The Murder of The Colleen Bawn

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Spare a thought for ‘The Colleen Bawn’ if you are ever on the ferry to Killimer in Ireland, says ANN MASSEY

Colleen Brawn

Who was the Colleen Bawn?

Ellen Hanley was a young lady with her whole life before her. That precious life was cut tragically short by way of callous, premeditated murder, at just 15 years old.

Ellen was a farmer’s daughter born in Bruree, County Limerick, Ireland in 1803. Her mother died when she was just six years old and she was raised by her uncle. A stunning girl, Ellen was regarded as intelligent and friendly and it was these qualities that caught the eye of a twenty something high class gentleman called John Scanlan.

Despite Ellen’s concerns about the huge chasm between their social backgrounds and age, John convinced her that everything would be fine and the two eloped and were married in Limerick in the summer of 1819. After just five weeks of marriage, John Scanlan grew weary of his new young bride and decided it was time to get rid of her. Together with his manservant, Stephen Sullivan, John plotted the murder of Ellen Hanley.

One evening Sullivan took Ellen out for a boating trip on the River Shannon in Scanlan’s boat, armed with a musket, fully intent on murdering his Master’s wife. When the time came to commit the heinous crime, however, Sullivan lost his nerve and was unable to go through with it, so returned to shore in Glin.

John Scanlan was furious that his plan had failed, so he plied Sullivan with whiskey and persuaded him to take her out once again. This time, full of Dutch courage, Sullivan shot Ellen in cold blood, and then removed her clothing and wedding ring, hiding them in the boat. He then weighted her down with rocks, and dumped her heartlessly into the Shannon, where the cold, dark waters enveloped Ellen’s lifeless body.

Weeks passed and Scanlan and Sullivan believed they had got away with their horrendous act. On the 6th September 1819, Ellen Hanley washed up on the banks of Moneypoint, Kilrush, in County Clare. Outrage and horror swept across the people of Clare and Limerick and the two men went on the run.

A massive search took place and John Scanlan was caught. The trial was a sensation, because of the high class of the Scanlan family and because they had hired the great Daniel O’Connell, later to become known as The Liberator to defend their own. With high social standing and a top barrister on his side, Scanlan fully expected to be acquitted. He was wrong.

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Found guilty of the murder of his wife, John Scanlan was sentenced to death. He was taken by horse-drawn carriage to Gallows Green in County Clare, or almost. The horses refused to cross the bridge into Gallows Green and Scanlan was made to walk the remaining distance to his place of execution. On 16 March 1820, John Scanlan was hanged.

Four months later, Stephen Sullivan was captured and his trial in Limerick made the headlines. He was immediately found guilty and sentenced to hang. Just before the Hangman placed the noose around his neck, Sullivan told the full story of the murder.

Ellen Hanley is buried in Burrane Cemetery near Kilrush. A Celtic Cross was erected by a local in her memory, with the inscription:

‘Here lies the Colleen Bawn
Murdered on the Shannon
July 14th 1819. R.I.P’

Colleen Bawn

Ghoulish souvenir hunters have chipped away at it over the years and now nothing is left but her grave. Ellen Hanley’s story is very much alive however, in novels, plays and even an opera. If you find yourself on the ferry to Killimer, stop by and spare a thought for the Fair Girl, spare a moment for The Coleen Bawn.

Watch The Colleen Bawn 1911 silent film


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