26 November 2018

Finding the Precentor’s
link with Ballycahane
and the strange story
of the Colleen Bawn

Ballycahane Church, near Croom, Co Limerick, seen from the south-east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Two new canons were installed in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, yesterday [25 November 2018]: Canon Liz Beasley of Adare and Kilmallock becomes the new Chancellor, and Canon Jim Stephens of Tralee is the new Prebendary of Saint Munchin and Tulloh.

The chapter is a united chapter for the three cathedrals in the diocese – Saint Mary’s, Limerick, Saint Flannan’s, Killaloe, Co Clare, and Saint Brendan’s, Clonfert, Co Galway.

I was reminded recently of the legislation introduced in the General Synod by Dean Maurice Sirr of Limerick and Dean Ernon Perdue of Killaloe in 1987 that united the cathedral chapters and that set out the full complement of chapter members:

The Dean of Limerick, who is also Dean of Ardfert and Prebendary of Tomgraney;

The Dean of Killaloe and Clonfert, who is also the Prebendary of Kilpeacon;

The Precentor, who is also the Prebendary of Ballycahane;

The Chancellor;

The Treasurer, who is also the Archdeacon of Ardfert and Prebendary of Killeedy and Prebendary of Dysart;

The Archdeacon of Limerick, who is also the Prebendary of Effin, Croagh, Ardcanny and Clondegad;

The Archdeacon of Killaloe and Clonfert, who is also the Prebendary of Tullybrackey;

The Prebendary of Saint Munchin’s, who is also the Prebendary of Tulloh;

The Prebendary of Inniscattery, who is also the Prebendary of Donaghmore and of Kilconnell;

The Prebendary of Athnett, ‘who shall always be the Bishop for the time being of the united dioceses.’

The seals of the Deans and Chapters of the cathedrals in Limerick and Killaloe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

In the past, the Prebendary of Ballcahane was obliged to preach in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, on the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, and the Precentor on the Feast of Saint Bartholomew, the Feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle, and the Second Sunday in Lent.

The Prebendaries of Ballycahane in the past have included William Mansell, who held office for 50 years (1754-1804) as well as being Treasurer of Ardfert and corresponded with George Washington, and John Cousins, a former Roman Catholic priest who was educated at Maynooth and who was the Prebendary of Ballycahane in 1816-1833.

Until I was reminded of this legislation in general synod, I had not realised that by virtue of being the Precentor I am also the Prebendary of Ballycahane. So, one afternoon last week, on my way from the school in Rathkeale to Dublin, I went in search of Ballycahane, and the church were the rectors in the past had been my predecessors in this title in the cathedral chapter.

The south side of Ballycahane Church, Co Limerick, built in 1823 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Ballycahane is a parish in the baronies of Small County and Pubblebrien in Co Limerick, about 5 km miles from Croom, off the road between Limerick and Charleville and close to the banks of the River Maigue.

Local historic houses in the area have included Maryville, once the home of the Finch family, Fort Elizabeth, home of the Revd John Croker (1787-1839), Rector of Croom in the early 19th century, and Ballycahane House, home of a Captain Scanlon in the 1830s.

Samuel Lewis mentioned in the 1830s that the Rector of Ballycahane was also the Prebendary of Ballycahane in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick. The office and parish were in the patronage of the Bishop of the Limerick, and the tithes totalled £166.3.0.

The church was a large building, in the early English style, with a tower, built in 1823 by the assistance of a loan from the late Board of First Fruits. Although the glebe was five acres of ‘excellent land,’ there was no glebe house.

The boys’ and girls’ schools in the parish were supported by subscriptions from the rector, curate, and the Finch family of Fort Elizabeth, who domated the land on which the school was built.

Not far from the church are the ruins of the ancient castle of Ballycahane, built by the O’Grady family in 1496, and many ancient silver and copper coins were found nearby. Near Tory Hill are the remains of a church that once belonged to the Knights Templars, and later to the abbey of Nenagh.

Looking out into the churchyard at Ballycahane Church, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The church, now in a ruined state and without a roof, was built in 1823. It has three-bay nave elevations, a three-stage square-plan entrance tower and projecting rooms on the north and south sides of the tower.

One site describes them as a ‘side chapels,’ but undoubtedly they were a vestry and a Sunday school room, similar to the function of rooms like these flanking the tower in Castletown Church, near Pallaskenry, Co Limerick, down to the position of the fireplace in the vestry.

Inside Ballycahane Church, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The tower has three corner pinnacles, with a fourth missing, and stepped crenellations, with a cut limestone stringcourse beneath. The tower has snecked limestone walls with cut and tooled limestone quoins. There is a plaque above the door with a cut limestone stringcourse on the tower and incised crosses on the gables of the side chapels.

The pointed arch openings on the south nave wall and the east elevation have hood-mouldings with limestone block-and-start surrounds. There are no window openings on the north wall, a common feature in many Church of Ireland parish churches at the time as it protected the buildings and the congregations against the cold blasts of north winds.

