The horrifying story of Ellen Hanley, The Colleen Bawn

The tragic story of The Colleen Bawn leaves a dark imprint on Irish history. While her story is a distant tale to us now, it is one that shook the country to its core.

This is the horrifying story of Ellen Hanley, The Colleen Bawn.

The story of The Colleen Bawn is one of the most chilling tales that captivated Ireland back in 1820, yet not many people remember it today.

Back before the days of true-crime series, tales of murder were few and far between. But who was the girl behind it all? Read on to discover the horrific story of Ellen Hanley.

Who is Ellen Hanley? – pure of heart

Ellen Hanley is known as The Colleen Bawn.
Credit: flickr.com / Sarah Zucca

Ellen, or Ellie as she was known in her home of Ballycahane in North Limerick, was known for her beauty and innocence. Locals gave her the nickname “an cáilín bán” (the white girl) as a nod towards her pure nature. 

Conscious of the child’s future, her uncle and legal guardian began putting money away to use as a dowry when the time was right for Ellie to marry.

By the age of 15, Ellie’s dowry amounted to just over a hundred pounds, a considerable sum for a person of the peasant class in that time.

Enter John Scanlan an aristocratic bad boy

Hanley ran away with Scanlan to get married, but he had darker intentions with the girl.
Credit: pixabay.com / Tim Parkinson

Ellie’s beauty caught the eye of the handsome John Scanlan, a notorious gambler in his early twenties and heir to Ballycahane Castle. After mere weeks, the pair disappeared without a trace, along with Ellie’s dowry.

It is said that Ellie and John Scanlan eloped near the village of Glin. However, there is no evidence proving this union, and it is thought that Scanlan enlisted a fake priest to fool the girl into handing over her dowry.

After only a month, Ellie disappeared. When questioned about her absence, Scanlan replied that she had run away with a sailor.

Where did Ellie go? – a body is discovered

Hanley's body was discovered by two fishermen.
Credit: flickr.com / Brett Hodnett

So did Ellie find love with a sailor and run away from her initial marriage? Not exactly. While fifteen-year-olds today worry about their Junior Cert results and getting the shift, Ellie had much bigger problems.

Some six weeks after her disappearance, two fishermen discovered a body washed up on the shore. The body was that of a young girl. The body was missing an arm, and no teeth remained in her skull. 

The police were notified, and Ellie’s maid, Ellen, was summoned to identify the body, a difficult task considering the decomposition. When asked if the girl had any identifiable marks, Ellen described her mistress as having a double set of front teeth.

Although the corpse had no teeth remaining, a doctor was called and was able to identify her tooth sockets as matching Ellen’s description.

Therefore, the body was declared to be that of the missing Ellie Hanley, the Colleen Bawn, and a warrant was sent for the arrest of Scanlan and his servant Sullivan.

Scanlan’s trial – what happened?

Scanlan’s family enlisted the expertise of Ireland’s most famed barrister, Daniel O’Connell, who attempted to blame the still missing Sullivan.
Credit: flickr.com / Ralf Steinberger

Scanlan’s family enlisted the expertise of Ireland’s most famed barrister, Daniel O’Connell, who attempted to blame the still missing Sullivan.

However, the jury found it hard to believe that Sullivan could carry out the deed without some involvement from Scanlon, given the closeness of the two men.

Scanlan was therefore declared guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Shortly after Scanlan’s death, Sullivan was found in County Kerry.

Without any money to afford himself a high-class barrister, Sullivan resorted to telling his truth on the matter. And his story was a horrifying tale for the jury to hear.

The murder of Ellie Hanley – the Colleen Bawn

The murder of Ellen Hanley is one of the most tragic murder tales in Ireland.
Credit: Instagram / @meabhusd

According to Sullivan, his master quickly became bored of Ellie. Once her dowry was secured, he began hassling his servant to get rid of her. While disagreeing at first, Sullivan eventually agreed.

The initial plan was for Sullivan to get Ellie so drunk that she would pass out. Then he would row her out into the River Shannon estuary, shoot her and throw her body overboard.

Sullivan, however, could not follow out the plan and rowed her back to shore to be met by his furious master. Scanlan was livid and demanded he go out and make a second attempt.

During the second attempt, Sullivan shot his gun but missed, hitting his victim in the arm, waking her up and causing her to scream in terror.

 monument is erected in the girl's honour, and rightly so.
Credit: irishwaterwayshistory.com

Panicking, Sullivan proceeded to bludgeon the girl to death with the butt of his gun, causing the girl to lose all her teeth in the struggle.

While Sullivan’s story explains that he was responsible for killing Ellie Hanlon, Scanlan was the brains behind the operation. After only fifteen minutes of deliberation, the jury declared Sullivan guilty, and he was also sentenced to death by hanging.

Ellie’s body lies in Killimer graveyard. While her grave lies unmarked, a monument is erected in the girl’s honour, and rightly so.