The tragic story of the “Colleen Bawn” has been the subject of books, plays, films, songs and at least one opera but it is based on fact.
The girl was Ellen Hanley and she was brutally murdered at the young age of 15 in mid-July 200 years ago.
As a result of her mother’s early death and her father’s remarriage, she was raised by her maternal uncle, a farmer who lived near Croom, Co Limerick.
By all accounts she grew into a beautiful girl with such a gentle and pleasant disposition that the neighbours called her the Colleen Bawn.
The latter word, from the Irish “bán”, could mean fair-haired but could also refer to her appealing personality.
Unfortunately, her looks drew the attention of a local member of the minor aristocracy called John Scanlan, who was a former Royal Marine and a heavy gambler.
He paid a visit to her house on the pretext of sheltering from the rain and was given a hospitable welcome, as was the practice of the time in the countryside. Following that initial introduction, he secretly visited the girl a number of times and asked her to marry him.
It is probably no surprise, given her trustful nature, that she would have fallen for him. His wealthy background must have promised security and the prospect of living in the “Big House” would have seemed attractive to someone of modest means.
He told her that his family was opposed to the union but that would change and persuaded her to elope with him. In addition, he convinced her to take the dowry of £60 that her uncle had put by for her, something she was very reluctant to do. Fatally for her, they left her uncle’s farm late on a summer’s night in 1819.
The details of what subsequently happened may be found in Marian Broderick’s very interesting book, Bold, Brilliant and Bad: Irish Women from History, published last year. She recounts that a young Protestant clergyman met Ellen Hanley on a passenger boat on the Shannon and that she told him how sorry she was to have left her uncle’s farm and that her new husband was drinking and gambling her dowry away.
The same clergyman told of how a few weeks later, his friend the Knight of Glin, a magistrate, had to preside at a dispute over the ownership of a fine green silk cloak which a Maura Sullivan, sister of Scanlan’s loyal servant Stephen Sullivan, had got possession of in suspicious circumstances. During this dispute, it was revealed that Scanlan’s new wife had disappeared.
Shortly after this, a body tied with rope washed ashore from the Shannon. The Knight of Glin and his clergyman friend went to investigate and it turned out that the young boatman who was taking them recognised the rope on the body as his own. He’d lent it to Scanlan and Sullivan a few days before. The body was identified as that of Ellen Hanley.
In the search for the two men that followed, it was rumoured that Sullivan had fled to America. Scanlan was found hiding on his parents’ property. Despite the best legal representation his family could pay for, he was convicted of murder and hanged. Sullivan hadn’t gone to America and was arrested during the following year. Following his conviction, he admitted he’d carried out the killing but claimed Scanlan planned it. He also revealed the gruesome details: he took the young girl out on the Shannon, beat her to death, tied up the body, weighed it down and threw her overboard. He, too, was hanged for the murder.
The Colleen Bawn is buried in Burrane graveyard, near Killimer, Co Clare, thanks to the kindness of Peter O’Connell, a local schoolmaster who had just acquired a grave there and took pity on the unfortunate girl and her family.
The most famous creative work based on Ellen Hanley’s tragic story is probably Dion Boucicault’s play The Colleen Bawn or the Brides of Garryowen, which was first performed in New York in 1860. (It differs from the true story in having a happy ending.) This in turn led to Julius Benedict’s opera, The Lily of Killarney, which opened at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in February 1862.
Boucicault’s play additionally gave rise to a number of films, and the sad fate of Ellen Hanley also inspired several songs.
There is a large rock known as the Colleen Bawn in Muckross Lake in Co Kerry, which Marian Broderick regards as “the most fitting memorial of all”.