IN 1820, the equivalent of a modern day celebrity trial took place in Limerick. A squire was accused of murder, star witnesses were produced and the Liberator himself, Daniel O’Connell, was the celebrity defence barrister of his day.
The Ellen Hanley murder trial, with John Scanlan the accused, caused a sensation at the time due to the nature of class ascendancy and the details of the story were later enshrined in popular culture by playwright Dion Boucicault in The Colleen Bawn.
While that play, performed by Druid in the Lime Tree last year, is more comedic farce, the real story is one of romance tinged with horror, with the 15 year old Hanley murdered at the whim of Scanlan by his servant Stephan Sullivan, her body washing up at Moneypoint in 1819.
The Colleen Bawn Trials, which opened this week in Shannon Rowing Club, is a fresh take on the story.
Directed by Joan Sheehy, it utilises the iconic venue to tell the historic facts behind one of Limerick’s most famous stories.
“It is real life,” explains Joan, who adapted Kevin Barry’s Maybe The Night last year to stunning effect.
“It does have elements of romance in it, but it also has the savagery of the murder in it too. In the book, the play, the film and opera it is romantic melodrama and it has a happy ending - she doesn’t die.
“There was no such happy ending in real life.”
This is a real Limerick story. Hanley was from Ballyelan near Knockfierna, close to where Sheehy herself is from in Granagh.
Scanlan was from Ballycahane near Croom, his trial took place in the old courthouse in the city and he was hanged at Gallows Green on the Clare side of the Shannon.
“It is funny, I think people of an older generation are very aware but I think the younger members of the cast, for example, none of them knew anything about it,” explains Joan, who collaborated with visual artist Anne Marie Morrin, sonic artist John Greenwood and lighting and videographer Art O’Laoire on the production.
“But I can’t tell you how many people say ‘oh yes, wasn’t that the story’. People have elements of it, but I don’t think anybody, including myself when I went to research it, know the full thing, or the detail of it.
“The call went out for Made in Limerick submissions from City of Culture and I wanted something that was quintessentially Limerick, and yet I wanted something that wasn’t a play as such.
“When the call when out, and I wondered what I could make for City of Culture that would be a story that would have particular resonance for Limerick people. We were funded to develop the piece by the Arts Council, then funded by City of Culture - so it wouldn’t have happened at all (without that funding),” she adds.
The result, which stars Malcolm Adams, Gene Rooney, Patrick Ryan and Shane Whisker along with actors from Limerick Youth Theatre, is as fascinating as it is haunting and unsettling.
The audience moves from room to room in the rowing club, while the trial scenes sit alongside pathological reports and a re-enactment of Sullivan’s confession, with liberal interspersing with scenes from the Boucicault play.
Sheehy is quite an expert at such utilisation of space in unlikely venues.
“We have the most beautiful venue, and we are using the whole place,” explains Joan.
“It is just wonderful, it is a joy to be in here. I love when the audience become immersed in the story, as opposed to the more traditional way of sitting and looking at something on stage.
“I think that not only are you following the story, but you are also seeing different areas in a building that most people probably pass regularly and never get inside.
“We have the trial, based on newspaper reports from the time, but we have also used bit of the Boucicault play to invent the relationship between Scanlan and his servant. Then we are bringing new elements in.
“The whole way through the play, we are trying to weave the fact and the fiction together, and it is up to audiences to work it through themselves.”
The Colleen Bawn Trials runs until August 23. Booking is through the City of Culture office on 061-525031 or firstname.lastname@example.org.