IRELAND’S STRANGEST LAWS

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Ireland is a nation with a long, bloody and somewhat peculiar history with laws to match. Over numerous centuries we have been subject to Pagan Law, Brehon Law, Church Law and more than a few dubious by-laws to name just a few. Of course, being Irish we like to amuse and have the craic and some of our bygone regulations do just that! Here are my strangest Irish Laws!

Suicide

Up until 1993 Suicide was a punishable offence under Irish Criminal Law. More bizarrely, until 1964, the penalty for Suicide was…death by hanging.

Witchcraft

Florence-Newton

The Witchcraft Act of 1735 stated that “Any person who shall pretend or exercise to use any type of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or pretend knowledge in any occult or craft or science shall for any such offence suffer imprisonment at the time of one whole year and also shall be obliged to obscursion for his/her good behaviour.” This meant that whether you were a Master Sorcerer cursing thousands or a charlatan soothsayer, the penalty was the same. This Act was not revoked until 2006.

Murder and Theft

Killers and robbers were for centuries given trial by way of ‘ordeal by water’. Prisoners were cast into the nearest deep body of water and if they floated they were acquitted. That sounds fair until you realise that a millstone was tied to them before they were tossed into the murky depths.

For a long time, execution was deemed the last resort for a murderer as it was felt a financial penalty would be more useful. There were two types of fine payable. One was a fixed rate regardless of the deceased. The second was an honour fine and the amount was based on kinship and status. In the event the murderer was unable to pay the fine, the victim’s family took ownership of the convicted felon and had a few options. The first was to just keep the murderer until payment was given. The second was to sell him on. The final choice was to kill him – of course then you have to pay his family and so it goes on…

Marriage

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Until the 1920’s in Teltown, County Meath, if a man and a woman walked towards one another on Saint Bridget’s Day, they could pronounce themselves legally wed.

Brehon Law was first documented in the 8th Century and related to many Pagan customs and ceremonies. There were several levels of ‘marriage’ relating to status, property and so on making it very complicated. Divorce and dissolution of marriage however, were a much simpler affair! A woman could call an end to her marriage after one year for a myriad of reasons including pretty much boredom. She would walk away with all she brought with her, plus everything she gained during the marriage including property provided she was a good wife. A man was legally allowed to hit his wife, however everytime he did he had to pay for it. Quite literally in fact to the point where some wife beaters would be left penniless!

Trinity College Doctrine

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It has been for centuries, illegal to walk through the Trinity College Campus without carrying a sword. Oddly enough it doesn’t seem to get enforced much! Of course, if you were a stickler for the rules, carrying that sword gave you entitlement to drink wine as you sat your exams.

As if carrying that sword didn’t give you enough power, it is said that on one day a year Protestants were able to climb the Trinity bell tower called the Campanile and shoot a Catholic. Not sure what degree that would be for!

Fast and Penance by Law

In 1815 an order came from Ireland that the people of Ireland were to offer up a prayer of thanks for the Battle of Waterloo.

Prior to this in 1665, a law was issued that the people of Ireland should fast and give penance on the first Wednesday of each month in a bid to rid London of the Bubonic Plague. With the Great Fire of London not far behind, you would wonder what the Irish were praying for!

Beyond The Pale

The Pale was an area outside of Dublin City Centre which the English used as the base for their rule in Ireland and became full of English settlers. In 1590 a law was passed to prevent the sale of horses in The Pale and the penalty was death. The reason? The Crown did not want the English settlers trading with the Irish Clans who lived…wait for it…beyond The Pale! Yes, that’s EXACTLY where that saying comes from!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Colleen Bawn – Murder on the Shannon

Shannon-Estuary-Colleen-Bawn-John-Moylan

 

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Shannon Estuary by John Moylan. Murder location of the Colleen Bawn

Born into a Limerick farming family in 1803, Ellen Hanley’s life was snuffed out in a cold, calculated murder at only fifteen years of age.

