Hanley, Ellie (1803–19), the ‘Colleen bawn ’, was born in Ballycahane, near Croom, Co. Limerick, daughter of Michael Hanley, farmer, and his first wife (née Connery). At 6 years old, she was adopted by her mother's brother, John Connery, ropemaker, also of Ballycahane. Connery's cottage was less than a mile from Ballycahane Castle, former home of the Ludmore family and since 1801 in the possession of Matthew Scanlan of Loughrea, who had married the Ludmore daughter, Catherine. Their eldest son, John Scanlan, was known about the county as a ‘young buck’; a former second lieutenant in the marines, he had been dismissed in June 1815 and had spent the succeeding years fishing and hunting. On 29 June 1819 he persuaded Ellie Hanley, who was not quite 16 years old and of striking beauty, to elope from her uncle's house, first robbing it of £100 in notes and twelve guineas (£12.60) in gold. Scanlan and his boatman and inseparable companion, Stephen Sullivan, took Hanley to Limerick, where a mock marriage ceremony was allegedly performed. The trio then departed by boat to the east side of the Shannon, and spent time in Glin and Kilrush, Co. Clare, where Scanlan was well known. On 13 July they gave passage at Kilrush to four Glin people, including Ellen Walsh, who had been acting as Ellie's maid. A storm forced them to land at Carrigfoyle and the following morning the Glin people left by another boat. Walsh saw Scanlan and Sullivan in Glin the next day and was told by the former that Ellie was visiting his sister and by the latter that she had run off with a sea-captain. On 6 September a body was found at Money Point, Co. Clare, and was identified by Ellen Walsh as Ellie Hanley thanks to the distinguishing characteristic of two double teeth in the upper jaw.
Dublin Castle offered a reward for the capture of Scanlan and Sullivan; the former was uncovered on 14 November 1819, hiding in his father's house. His trial before Justice Richard Jebb (qv) opened at the Limerick assizes on 11 March 1820; the Scanlans spared no expense and hired Daniel O'Connell (qv) as the defence lawyer. Mr Pennefeather, for the crown, claimed that Scanlan had disposed of Hanley to save him from the embarrassment of an ill-advised marriage. However, he also claimed that the marriage ceremony had been bogus, and O'Connell seized on this anomaly, stating that as they had never been married, Scanlan had no motive for murder since ‘in the social circles in which he moves, his deception of a young peasant girl would incur no greater penalty than a mild tut-tut’ (Lysaght, 52). O'Connell's contention that Sullivan alone was responsible for the murder held no sway, and Scanlan was hanged in Limerick on 16 March 1820, protesting his innocence until the end. His friends and relatives clung to O'Connell's theory but O'Connell himself had no illusions and wrote to his wife that he did not feel ‘the slightest regret at [my client's] conviction. It is very unusual for me to be so satisfied but he is a horrid villain’ (O'Connell, Correspondence, ii, 820). Two months later Sullivan was uncovered in Scartaglen, Kerry, where he had married and assumed the name of Clifford. On 25 July 1820 his case was heard in Limerick. Too impoverished to be represented, he pleaded not guilty but was hanged on 27 July 1820. On the morning of his death he made a full confession that he had indeed murdered Ellie Hanley by bludgeoning her with a musket in a boat on the night of 14 July 1819 and then throwing her body overboard, but that he had done so only at the instigation of Scanlan. His evident remorse convinced all of his veracity. His sentencing received greater media coverage than that of the well connected Scanlan.
This cause célèbre inspired the novelist Gerald Griffin (qv) to write the classic The collegians (1829), which in turn provided Dion Bouciault (qv) with the story for his play ‘The Colleen Bawn’ (first performed 27 March 1860) and Sir Julius Benedict with his opera ‘The lily of Killarney’ (performed 10 February 1862). It may also have been the basis for the sub-plot in Dickens's David Copperfield (1849) dealing with the seduction of ‘Little Em'ly’ from her uncle's house. The first factual account was The true history of the Colleen Bawn (1869) by the Rev. Richard Fitzgerald, who in 1819 was a TCD student on vacation in the area. The character of Ellie Hanley never emerges as more than a cipher, her most frequent appellation is ‘lovely young creature’ (O'Connell, ibid; Fitzgerald, 1). She is buried in Burrane, Co. Clare; her grave was a huge tourist attraction throughout the nineteenth century.