The Colleen Bawn

Colleen BawnIt’s still pitch black an hour before the first rays of the winter solstice, the shortest day of a cold and flooding Irish winter. A biting westerly shivers down my neck. I pull up my collar and tuck in my chin, my hands dig deeper into pockets. From the northerly sky, the ghostly red glow of the Aurora Borealis beautifully silhouettes a Celtic cross. Not far away is Ballycahane Castle, the ancestral home of John Scanlan. Murderer of the Colleen Bawn. He’s buried right behind me.

This is County Limerick’s old Crecora cemetery where the ruins of the ancient church first hosted the holy sacrament in the early 1400s. It’s deathly cold. I imagine footsteps behind me. Moving forward then back, I stumble on a stone grave marker that wasn’t there before.

The Colleen Bawn was Ellie Hanley, a beautiful young peasant girl not yet sixteen. She had eloped with the dashing gentleman Scanlan, whose family of high social standing pressed him to abandon her in favour of a match with a handsome dowry. In 1819, young Ellie’s life ended and her mutilated body dumped into the River Shannon. The trial was a sensation. Scanlan was defended by Ireland’s top barrister, but was rightly found guilty and hanged before there was time for an appeal. His corpse escaped a scientific dissection, which was the usual practice for murderers. Instead, his family secretly buried him in consecrated ground, here in Crecora Cemetery.

You don’t search for the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, it finds you. The pre-dawn light, where there shouldn’t be any, is the interaction of charged particles from the sun with atoms in the upper atmosphere. The sharp winter wind, blowing off the cruel Atlantic Ocean and up the Shannon, prevents me lingering.

Further along are the final resting places of my children’s uncle, great-grandaunts, great-grandmother, great-great-grandmother, and others going back perhaps 600 years. I’ve had enough of the Irish dark, and the Colleen Bawn. Time to give my hands a warming cup of tae.

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