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Tragic story centered on the Lakes of Killarney

Maeve Smyth, as Eily O’Connor, as Bryan Quinn, as Myles-na-Coppaleen, in Dion Boucicault’s The Colleen Bawn performed in the Stefan Hill Lyric Theatre, Belfast in 2018

THERE has been a call for a statue of the Colleen Bawn to be erected in Killarney to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of the woman who inspired the tragic story.

The new issue of History Ireland, which will be in the shops next week, will feature a fascinating article by author and historian Robert Whelan calling for a memorial to be erected in or near the town.

Ellie Hanley was a 15-year-old peasant girl who lived in Ballicahane, just outside Limerick. On 29 June 1819 she eloped with John Scanlan, son of the local gentry who lived at Ballicahane Castle, and was tricked into a sham marriage.

Scanlan set her up in a cottage in Glin where he was a frequent visitor on hunting and fishing trips so his visits there would not attract attention. After only two weeks, Scanlan tired of his pretty peasant girl and told his boatman, Stephen Sullivan, to get rid of her. On the night of 14-15 July 1819, Sullivan took Ellie out onto the Shannon in a boat and bludgeoned her to death.

Author Robert Whelan who has for a statue of Ellie Hanley to be erected in Killarney given what her story has done for tourism in the town

On 6 September Ellie’s body was washed up on the banks of the Shannon and warrants were issued for the arrest of Scanlan and Sullivan. Scanlan was found first, hiding in his parents’ castle. He was charged with murder, found guilty and hanged, protesting his innocence but Daniel O’Connell, who defended him, was convinced of his guilt.

A few weeks later Sullivan was caught, tried and found guilty. After sentencing, he confessed that he had murdered Ellie on Scanlan’s orders.

The tragic story lived on courtesy of Gerald Griffin who grew up in Limerick and was the same age as Ellie Hanley. At the age of 25, he wrote The Collegians, a novel which used the events of the murder but expanded the story.

In the book, John Scanlan became Hardress Cregan who really loved the Colleen – called Eily O’Connor in the story – and was married to her. The plot was that he was under pressure from his domineering mother to marry an heiress and he dared not tell his mother he was already married so he agreed to a period of courtship in the family’s summer home, Dinis Cottage, on the edge of the Lakes of Killarney.

His faithful boatman – called Danny Mann in the book ‒ promised to take care of the situation and he murdered Eily.

Thirty years after the publication of The Collegians, Irish playwright Dion Boucicault turned the story into a play called The Colleen Bawn, starring his wife Agnes Robertson as Eily.

The majestic Colleen Bawn Rock on the Lakes of Killarney.
Picture: Ade Desbrow

Boucicault’s play has a happy ending as he made many changes to the events of the novel, including moving the whole story to Killarney so that audiences could see the beautiful scenery of the lakes.

Queen Victoria went to see The Colleen Bawn three times in the early months of 1861 and commissioned a set of watercolours of its scenes, making it one of the best-recorded productions of the era. It was the last play she saw in public as Prince Albert died later in the year and she never went to a theatre again.

In August 1861 Queen Victoria spent three days in Killarney and in his History Ireland article, Robert Whelan contends that this detour was the result of seeing The Colleen Bawn on the stage in London earlier in the year.

Remembering Queen Victoria: ‘Lord and Lady Castlerosse’ – played by Frank Anderton and Mary Ryan – with ‘Queen Victoria’ and ‘Prince Albert’, played by Liz Ryan and Don Rohan – arriving to the official opening of the gardens at Killarney House.
Picture: Valerie O’Sullivan

The Queen’s visit took tourism in Killarney to a new level as her subjects, accustomed to travelling to the Lake District in Cumbria for mountains and lake views, began to think in terms of Killarney as an alternative.

Although the Colleen Bawn Rock has always been a feature of Killarney’s Muckross Lake, it wasn’t given that name until tourists started arriving and asking to see where the story really happened.

Robert Whelan concludes his article by calling for a statue of Ellie Hanley to be erected in Killarney.

“Ellie grew up in Limerick and never set eyes on Killarney but she deserves to be remembered in the town for which she did so much,” he said.

* The full article on the Colleen Bawn, by London-based writer and historian Robert Whelan, will appear in the Vol 27 No. 1 edition of History Ireland which will be in the shops on January 2. Robert was greatly helped in his research by Eamon Browne of Killarney Library

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