The Colleen Bawn is a silent production shot on location in Killarney, Co Kerry, by Canadian film maker Sidney Olcott.
It was adapted from a melodramatic play written in 1860 by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault, and was loosely based on the true story of Ellen Scanlan, a 15 year old girl who was murdered by her husband’s servant in 1819.
During the opening of this film, Olcott boasts that “every scene, including interiors, was made in Ireland, and in the exact location described in the original play.” Killarney was an ideal location for any eager producer wishing to set his film in Ireland at the time. It provided any outsider with an idealised notion of the Ireland they envisioned and awed the audience with its exquisite, rural landscape.
The Colleen Bawn begins in Beaufort, Co Kerry, during the 1790s. Hardress Cregan, the son of a wealthy landlord, and his mother are in a financial predicament regarding the mortgage payments of their vast estate. Hardress’ mother plans to have her son marry his wealthy cousin, Anne Chute, but what she doesn’t realise is that Hardress is in love with one of his tenant’s daughters, Eily O’Connor – The Colleen Bawn.
Despite his mother’s intentions, Hardress secretly marries Eliy in the presence of his faithful servant, Danny Mann. Squire Corrigan, the holder of the mortgage, offers Mrs Cregan two alternatives before the foreclosure of her estate: she must either marry him, or secure Anne’s written consent to marry her son.
He also tells Mrs Cregan of Hardress’ meetings with Eily, which Hardress admits, but makes no mention of their marriage. To protect Hardress, Danny Mann takes a note to Anne, given him by Eily for Hardress, and states that it was for Daly, whom he was to row across the lake to meet Eily. Anne’s confidence in Daly is therefore shaken. Myles na Coppaleen, who also loves Eily, pays her a visit with Fr Tom.
Anne, seeing Hardress with Eily one night, mistakes him for Eily’s lover, Kyrle Daly, and, angry at Kyrle, she agrees to marry Hardress. Hardress’s servant, the hunchback Danny Mann, offers to murder Eily so that Hardress will be free to marry Anne. Thinking that Hardress has agreed, he takes Eily to the lake where he attempts to drown her, but he is discovered and shot by Myles-na-Coppaleen. At the wedding of Hardress and Anne the police come to arrest Hardress for the murder of Eily, but before he is taken away Eily appears. Hardress is released, Eily is accepted by Mrs Cregan, Anne and Kyrle are reconciled and Anne offers to pay off the Cregans’ debt.
The film is loosely based on the true story of Ellen Scanlan, a 15 year old girl who was murdered by her husband’s servant in 1819. It is said that when her recently wed husband realised that she would not be accepted into his family he persuaded his servant, Stephen Sullivan, to kill her. Both men were eventually caught and put on trial for murder, where they were hanged at Gallows Green, Co Limerick.