The girl I love is beautiful, she’s fairer than the Dawn; She lives in Garryowen, and she’s called the Colleen Bawn
The above quote is taken from Dion Boucicault’s 1860 play, The Colleen Bawn. The play is based on an 1829 novel, The Collegians, written by Gerald Griffin, which itself is based on the 1819 murder of Ellen Hanley. You might be wondering what stories of a murder that took place over 200 years ago have to do with Christchurch archaeology. Well, dear reader, I was wondering the same.
We recently excavated a clay pipe with the name “COLLEEN BAWN” stamped on the stem. The mark was one I had never seen before, and the pipe was incomplete meaning I did not know if there were any other markings on the bowl. I began my research on the pipe by sharing it in the Society for Clay Pipe Research group, which was my first introduction to the story of Colleen Bawn. As an avid true crime podcast listener, I was rather excited (if that is not too morbid to admit) that the pipe we found could have a connection to a 200-year-old true crime case.
Let us travel back to Autumn 1819, to Kilrush, Ireland, where the remains of Ellen Hanley had just washed ashore. Only 15 years old, Ellen Hanley was well known for being both beautiful and kind, and was given the moniker Colleen Bawn. The name comes from the Irish cailín bán, meaning white girl or pure/innocent girl. Ellen was raised by her uncle, a farmer in County Limerick, after her mother died when she was young.
In the months prior to her murder, Ellen became acquainted with John Scanlan. John, in his early 20s, was a member of the local minor aristocracy, a former Royal Marine, and a heavy gambler. John began to visit Ellen in secret, eventually persuading her to marry him. The two eloped in early July 1819, marrying in secret as John feared his family would not approve of the marriage. The marriage was short and unhappy. A young protestant clergyman met Ellen on a passenger boat, and she confided in him that she regretted leaving her uncle’s farm and that her new husband had spent her dowry on alcohol and gambling. John Scanlan also regretted the marriage, quickly tiring of his new bride and the secrecy of the marriage. He enlisted the help of his servant, Stephen Sullivan, and together they planned her murder.
On July 14th Scanlan and Sullivan took Ellen for a trip in Scanlan’s boat. In the middle of the river Sullivan shot Ellen with a musket. He then stripped her of her clothes, weighed down her body by tying it to rocks, and threw her into the river. Ellen’s disappearance was noticed several weeks later when Maura Sullivan, Stephen Sullivan’s sister, was seen wearing Ellen’s clothes. Six weeks after the murder Ellen’s body washed up at Moneypoint. While the body was too decomposed to identify, the rope tying the body to the rocks was identified as having been lent to John Scanlan. Scanlan and Sullivan quickly disappeared, and police soon determined that the body was the missing Ellen, and that Scanlan and Sullivan were the murderers. Scanlan was found hiding at his parent’s property and was put to trial in March 1820. Despite being defended by the famous lawyer, Daniel O’Connell, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Scanlan hung on March 16th 1820, with Sullivan caught, tried and hung shortly after.
Despite being a true story, the fate of Ellen Hanley has all the makings of an excellent narrative: a secret romance, an innocent girl who had a tragic fate, and an evil villain who was punished for his crime. That may be what made the play, The Colleen Bawn, which was based on the murder, so popular in New Zealand and around the world. Newspaper advertisements show that the play was performed regularly in Christchurch from 1864 into the early 20th century.
So, what is a name referencing a murdered Irish girl doing on a clay pipe in 1890s Lyttelton? To understand this, it is first important to understand that clay pipes had uses other than just as a vessel for smoking. The clay pipe has its origins in the 16th century, following the introduction of tobacco from the Americas. As tobacco decreased in price, its popularity increased and along with it the number of pipe manufacturers. Pipes were mass manufactured using moulds, meaning the bowls could be easily decorated in elaborate styles and the stems could be stamped with marks (I highly recommend watching this video to see a demonstration of how pipes were made). As a result, decoration and marks on pipes could be used as advertisements, symbols of political events/movements, groups, or current events, as well as just decoration for its own sake.
Our Colleen Bawn pipe may function as both an advertisement and a kind of pop culture reference for the time. When I began researching the pipe, I wanted to know what the phrase ‘Colleen Bawn’ would mean to a person living in 19th century New Zealand. Would they instantly recognise it as a reference to the murdered Ellen? Or could it be a reference to something else. The easiest way to find this out was by using Papers Past, an online database containing thousands of New Zealand newspapers. Searching the name ‘Colleen Bawn’ resulted in 9,912 hits, indicating that even if I had never heard the phrase Colleen Bawn, people in the 19th century were familiar with it. The earliest reference was to a ‘Colleen Bawn’ clothing item, which was a type of cloak worn by Irish farm girls. From the limited information I’ve been able to find so far, I think the cloak was probably red, similar to a Little Red Riding Hood cloak, and that the name is a reference to the Colleen Bawn play, although I haven’t been able to find anything that specifically proved that. Colleen Bawn cloaks only appeared in 1860s-1870s advertisements, indicating either they dropped out of fashion or the style was no longer referred to as a Colleen Bawn.
Other newspaper advertisements referred to a ship called the Colleen Bawn that was operating in New Zealand in the 1860s and 1870s. But aside from that, the vast majority of newspaper references were to the Colleen Bawn play.
Given our pipe was found in an 1890s context (by which time almost all newspaper references were in relation to the play), and that clay pipes generally only had a short use-life, it seems very likely that our pipe is referencing the Colleen Bawn play. It’s not clear if the pipes were ordered to advertise the play (similar to the Heywood pipes), or if they were a current event reference (like the Inniskilling pipe, but with more of a pop culture angle). It could be that they were the 19th century equivalent of going to a Taylor Swift concert and coming home with a Taylor Swift t-shirt – an object to advertise that you went to the play and remember the experience. Regardless of why the pipe was made, it tells an amazing story and it is interesting to view the clay pipe as both an artefact of late-19th century pop culture in New Zealand, and a reference to a young girl’s tragic fate.
Further Reading and Information
There are many stories online about the murder of Ellen Hanley. These accounts are all broadly similar, with a few variations to the story. I’ve based mine on accounts from Irish Waterways History, IrishCentral, The Irish Times and Clare County Library.
-If you’re interested in reading Gerald Griffin’s book, The Collegians, that was based on the murder, then it is available online on Google Books.
-If you’re interested in reading the play, then the script is available on Project Gutenberg.
-There was also a 1911 silent film based on the play. This is available online on YouTube.
At the time of writing this blog, I haven’t been able to find another example of a Colleen Bawn clay pipe. If there is anyone out there who has one or has seen one then please get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.