Gerald Griffin – author of the story about the murder of ‘Colleen Bawn’

Gerald Griffin achieved international fame with his novel based on the true story of Colleen Bawn, a beautiful young bride who was murdered on the orders of her husband.

Griffin was born on 12 December 1803 in Limerick. He was an Irish novelist, poet and playwright.

A Place in Thy Memory
Collen Bawn silent movie
Wolftones video

He was also a journalist and later used what he had reported on for daily newspapers to be the basis of his most successful novel, The Collegians. The Collegians was turned into a silent movie in 1911 called Colleen Bawn, and the Wolftones later wrote a song of the same name.

The poem, A Place in Thy Memory, is from the novel The Collegians – below are the first few lines. Find the full poem here. It was based on a trial of John Scanlan who was a Protestant who murdered Ellen Hanley, a 15 year old young Catholic Irish girl.

Gerald Griffin - wrote The Collegians- turned into silent movie - Colleen Bawn

Story of Ellen Hanley – a sweet colleen

Ellen Hanley and Scanlan
Courting from the film Collen Bawn

Ellen Hanley was a real beauty and a very kindly person according to people at the time. Her father was a small farmer, and her mother died when she was only six years old. Her father was unable to cope, and she was taken in by her uncle, John Connery.

She met John Scanlan when she was 15 years old, and he became infatuated with her and asked her to marry him.

Scanlon was in his twenties and was from a family in their ascendancy and becoming more influencial. Because of their different social class, Hanley resisted his advances for a while. He reassured her that all would be well, and she agreed to marry him. They eloped in July 1819 and married.

Disapproval of the marriage

Scanlan’s family disapproved of the marriage and Hanley wasn’t accepted by them, and Scanlon quickly tired of his new young bride.

He formulated a plan to murder Hanley which involved his servant Stephan Sullivan. Sullivan took Hanley out on a boat on the river Shannon. The plan was to shoot her, but he lost his nerve, and went back to land.

Tragic boat trip from the film Colleen Bawn
Tragic boat trip

Scanlan was furious and got Sullivan drunk with whiskey and convinced them both to carry on with the boat trip. This time Sullivan murdered Hanley with a musket. He removed her clothes and ring, and tied a rope around her which was attached to a stone and dumped her in the Shannon.

Six weeks later her body was washed ashore at Moneypoint. This horrendous crime produced feelings of horror and pity among people of all classes.

Scanlan and Sullivan went on the run, but the public outcry was so great that huge efforts were made for their capture. Scanlon was arrested first, and his trial began in March, 1820. Because he was from an influencial family, the trial was closely watched by the public.

Many people thought the Scanlan would be aquitted because of his family background and that the crime had been against a commoner. His lawyer was Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator (famed for his campaigning for Catholic Emancipation).

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Journey to the gallows

Colleen Bawn: Irish (as Gaeilge) for Blonde Girl

Interested in discovering more about your Irish roots? This free online genealogy course with Strathclyde University shows you how to trace your family tree and also covers the use of DNA testing in genealogical research.

However, Scanlon was found guilty and sentenced to death , and was hanged 16 March 1820, on the Gallows Green, at the Clare side of the Shannon. Even his journey to the gallows caused disturbance. It was one mile from the jail to the gallows which Scanlon was to travel in a carriage and horses. The horses refused to move when they reached the bridge to the Gallows Green. Even though soldiers used whips and bayonets-thrusts to try to get the horses moving – they would not budge. Scanlan had to walk the rest of the way to the gallows. There he was hanged.

Danny's (Sullivan) confession in film
Danny’s (Sullivan) confession in film

Sullivan captured

Sullivan was captured and his trial took place four months later. He confessed his guilt in the murder, and that it was Scanlon who had formulated the plan and made him carry out the murder.

Scanlon and Sullivan are portrayed as Hardress Cregan and Danny Mann in the novel – The Collegians.

A Place in Thy Memory

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Did you know?

Female Irish warrior Grainne Ni Mhaile, or Grace O’Malley is one of the most colourful characters in Irish history. Born around 1530, she was a Pirate Queen and became a constant thorn in the side of British Queen Elizabeth I. Find out more.

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