A rendition of the story of Colleen Bawn.Irish Film Archive

The story is shocking. The murder of a young girl at the request of her husband is still to this day one of Ireland's most talked about crimes.

The gruesome true tale tells of the poor Ellen Scanlan (nee Hanley), who was only 15 years old when she was murdered in 1819. She has since become known as the "Colleen Bawn," an anglicized spelling of "Cailín Bán" meaning the "pure/innocent girl."

Ellen was known for being a beauty that would turn heads everywhere she went, with a friendly and joyous disposition that made all those who met her instantly warm to her. Her father was a Co. Limerick farmer and her mother died when Ellen was a child, so Ellen was brought up by her uncle John Connery.

Just shy of 16 years old, she met with John Shanley, of the Ballykehan House, near Ruff in Co. Limerick, who was in his twenties Despite her reservations about his station in the world compared to her own, he convinced her to marry him, eloping from the home of her uncle in early July 1819. 

Her happiness was no to last, however, as, despite Shanley's claims that he wasn't concerned about his family when he saw that she wouldn't be accepted by them, and he began to "tire" of his wife, he persuaded his servant Stephen Sullivan to kill her. 

Sullivan took her out on the River Shannon near Kilrush, County Clare, where he killed her with a musket, stripped her, and dumped her body in the river, tied to a stone.

Her body washed ashore six weeks later at Moneypoint, Co. Clare.

Both men had fled, but Scanlan was found first and arrested for murder. The famous barrister Daniel O'Connell, generally known as the Great Emancipator for his work to win the vote for Catholics in Ireland despite himself being Protestant, defended him at his trial. (Modern-day Dublin's main street, O'Connell St, is named after the great O'Connell.)

He was found guilty, however, and hanged at Gallows Green, the place of execution on the Clare side of the Shannon.

Sullivan was apprehended shortly afterward, confessed, and also hanged. 

Ellen's death has since been the inspiration for novels, plays, and operas, including this silent film from 1911, thankfully now restored by the Irish Film Institute and Trinity College Dublin. 

Ellen is buried in Burrane cemetery near Kilrush, Co. Clare but the headstone over her grave has now vanished, as souvenir hunters gradually chipped off piece after piece over the past 200 years.  

Her headstone in the shape of a cross that once read:

"Here lies the Colleen Bawn,

Murdered on the Shannon,

July 14th, 1819. R.I.P."

*Originally published in October 2010.