If you find yourself in Killimer with time to spare — if you’ve early for the ferry to Tarbert or you’ve just got off it — go and visit the grave of the Colleen Bawn.
It’s funny that someone who was sufficiently well known to have her grave marked on the Ordnance Survey map should now be largely forgotten.
On that map, incidentally, the modern ferry terminal is located where “Quay (Disused)” is shown. There is a memorial to the Colleen in the village.
The Colleen Bawn (from cailín bán, fair girl) was Ellen Hanley, aged 15, who eloped with John Scanlan who, after a few weeks, had his servant Stephen Sullivan murder her in a boat on the Shannon Estuary.
Her body was washed ashore near Money Point on 6 September 1819. Scanlan and Sullivan were tried, found guilty and hanged for her murder, although Daniel O’Connell defended Scanlan.
Perhaps the best account of the case is in William MacLysaght and Sigerson Clifford Death Sails the Shannon: the tragic story of the Colleen Bawn; the facts and the fiction (The Kerryman, Tralee 1953; later editions and reprints Anvil Books, Tralee). Clare Library has a short account from the Clare People here.
If you want to visit the grave, park in Killimer and walk up: it’s a narrow road with no parking spaces at the graveyard. Actually, there are now two graveyards, with a new one on the seaward side of the road.
As the graveyards are on a small hill, there are superb views of Tarbert and of the ferry going back and forth.
Even were it not for the Colleen Bawn’s presence, the old graveyard would be worth visiting.
Every inch seems to be used …
… and I can’t recall seeing any other Irish graveyard with such a high proportion of stone to grass.
Gerald Griffin reported on the trials of Scanlan and Sullivan and based his 1829 novel The Collegians loosely on the events. The actor and playwright Dionysius Lardner Boursiquot (Dion Boucicault) based his melodrama The Colleen Bawn even more loosely on Griffin’s novel and Sir Julius Benedict based his opera The Lily of Killarney (featuring “The moon hath raised her lamp above“) on the play. Then there were the films ….
Such was the fame of the Colleen Bawn that folk came and chipped bits off her gravestone and (according to the Clare People) chipped away a celtic cross that had been erected to her memory.
She was actually buried in the family grave of the scholar Peter O’Connell.
A modest plaque commemorates both of them.