Ellen Hanley was born in Co Limerick in 1803, a friendly, pretty girl whose kindness and innocence led to her neighbours calling her the Colleen Bawn.
When she was not yet sixteen, she was seduced by a John Scanlan, scion of a prominent family who had just returned from service in the Napoeonic Wars. Scanlan caused her to elope, tricked her into a fake marriage and kept her hidden in the village of Glin for six weeks. Scanlan’s mother, unaware of his actions, then arranged a match for him that would bring a fine dowry.
He decided to get rid of the young Ellen and conspired with his servant Stephen Sullivan, a fellow veteran of the Battle of Waterloo, to murder her. On July 15th, 1819, they persuaded her to join them on a boat trip across the Shannon. Some days later, her body was discovered by a Patrick O’Connell on the shore of his land at Moneypoint in Co Clare. It was obvious that she had been murdered.
John Scanlan was arrested immediately, and, despite being defended by Daniel O’Connell, was found guilty of murder. The judge interestingly ordered an early execution, “lest the powerful interest of his family should procure a respite”. As it was, the family were able to have the reportage suppressed and the trial and execution was not reported in the newspapers.
Stephen Sullivan fled to the Tralee area of Kerry and there laboured for farmers under the pseudonym of Clifford. Twelve months later he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly and brought to the police barracks. His real identity was discovered when he was recognised by a prisoner in custody who then informed the RIC. It was during the trial of Sullivan that Scanlon’s role in the brutal murder of Ellen Hanley was exposed to the public. Stephen Sullivan was also hanged.
The Colleen Bawn was buried in Burrane graveyard, near Killimer, in a grave offered by Peter O’Connell, brother of Patrick. Peter, a hedgeschool master and a Celtic scholar, was laid to rest himself in the same grave some seven years later.