Living in the village of Bruree, Ellen’s mother passed away when the girl was no more than six years old and she moved in with her uncle. Ellen grew into a young lady of incredible beauty that was equally matched by her warmth, quick wit and intelligence.

It was not long before she courted the interest of a certain gentleman of distinction by the name of John Scanlan, John himself was in his twenties and very much a socialite of shallow persuasion which would ultimately lead to Ellen’s bitter end.

John Scanlan pursued Ellen relentlessly and begged for her hand in marriage. Ellen had grave misgivings about both the age gap and their different social standing, but John would not take no for an answer. In the summer of 1819, John Scanlan and Ellen Hanley were wed in Limerick city.

True to his form, John grew bored of his child wife within just five weeks of marriage and began to hatch a plot to make her disappear, so he could renew his carefree, lewd lifestyle.

John and his servant Stephen Sullivan schemed and ultimately planned the murder of the new bride.

John Scanlan convinced Ellen to take a boating trip on the River Shannon with his servant, leaving from the shores of Glin Castle. Sullivan boarded the boat complete with loaded musket and murder in his heart, however when the time came he was unable to shoot the innocent beauty.

When John Scanlan saw the boat return to Glin with two people on board he was outraged. He filled Stephen Sullivan with whiskey until he was so drunk he agreed to go ahead with the murder plot. Once again Sullivan rowed Ellen out into the Shannon Estuary and with the threatening words of his master ringing in his ears, the callous servant shot Ellen point blank.

Without an ounce of remorse, Stephen Sullivan stripped Ellen Hanley naked and took her wedding ring, stowing them away in the boat. She was weighed down with rocks and her young, broken body was dropped unceremoniously overboard. Fifteen-year-old Ellen Hanley was enshrouded in the inky black waters of the River Shannon.

Scanlan and Sullivan toasted their successful murder as weeks had passed and they were convinced they had got away with their heinous deed. This was not to be as on 6th September 1819, the porcelain white corpse of the missing Ellen was washed up in Kilrush, County Clare.

So horrific was the discovery of the slain child bride, the people of County Clare and County Limerick became frenzied in anger and dismay and the two guilty men fled.

A huge manhunt was begun and before long John Scanlan was captured. The Scanlan family were a family of high standing in social circles and they were not having their name dragged through the mud. They hired the great Irishman Daniel O’Connell, known as ‘The Liberator’ for his work in bringing emancipation to Irish Catholics in later years.

With his family name and the best barrister in Ireland behind him, John Scanlan sat smugly through his trial fully expecting to be acquitted. He could not have been more mistaken.

Scanlan was found guilty without question of the pre-mediated murder of Ellen Hanley. A horse-drawn carriage was commissioned to take the condemned man to Gallows Green in County Clare. The horse bucked and refused to cross the bridge over to Gallows Green and John Scanlan made his last living steps walking to the gallows to be hanged. John Scanlan was executed on 16th March 1820.

The story does not end here, for just a few months later, manservant Stephen Sullivan was caught, and his Limerick trial made front page news. He also was found guilty and sentenced to execution. In a last-minute fit of conscience, Sullivan recounted the events surrounding the murder of Ellen before the Hangman placed the noose around his fated neck.

In the small, rural Burrane Cemetery near Kilrush the body of the Colleen Bawn, Ellen Hanley is buried. Colleen Bawn is Irish for ‘white girl’.

Ellen lies beneath a Celtic Cross donated by the local community with an epitaph that says:

‘Here lies the Colleen Bawn

Murdered on the Shannon

July 14th 1819. R.I.P’

Over time the curious and the ghoulish have chiselled away bit by bit taking morbid keepsakes until nothing much more remains. The story of the Colleen Bawn lives on almost two hundred years after her untimely death in plays, novels and musical interpretations. It seems that the macabre nature of her demise will never be forgotten.

The Colleen Bawn

Thanks to John Moylan for his outstanding shot of the River Shannon. More of John Moylan’s photographic work can be found here:

https://www.johnmoylanphotography.com/