68 – Trying (to find) the Colleen Bawn

Each time I introduce archival research to a class, I use a scene from BBC detective drama Waking the Dead. The scene I talk about in detail is in this post here about the other woman.

Speaking to director Joan Sheehy this week about her work on The Colleen Bawn Trials, a site-specific performance composed entirely from archives and historical documents, the same programme came up remarkably quickly. “I love things like Waking the Dead,” she told me, when I asked about a particular scene in the piece, staged in a rowing club in Limerick last August. The audience had drunk mead, been outside by the water for some ‘sport’ and sat in the gallery of the trial room for several cross-examinations. But then we were led upstairs…

… into a room where, a body lies on a table concealed by a sheet. Maps and other ,medical ‘evidence’ adorn one wall. The white-suited medical examiner (Gene Rooney) enters and pulls the curtains closed. She loads slides into an old-fashioned machine that projects grainy photos and medical diagrams onto the wall. Her report begins:

Body had been submerged in the river for between six and seven weeks and was naked except for fragments of stays or bodice.All facial flesh had been eroded and there was severe decomposition of the remaining flesh on the body. Right arm disjoined. Unclear on initial investigation whether detached pre or postmortem. Left femur fractured at several points. Remaining flesh on right knee shredded due to knee being tied to victim’s neck by a coarse rope.

It’s an incredibly chilling scene. It’s terrifying and heartbreaking all at once. For all the pretence of the pictures on the wall (many audience members did ask if they were ‘genuine’ while I enjoyed the layers of artifice) there’s something about hearing the exact details of this woman’s physical injuries that brings her closer to us than anything else. At her most indubitably dead, she is somehow most powerfully alive.

[I must admit, I thought of this again on Christmas day, reading of how a pregnant woman on a life-support machine was wasting away while the High Court debated her right to die with dignity, but I’m trying to avoid such digressions.]

It brings the colleen bawn (“the fair-haired girl”) closer but it doesn’t set her before us, just like the stunning art installation by Anne-Marie Morrin in the final ‘death room’ at the end of this production. It’s this tantalising distance that gives the piece such dramatic power. How did they make this absence present? How did they create drama from the lifeless pages of the past? Rather than try to separate the past from the present, they allowed the present moment to syncopate with the past.

The “Colleen Bawn” is a real court case, a play and novel, several ballads, a legend and a myth. For those unclear on the background: Ellen Hanley was an Irish-speaking peasant girl who married nobleman John Scanlan (of the “big house”) unbeknownst to his family. Once smitten by her naivety and beauty, when he tired of her paltry education and lack of manners, Scanlan contrived with his close companion, Sullivan, to murder the girl. Nobody knows which man actually beat her to death with a musket before throwing her into the river, but both are guilty of believing they could dispense of her life without any consequences.

As Rebecca Schneider has claimed, “all evidence is theatrical” and Sheehy has a clear sense of how to use and compose evidence to tell a story. The problem, she told me, was just HOW MUCH information she had unearthed in her research and how she could use it most effectively to tell the story. Drawing on newspaper accounts of the trial, archival documents and various books, Sheehy explained that any ideas about introducing scripted or improvised scenes were soon quashed. Instead, they used fictional novels and dialogue from Boucicault’s melodrama when they needed to fill in details of the story. They achieved the perfect blend: for those familiar with the play and sources, there’s an added thrill when you recognise lines or phrases, but it works seamlessly. There’s no need to separate fact and fiction; it all dances together as something re-created and imagined simultaneously.

Sheehy started from the story she’d heard as a girl, before using records in Limerick and the National Library to support her work. She’d heard tell of a letter written by trial barrister Daniel O’Connell to his family and determined to find it. Like all good researchers, she speaks as passionately of her search and of her moments of discovery in the library as of her time in the rehearsal room.

She found the perfect collaborators: John Greenwood on soundscape, Anne-Marie Morrin on costume and visuals and Art O’Laoire on film. None of them wanted to represent the colleen, but they were determined to stage her absence.

It all works, I think, because of the eye trained on the material detail the entire time. The piece starts with a young girl searching for a cloak. The trial features two young women who ‘somehow’ came into possession of other items of clothing once owned by Ellen Hanley Scanlan before she went missing. The period costumes of Scanlan and O’Connell sit incongruously with the art installation, depicting the “colleen bawn”, with which the performance comes to a striking close.

[I really wanted the period costumes to have been those used by another theatre company staging Boucicault’s play … How many theatrical layers to it then?]

It was all carefully, lovingly, imaginatively conceived and yet Sheehy admits that several elements of chance came into play. The original planned location, the historic courthouse, became unavailable weeks before curtain up. The light kept changing, so that the stunning interplay of moonlight on the Shannon and modern-day Limerick that I saw while O’Connell wrote his letter with a quill was a scene reserved for the audience on the night that I attended. They lit a roaring fire, but the rain spattering on the children playing outside was an effect that no stage manager could plan.

I want to describe the whole thing in detail, but I’m reticent. I’m reticent because, with the luck of the gods and a whole heap of work yet to be undertaken by Sheehy and her team, the piece will be re-staged in 2015.


I’m also reticent because I know that I should only use the details necessary to tell my story dramatically. Everything else, Inspector Boyd would tell me, is non-admissible evidence.

2 comments on “68 – Trying (to find) the Colleen Bawn

  1. Anne Marie Morrin

    March 20, 2015 at 9:45 pm Reply

    You captured the atmosphere of the play very well.

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