The Story of Danny Mann and Colleen Bawn
One of Ireland’s most notorious murders of the Irish beauty, Ellen Hanley
In the year 1819 began the gruesome true tale of the murder of a young peasant girl, Ellen Scanlan born Ellen Henley, who fell in love with the wrong man John Scanlan and paid with her life. Ellen Scanlan has since been christened by the Irish writer Gerald Griffin as ‘Colleen Bawn’, in his play ‘The Collegians’. Colleen Bawn is an anglicized spelling of “Cailín Bán” meaning ‘white girl,’ with ‘white’ symbolically meaning purity, innocence, gentleness, or beauty. Thus, the name Colleen Bawn can be interpreted as “the innocent maiden.” Ellen’s murder at the age of 15 has since been the inspiration and subject of books, plays, films, songs, and an opera, including this silent film from 1911, thankfully now restored by the Irish Film Institute and Trinity College Dublin.
Ellen Scanlan was born to a Limerick farming family in 1803 however she was brought up by her uncle John Connery. She was a friendly, joyful young beauty who turned heads everywhere she went and those that met her instantly warmed to her kind nature. Her beauty caught the attention of John Scanlan an older man who lived with his family in Ballicahane castle. John Scanlan convinced Ellen to elope and marry him despite her reservations about his higher status in society compared to her own. In July 1819, Ellen took her Uncle’s life savings and the two got married in Limerick. John Scanlan told Ellen that the time was not right to introduce her to his family and put her up in a house near Glin. John Scanlan was a frequent visitor to Glin for shooting, fishing, and boating so his frequent visits would not arouse suspicion in his family.
It was said that John Scanlan was not concerned by his family’s acceptance of Ellen however he had grown tired of his wife and in turn arranged her murder, less than 4 weeks after getting married. John Scanlan ultimately persuaded his servant Stephen Sullivan who hero-worshipped his master and would do anything for him to kill Ellen Scanlan.
One night in July 1819 Stephen Sullivan christened by the Irish writer Gerald Griffin as Danny Mann, took a boat out into the middle of the River Shannon near Kilrush, Co. Clare and beat Ellen to death with a musket, stripped her, and tied her body to a large stone and threw her overboard.
Ellen’s body washed ashore at Moneypoint, Co. Clare a few weeks later. Her body was so disfigured that her body could only be identified by two unusual double teeth on either side of her upper jaw. Both John Scanlan and Stephen Sullivan fled and went into hiding. Scanlan was caught hiding in his parent’s castle. Daniel O’Connell was a famous barrister known as the Great Emancipator for his work to win the vote for Catholics despite himself being Protestant defended John Scanlan in his trial. O’Connell claimed that John Scanlan’s marriage to Ellen Scanlan was a scam and that he had no reason to kill the young girl. The jury however found him guilty, and he was hung in March 1920 still protesting his innocence.
Sullivan was apprehended shortly afterward. He was found in a Tralee gaol under a false name. He confessed to murdering Ellen Scanlan which he carried out on John Scanlan’s orders. He was trialed and found guilty. Stephen Sullivan was hung in July 1820.
Ellen Scanlan’s grave can be found in Burrane cemetery near Kilrush, Co. Clare. Her headstone no longer exists due to souvenir hunters gradually chipping off piece after piece over the past 200 years.
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.