In the Autumn of 1819, the bound body of a 15-year old girl washed ashore near Money Point at Burrane, on the Clare coast. She had been murdered at the request of her recently eloped husband, John Scanlon.
Ellen Scanlon (née Hanley) was born to a Limerick farming family in 1803. Her murder became the subject of books, plays, films, songs and an opera, using the nickname given to her, ‘the Colleen Bawn’ – an Anglicised spelling of the Irish Cailín Bán, interpreted as pure/innocent girl.
Ellen was orphaned at an early age and was being raised by her uncle, John Connery. Her beauty attracted the attention of John Scanlan, who was in his twenties, and Ellen was attracted to Scanlan both for his charming nature and the prospect of an elevated status.
When Ellen disappeared in June 1819, it was widely suspected that she had eloped with Scanlan. No marriage records exist, but it appears that Ellen and Scanlan may have been married in secret, perhaps informally, and that Ellen lived as his bride in Glan, a property of the Scanlan family on the opposite shore of the Shannon River. Within six weeks of the marriage, Scanlan’s family, who were unaware of the marriage to Ellen, allegedly proposed a match between Scanlan and the daughter of a wealthy nobleman. Scanlan hired his servant Stephen Sullivan to murder Ellen.
On the night of 14 July 1819, Sullivan convinced Ellen to share a drink with him. Both became intoxicated, and Sullivan persuaded Ellen to go rowing with him on the Shannon River. Once he had convinced the girl to join him in the boat, he shot her. He bound her body to a rock with a rope provided by Scanlan and threw her in the river. On 6 September 1819, Ellen’s bound body washed ashore near Money Point. The rope and boat were linked to Scanlan, and a manhunt ensued.
Scanlan was almost immediately discovered, arrested, and made a full confession. His trial took place in March 1820. He was represented by Daniel O’Connell, a national hero in Ireland and a leading lawyer of the day. Nevertheless, in August of that year, Scanlan was found guilty. Local legend states that the horses that were to take Scanlan to the gallows refused to pull once Scanlan was placed in the wagon, therefore Scanlan was forced to walk to the distance as the public jeered. He was hanged at Gallows Green, Garryowen, Limerick. However, the wealthy Scanlan family managed to contain the scandal, and the murder and execution were not well-known outside of the immediate area.
Sullivan eluded capture for nearly a year after Scanlan’s execution, but was eventually found, tried, and hanged. In his confession, he fully implicated John Scanlan, and the story was reported by The Newgate Calendar, increasing its popularity.
Ellen is buried in the Burrane Cemetery near Kilrush, Co Clare. The late Mrs Reeves, of Bessborough House, which is situated near the graveyard, erected a Celtic cross at the head of the grave. It bore the following inscription:
‘Here lies Colleen Bawn,
Murdered on the Shannon,
July 14th 1819. R.I.P.’
There is no longer any trace of this cross. It was chipped off, bit by bit, by souvenir hunters.
Video | The Colleen Bawn (1911) Irish Silent Films on the Internet | A film Restoration Project of Irish Film & TV Research Online, Trinity College Dublin