True Crime in Regency Ireland: The Colleen Bawn

This one has everything.

Ellen Hanley was born in 1803, at Bruree, County Limerick. When her mother died while she was still a little girl, she was fostered out to her maternal uncle John Connery (a shoemaker) and his wife, who lived at Ballycahane, Croom (also in County Limerick). They loved her as their own and took good care of her, and she grew up a gentle, kindly, lively young girl whom all the neighborhood thought well of. Her local nickname was “An Cailin Bhan” (the Fair Young Woman). The Anglicized spelling is “the Colleen Bawn.”

But since everybody she knew loved her, she assumed that nobody would do her harm.

In May 1819, when she was still only 15 years old, she met up with a member of the gentry, one John Fitzgibbon Scanlan or Scanlon, who had come to live at Ballykehan or Ballycahane House in Bruff, also in County Limerick. (As seen by the house name, he was a neighbor, not a stranger; but his people lived at Loghill or Loughill, also in County Limerick, but on the banks of the River Shannon.) He was the eldest son and heir. He had actually been a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Marines, but had left or been dismissed after Waterloo.

John apparently persuaded Ellen that he loved her, that the differences in social status didn’t matter, and that they should marry and live happily ever after. She went with him.

But… she wasn’t all good. In the sort of thing that happens in other murder ballads, but is glossed over in most retellings of this tale, our Ellen apparently decided that she would take along a hundred pounds as her dowry. (And since her uncle was reasonably well-off for a shoemaker, it’s possible that the hundred pounds was her legit dowry. But running off without telling her uncle and aunt was definitely not legit.) Scanlon was apparently all for it, because he needed the money.

She thought they had married, but it turned out at the trial that there were no marriage records. So it would seem that he had hired a fake clergyman, in order to have his fun without ties. In any case, Ellen was under the age of consent, so there could be no legal marriage without the consent of her parents or guardians. He also didn’t inform his parents, which should have been a red flag for Ellen.

So they lived together for five or six weeks, with her fake wedding ring on her finger, and with her skeevy husband living off his teenage squeeze’s money. Then John Scanlan’s mother summoned him with letters, informing him that she’d arranged him a good marriage with a nice fat dowry. But Scanlan had apparently found out that his sweet bride was not a pushover, because he didn’t just up and leave her, or drop her off somewhere. (Which he legally could have done, because they weren’t married by the laws of church or state; but it would have made a stink for him.)

No, he decided that she had to be got rid of.

But he didn’t intend to do it. No, that was going to be a job for Stephen Sullivan, his manservant. So in July, the couple traveled to Glin, a village on the banks of the River Shannon. He sent Ellen out to cross the River Shannon in a boat, with Sullivan to row and dump the body.

But Sullivan couldn’t do it. He rowed on back, with the charming Ellen still alive.

So on July 15, Scanlan got his servant lit on whiskey, and sent them out on the river another day. And this time, she didn’t come back. Sullivan had shot her with his musket, stripped off the ring and her dress (which might identify her), weighted down her body with rocks, and dumped her in the deepest part of the river. And since the Shannon is deep, wide, and leads to the sea, they would never have to worry about her ever again. Then Scanlan went to Cork and enlisted again.

But on September 6, 1819, Ellen’s shift-clad body washed up at Moneypoint, near Kilrush, County Clare, on the tiny bit of land owned by a farmer named Patrick O’Connell. His brother, Peter O’Connell, was a well-known poet, linguist, and schoolmaster in the neighborhood. The musket shot was very evident, and apparently the girl was still recognizable. An investigation began, as well as a good deal of indignation toward the murderer. The more people found out, the angrier they got. Scanlan deserted his new regiment and fled, but there was a massive manhunt. Both John Scanlan and Stephen Sullivan were eventually apprehended and put on trial.

Scanlan’s family hired Daniel O’Connell, one of the all-time great defense lawyers and orators. Even he couldn’t get the scum off. Scanlan was sentenced to be hanged at Gallows Green in County Clare, but the horses shied at the bridge and wouldn’t take him across. He ended up having to walk to the gallows, and he died in disgrace on March 16, 1820.

