It was autumn 1819 when the body of a 15-year old girl was found floating along the estuary of the River Shannon, Ireland. Through a police investigation, it was discovered that her death was orchestrated by her recently eloped husband John Scanlan, who was a few years her senior.
She was Ellen Hanley, orphaned at an early age and raised by her uncle John Connery. She was known by the nickname “Colleen Bawn,” an anglicized spelling of “Cailín Bán” meaning the “pure/innocent girl”. This attracted the eye of John, who convinced the lower dispositioned maiden to run away with him and get married.
Within a few weeks of their betrothal, John’s unaware sister had arranged another marriage with a tempting dowry. In order for him to take advantage of the situation, he conspired with his servant Stephen Sullivan to kill his young bride.
On July 14, 1819 Stephen lured the innocent girl onto a boat, where he shot Ellen and dumped her body into the river with a stone. Her body was eventually discovered floating near Money Point.
To avoid detection, both men fled the area.
John was captured first and put on trial for murder. He was defended by Daniel O’Connell, a national hero known as the Great Emancipator for his work to win the vote for Catholics in Ireland despite himself being Protestant. Despite being of a higher social class than his dead wife, Scanlan was found guilty, and sentenced to death. He was hanged at Gallows Green, the place of execution on the Clare side of the Shannon. A year later, Stephen met a similar fate: he confessed, and also hanged.
The story of Ellen’s death became the inspiration for several plays, novels, operas, and even this silent movie from 1911:
She was buried in a cemetery outside the town of Kilrush but, due to the popularity of her narrative and eager souvenir hunters, her grave no longer exists.
Her headstone – in the shape of a cross – once read:
“Here lies the Colleen Bawn,
Murdered on the Shannon,
July 14th, 1819. R.I.P.”
There is, however, a monument placed near her final resting place, very close to Killimer Ferry Terminal, near the Burrane Burial Ground on R486, Burrane Lower.