The church tower and west end of Ballycahane Church, Co Limerick, built in 1823 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The paired pointed arch openings on the second floor of the tower have cut limestone block-and-start surrounds. The pointed arch door opening on the ground floor of the tower have label moulding and stops.

The surrounding churchyard has gravestones, a rubble limestone wall and a wrought-iron gate flanked by cut limestone piers.

Although this church is now in a state of ruin, it still shows many signs of high-quality craftsmanship. This can be seen in the cut limestone finishes to the door and window surrounds, the finishes to the tower, with its stringcourses and corner pinnacles.

Although the name of the architect is unknown, the shape of the main door and the rooms flanking the tower and other similarities with Castletown Church, indicate this may be the work of James Pain.

The fireplace in the former vestry in Ballycahane Church, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The earliest church in Ballycahane, as well as its lands, became part of the estate and abbey lands of Monasteranenagh Cistercian Abbey in Manister, but no trace of this church remains.

The extensive ruins of Monasteranenagh Abbey include a church, dating from about 1170 to 1220, an early Gothic chapter house and the abbey guesthouse.

The abbey was founded in 1148 by Turlough O’Brien, King of Munster, for Cistercian monks and was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Manister was a daughter house of Mellifont Abbey in C. Louth and Manister had daughter houses in Abbeydorney (1154), Middleton (1180) and Holy Cross (1181).

In 1228, the Irish monks with the help of the O’Briens, the Kings of Thomond, drove out the abbot and the non-Irish monks, who were mainly of Norman descent. They were excommunicated for revolting against their ecclesiastical superiors. Using armed force Hubert de Burgo, Bishop of Limerick, recaptured the abbey, and reinstalled the monks who had been driven out.

Gerald FitzGerald, Earl of Desmond, was visiting the Abbot of Manister in 1307 when he was captured by O’Brien of Thomond. Later the 14th century, Manister is said to have had up to 1,500 monks. In the 15th century, there were three chapels in each arm of the transept.

Although the monastery at Manister was dissolved in 1540, the monks were left in possession of the abbey.

During the Desmond Wars, Spanish and Irish soldiers took shelter in Monasternenagh in 1579, and the abbot helped them in the battle in which they were defeated by Sir William Malby. The Earl of Desmond watched the battle from Tory Hill nearby. After his victory, Malby burned the abbey. However, the monastery was not destroyed until 1585, when it became the property of Sir Henry Wallop, who plundered and robbed it of all its valuables before destroying the monastery.

Looking out the tower door of Ballycahane Church into the churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Ballycahane Castle is the ancestral home of John Scanlan, the murderer of the Colleen Bawn, Ellie Hanley, a beautiful young peasant girl.

Ellie Hanley was from Ballingarry, Co Limerick. Her mother died when she was six, and she was raised by an uncle in Ballycahane. John Scanlan, who was in his 20s, came from a family of high social standing. He had been a lieutenant in the Royal Marines and was known as a playboy.

Ellie was not yet 16 when the two eloped and moved to Glin in West Limerick. Scanlan employed a local woman, Nelly Walsh, as a part-time housekeeper and companion for Ellie, while Stephen Sullivan was his servant and boatman.

Ellie was missing for several weeks, when Nelly approached the Knight of Glin, a local magistrate, in the late autumn of 1819. Ellen had last seen Ellie two months before with Scanlan and Sullivan in a boat leaving from Glin. While Ellen was talking to the Knight of Glin, two policemen arrived and told him a body had been washed ashore across the Shannon at Moneypoint, Co Clare. The body was too badly decomposed to be identified, but the Coroner’s Court recorded a verdict of wilful murder against Scanlan and Sullivan.

The two men went into hiding, but Scanlan was captured and tried in March 1820. The trial was a sensation. Scanlan was defended by Daniel O’Connell, one of the leading barristers of the day, but was found guilty and sentenced to hang.

Scanlan was being taken by carriage to Gallows Green on the Clare side of the river on 16 March 1820 when the horses stopped, refusing to continue. Finally, Scanlan was made to walk to his place of execution, where he was hanged before he had time for an appeal.

Sullivan was arrested later and confessed that he had taken Ellie in his boat onto the Shannon from Glin and murdered her on 14 July at the behest of Scanlan, who had plied him with liquor in the town to nerve his arm. Sullivan was hanged too.

The Colleen Bawn, Ellie Hanley, is buried in Burrane cemetery, near Kilrush, Co Clare. John Scanlan from Ballycahane Castle is buried in Crecora Cemetery.

The Prebendary of Ballycahane at the Precentor’s Stall in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)


Isaac said...

Keep up the history lessons Patrick. Always very interesting.

Unknown said...

Who took over after John scanlon?

Unknown said...

Any idea where to look for parish records of births, marriage etc for Ballycahane from the late 1700s to the early 1800s? Would they be at St Mary's? Thanks

Anonymous said...

Coming to this post a little late! (February 2022)
Really enjoyed it. Thank you Patrick.