The Colleen Bawn – Murder on the Shannon

Shannon-Estuary-Colleen-Bawn-John-Moylan

 

Shannon-Estuary-Colleen-Bawn-John-Moylan

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/

 

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ON TRIAL FOR WITCHCRAFT – IRISH WOMEN OF SORCERY OR POWER?

Witch trial

Were some of Ireland’s most powerful and notorious women in actual fact Witches? Or were they victims of their own success falling foul of the jealous and fearful?  Let’s take a look at three of the most well-known ‘Witches’ to be put on trial and find out!

DAME ALICE KYTELER

Alice Kyteler

In Kilkenny you will find Kyteler’s Inn, the home and business of Alice Kyteler.  Alice was the first person to be accused and charged with witchcraft in Ireland in 1324.  A moneylender in the town, Alice was married a total of four times, with each husband dying under mysterious circumstances, leaving her more wealthy each time.

Kyteler’s Inn was a meeting place for local businessmen who all vied for the attention of the bewitching Alice, showering her with gifts and money.  With her staff of luscious women, the premises were by far the busiest in Kilkenny.

As local envy and suspicion reached its peak, the surviving children of Alice’s four husbands had her charged with using poison, Sorcery, favouring her first born, denying the faith, blasphemy and animal sacrifices to the demons of the underworld.

Alice had many connections and her manipulative ways meant that she managed to avoid arrest for some time.  After several twists including her accuser, the Bishop of Ossory being jailed himself, Alice was finally imprisoned to await trial.

First up for trial was Alice’s maid, Petronella de Meath who was tortured and confessed to practising Witchcraft with her mistress.  Petronella was found guilty and burned at the stake.  Alice’s first son William was also found guilty of among other things, perjury, extortion and heresy, however his was a more lenient sentence of three masses a day for a year and feeding the poor.

In 1325 Alice escaped, only to be tried in her absence and found guilty of Witchcraft.   Alice Kyteler remained at large, never to be heard of again.  Did she use magic to finally be rid of the threat of execution, or was she simply a smart woman, able to use her skills and charm to be a success and escape the stake?

Kyteler's Inn, Kilkenny

Kyteler’s Inn, Kilkenny

FLORENCE NEWTON, THE WITCH OF YOUGHAL

witchtrial

Another sensational witch trial for Ireland was that of Florence Newton in 1661.  She was accused of enchanting Mary Langdon, the maid of a prominent figure in the town called John Pyne.

Florence had called to the house during the winter of 1660 asking for meat from the master’s table.   The maid refused and the slighted beggar left muttering curses.  When Florence met Mary Langdon on the street, she grabbed her and gave her a vicious kiss, after which time Mary became violently ill.  She suffered seizures and visions and the house of her master became subject to poltergeist activity.

When Newton was brought into Mary’s presence her sickness became worse and she began vomiting needles and nails.  Mary claimed that Florence would appear in visions, sticking pins into her body.

Newton was also accused of causing the death of her jailer through sorcery, as his widow accused Florence of kissing her husband on the hand shortly before he dropped dead.

So important was the trial of the Witch of Youghal that the Irish Attorney General came to Cork to preside and it was assumed that Florence was found guilty and hanged.  You see, despite well-kept records of the beginning of the trial, the remainder of them vanished completely so we will never know exactly what happened to Florence Newton.  Did she also use Sorcery to survive?

BIDDY EARLY AND THE MAGIC BLUE BOTTLE

blue bottle

Biddy Early was born in 1778 in Kilenena, County Clare and took her mother’s maiden name.  Ellen Early taught her daughter herbal cures, however both parents died when Biddy was sixteen and she was left in poverty and living in the poorhouse.

Marginalised for being aloof, rumour had it that Biddy had been talking to the fairies since she was a child and could control them at will.  A good looking woman, Biddy met the first of her four husbands at market, a man twice her age.

Already making a name for herself as a healer, Biddy also opened a successful Shebeen, were the local folk would drink illicit alcohol and play cards.  Within five years her husband Pat had died from alcohol consumption and she married her stepson John who also died from alcohol related issues. Her third husband died in 1868 when she was 70 and in 1869 she married a man in his thirties in exchange for a cure.

Biddy’s healing powers seemed to have centred on a mysterious blue bottle that was supposedly brought to her by a dead relative from the fairies.  No one was allowed to touch the bottle and only true believers would receive help from Biddy.

If she knew you had been to a physician you were thrown out and priests in disguise would be regularly hunted away as they tried to get to the root of her power.  Biddy publicly denounced the Catholic Church and was accused and charged with Witchcraft in 1865, which was very unusual this late on.

Fear took hold of those who had agreed to testify and Biddy was acquitted.  On her deathbed she repented and at her funeral a gathering of priests asked the community to pray for the soul of Biddy Early.

Her cottage stands in ruins and her grave in Feakle is unmarked, however her blue bottle was not to be seen after she died.  Did the fairies reclaim the source of Biddy Early’s power?

The Ruins of Biddy Early's Cottage, County Clare

The Ruins of Biddy Early’s Cottage, County Clare

Skilled, manipulative and powerful all three, but were they Witches? That knowledge is lost forever, by way of Witchcraft or otherwise!   

13 SHADES OF FEAR: IRELAND’S MOST COLOURFUL FEMALE GHOSTS

Red LadyIreland has long been famed for the number of female hauntings across the country and many of them have been associated with colour.  Here I look at thirteen of the most colourful in more ways than one! 13 Shades of Fear: Ireland’s Most Colourful Female Ghosts

GRACE O’MALLEY – THE PIRATE QUEEN OF IRELAND!

Sea Queen of Connaught  When it comes to pirates, the Irish knew a lucrative industry when they saw one and some of our greatest pirates were women! This account is that of Grace O’Malley, the Sea Queen of Connaught!

Grace O’Malley – The Pirate Queen of Ireland