Scanlan died still claiming his innocence, and saying that the murder was all his servant’s idea. His claim was that his plan had been to have Sullivan dump Ellen on an immigrant ship, unable to get off until she got to America. (This may seem farfetched, but it had actually happened to a local girl, Judith Lynch, who was impregnated by a married man of wealth. When she got to America and protested, the government sent her back and there was a trial.)

Daniel O’Connell is quoted as having written to his wife on March 15, 1820:

“I had a client convicted yesterday for which I fought a hard battle, and yet I do not feel any the most slight regret at his conviction. It is very unusual with me to be so satisfied, but he is a horrid villain….”

Peter O’Connell had compiled the most complete dictionary of the Irish language up to that time, and took the opportunity to approach his clansman for help in getting it published. Daniel O’Connell apparently didn’t feel interested or equal to doing it. The dictionary never was published, although it did survive its lexicographer. There are copies at Trinity College, the British Museum, and the Royal Irish Academy. His dictionary entries have been used by later lexicographers as a source.

Scanlan’s manservant, Stephen Sullivan, had managed to elude the law for four months longer than his master. But after being caught he had a separate trial. Sullivan was also hanged, but he gave a full confession first with details that hadn’t come up at the trial.

As for Ellen Hanley? The poet Peter O’Connell had just bought himself a plot in Burrane Cemetery when his brother Patrick discovered her remains. He saw this as a sign, and offered his grave as her resting place. After the famous trial, some admirer paid for her to have a fancy Celtic cross gravestone. Unfortunately, souvenir hunters eventually chipped it to pieces.

And when Peter O’Connell died seven years later, in 1826, they laid him to rest in the grave of the Colleen Bawn.

And this is the privilege of a poet: to sleep on the same bed as his lord.

The story of the murdered Cailin Ban is sometimes confused with the story of the “Polly Vaughn” song, about the girl accidentally killed by her sweetheart “who took her to be some swan.” In that story, Polly’s ghost appears in court to clear her true love’s name. Obviously, none of this happened to the Colleen Bawn!

However, she does have her own opera, The Lily of Killarney. She also has three novels and a play by Dion Boucicault, “The Colleen Bawn,” which (like the opera) is based upon Gerald Griffin’s three-volume novel, The Collegians, that used a Killarney adaptation of her story. Boucicault’s play featured a character called “Myles na Copaleen.” (This name was later taken as a pseudonym by Brian O’Nolan, also aka Flann O’Brien.) There was also an Irish silent movie of “The Colleen Bawn.” (The actress’ hairstyle is scary, though.)

The huge amount of fictionalization was apparently also done to avoid Scanlan’s family putting the kibosh on things, and partly because a lot of the writers knew the families involved and wanted to draw a veil over it. However, this didn’t spare Griffin a lot of criticism for causing people pain with his book!

There’s a very good modern ballad, “The Colleen Bawn,” that was written by the Wolfetones.

A short 1974 news story from RTE about the Colleen Bawn, showing her uncle’s house where she lived.

There’s a true crime book about the case called The Poor Man’s Daughter: A Return to the Colleen Bawn, with an introduction by Janet Murphy and Eileen Chamberlain, which points out that news coverage at the time (and afterward!) avoided pointing out John Scanlon’s exalted antecedents, even though the locals knew all about it. It’s embarrassing to have a murderer in the family. On the other hand, it is possible that Scanlan was convicted of murder on very little evidence, because there was fear of popular resentment if one of the gentry appeared to have gotten away with murder. Most of the info in this post comes from this book, which otherwise reprints a period account of the case by a local clergyman.

Ballycahane House was inherited by Scanlan’s brother, a sea captain. It was destroyed by fire in 1822, and rebuilt on a much smaller scale.

Bruree = Brugh Righ. (Modern spelling: Bru Ri.) “Fort of the king.” A village on the River Maigue.

Croom = Cromadh. “Riverbend.” Another village on the River Maigue.

Bruff = An Brugh. (Pronounced a different way, but the same word for “fort.”)

Moneypoint: Now the site of a hydroelectric power station.

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