lords.
“This is the dark side of the Irish emigrant story. It’s not all about people who went on to become successful in the police force or in politics,” says Eileen Seoighe, a producer with Abú Media. “I found the story of the Black Donnellys very intriguing. It is so Irish — land is at the centre of the story. It was a major issue in Ireland and it travelled across the Atlantic.”
Adds Keane: “The Black Donnellys had come from an experience of horror, so they arrived in Canada with a driving determination to survive.
“They would do that any way they could, even if it meant stepping outside the law. They came from a society where the law was an oppressive force, not necessarily just, and they saw it as something that was used to keep them down.
“The story of the Donnellys was hushed up for years. It’s only in the last generation that the people there have talked about it,” concludes Keane, who points out that the vigilante committee which murdered several family members had its roots in a Peace Society set up by the local Catholic priest: “It’s as Irish a story as you get.”
The Black Donnellys
The horrifying massacre of an Irish immigrant family remains one of the most infamous events in Canadian history. The story of the Black Donnellys encapsulates the volatile mix of poverty, social tension and violence that characterised the lives of many 19th-century Irish immigrants to Canada.
It all started with a squabble over land — James Donnelly, who is believed to have emigrated from north Tipperary around 1842, squatted on a 100-acre plot near the small village of Biddulph, an hour from Toronto.
On June 25, 1857, a fight broke out between Donnelly and Patrick Farrell, the man to whom the plot had been rented. Donnelly killed Farrell with a heavy hand-spike used for moving logs. “It was almost like a crowbar — he would have wielded it two-handed, and eye witnesses described him hitting Farrell across the temple with it, killing him,” says Daithí Keane.
Donnelly was convicted for the murder and sentenced to death, but this was later commuted to a seven-year prison sentence.
In 1873, Donnelly’s son William set up a transport company in competition with another passenger line, sparking a feud characterised by arson attacks, the destruction of coaches and the killing of horses. The Donnellys were blamed for most of the violence and, eventually, a local vigilante group decided to take them on.
On February 4, 1880, a gang of about 35 men attacked their home. James Sr and his wife Johannah were both killed, along with their son Tom and Donnelly’s 21-year-old niece Bridget. The mob then moved on to William’s house, where they shot his brother John after mistaking him for William.
No one was convicted of the murders.
Known as the King of the Lake Ontario Rum-Runners, Ben Kerr, whose mother is believed to have come from Fermanagh, had a respectable middle-class background. However, he went on to have career as a notorious bootlegger, while his mysterious death on Lake Ontario in 1929 was clouded in rumour.
In 1920, the American government prohibited the sale of alcohol. An illicit trade in smuggling alcohol across the border sprang up. Kerr is believed to have begun running alcohol across Lake Ontario in 1920.
By the mid-1920s, efforts to enforce Prohibition in the United States had intensified, so Kerr started operating in the dangerous winter months.
“Lake Ontario has some of the most treacherous conditions of any inland waterway in Canada. Many bootleggers would have died in the 1920s in storms, which can blow up very quickly. It was very dangerous, as rival gangs of bootleggers would hijack booze from one another,” says Keane. In 1925, following a shoot-out with the Coastal Guard, Kerr was captured. After paying a hefty bail he absconded and moved his operation to the lake’s northern shores. But in February 1929, Kerr and his partner, Alf Wheat, went missing.
Their bodies were later washed ashore, but whether they died as the result of an accident or following an attack remains a mystery.
John ‘Red’ Hamilton
John ‘Red’ Hamilton was an Irish-Canadian bank robber and right-hand man to the notorious John Dillinger. Dillinger and Hamilton, whose family hailed from Omagh, became the most wanted bank robbers in the US. In the 1930s the duo were Numbers One and Three respectively on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
Hamilton met Dillinger while serving a prison sentence for robbery. Dillinger was paroled in May 1933, but some months later helped several jailed friends, including Hamilton, to escape, sparking a string of bank robberies across the American Mid-West.
Hamilton later shot and killed a policeman in Chicago who, acting on a tip-off, asked him for identification.
In 1934 he went on to carry out another bank robbery in Chicago, during which another policeman was shot dead. Although Dillinger was officially charged with the murder, several witnesses indicated that Hamilton was the killer.
He accompanied the gang on a string of armed robberies until April 1934, when he was believed to have been fatally wounded by a bullet as he and the rest of the gang escaped in a car. He reportedly died on April 30, 1934, but not everybody believes it, says Keane: “According to Ed Butts, the author of a book on Hamilton’s life, the family maintained that Hamilton actually survived and returned to Canada, where he lived in seclusion on an island for the rest of his days.”
The Stopwatch Gang
Paddy Mitchell, Stephen Reid and Lionel Wright formed the colourful Stopwatch Gang. One of North America’s most notorious criminal gangs — some of their exploits formed the basis of the film ‘Point Break’ — they were dubbed the Stopwatch Gang by the press because of the large stopwatch that Irish leader Mitchell wore around his neck.
The aim? To complete each heist within two minutes. In their heyday, from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, they robbed more than 140 banks in the US and Canada and landed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
The gang were known for being polite towards their victims, and for making use of diversionary tactics such as hoax phone calls about bomb threats to tie up police resources.
“They wore elaborate disguises, sometimes masks representing dead US presidents such as Nixon and John F Kennedy, and at other times dressing up as characters from Star Trek,” says Keane.
The first and most spectacular of their heists occurred at Ottawa Airport in 1974, when they stole six gold bars worth $750,000. In 1977, Mitchell was apprehended, convicted of the gold heist and other crimes and imprisoned, escaping on three occasions.
He later moved to the Philippines, but in 1994 was recognised and fled the country for the US, where he undertook one last robbery. However, he was tracked down and sentenced to 65 years in prison. He died of lung cancer in a prison hospital in 2007.
The West End Gang
Known originally as ‘the Irish Gang’, the West End Gang, dominated by Irish-Canadian criminals, grew out of the tough Montreal neighbourhoods of Griffintown and Point St Charles, where the earliest Irish immigrants had originally settled. Along with the Montreal Mafia and the Hells Angels, the West End Gang has dominated crime and the drugs trade in Montreal in recent decades.
The man often credited with establishing the West End Gang as a major force was Frank ‘Dunie’ Ryan, whose father was a native of Co Tipperary. While still in his early 20s, Ryan, who was born in Montreal in 1942, robbed a bank in Massachussetts and spent time in jail.
On his release, he returned to Montreal and entered the drugs trade in the 1970s, constructing an extensive drugs network that stretched into the US. The self-proclaimed ‘King of Montreal’ is believed to have amassed “a personal fortune of over $100 million at the height of his power”, says Keane.
In November 1984, Ryan was shot dead in a motel in Montreal. “There are different theories as to what actually happened. One version of events is that he was killed by two gangsters trying to extort money from him, but another source believes his murder was the direct result of an internal power struggle within the West End Gang.”
‘Mobs Cheanada’, which follows the award-winning programmes ‘Mobs Mheiricea’, is produced by Bríd and Eileen Seoighe from Abú Media and written and directed by Dathaí Keane. The show is broadcast on TG4 Tuesday, February 22 at 10pm for six weeks