Purcell’s Castle: An Earlier Chapter in the Unending Tale of the Colleen Bawn

A copy of The Colleen Bawn (2018) by Patrick T Fitzgerald has been added to the archive of Castleisland District Heritage.  It synthesises over two hundred years of research and literature relating to the mysterious and tragic tale of Ellen Hanly, better known as ‘The Colleen Bawn.’[1]


In 1819, a badly decomposed corpse bound in rope was washed up on the Shannon.  Ellen Hanly had been missing, and it was supposed that the remains were that of the young woman.  Two men, John Scanlan and Stephen Sullivan, were subsequently tried and hanged for her murder, the latter being arrested at Dromultan, Castleisland on 5th May 1820.   Sullivan was hanged just over two months later, on 27 July 1820:


Several thousand people were present at Gallows Green for the execution.  Reverend Mr Enright attended Sullivan and spent a long time in prayer with him.[2]


Sullivan was supposed to have confessed his guilt, but John Scanlan protested his innocence to the end.  Scanlan, of Ballycahane Castle near Croom, Co Limerick, a man of some social standing, was hanged on 16 March 1820, a few months before Sullivan was apprehended.


Fitzgerald’s work is an excellent starting point for researchers attracted to the extraordinary story of the Colleen Bawn, or for those simply with an interest.  The book demonstrates how the tragedy has captivated the public mind for centuries, and taken on countless forms in the arts.


Massacre at Purcell’s Castle


John Scanlan lived at Ballycahane Castle, a residence – since demolished – located near the ruined Ballycahane Castle from which it took its name.  The castle was built by the family of O’Grady in 1496.


In the centuries before John Scanlan was associated with Ballycahane, it had its own tragic history for in 1581, a massacre occurred there when 150 people including children were put to the sword.  The version given here comes from the Four Masters, translated by Dr John O’Donovan in 1856.


A bold and merciless body of the soldiers of Adare, having been divided into two parties, went forth, one by water, the other by land, to traverse Kenry and the lands lying along the side of the Mangue (sic), to seek for fight or booty from some of the plunderers.  These two parties, having met together in the neighbourhood of Baile-Ui-Chathlain, were encountered by David Oge [Purcell], the son of David of the Lake, son of Thomas, son of John, son of Thomas, son of Philip, son of the Knight, and his forces, who charged them, and proceeded to pierce and surround them, so that he left them but a heap of bloody trunks and mangled carcasses; so that not many of them escaped without being slaughtered on that spot by David and his people.

When the news of this reached Adare, the captain [Achin] of that town assembled the soldiers of Kilmallock, and set out at the head of a vigorous and merciless body of troops to traverse Kenry, in order to see whether he could find man or men upon whom to wreak his vengeance for the slaughter of his people. 

He arrived at Baile-Ui-Chathlain, one of the castles of Purcell, who had assisted the Crown from the very commencement of the war between the English and the Geraldines to that time.  The captain slew one hundred and fifty women and children, and of every sort of persons that he met with inside and outside of that castle.


The Fate of David Oge Purcell


The David already named, who had slain the captain’s people, was a man who had gone through much toil and trouble in the war of the Geraldines with the English.  On one occasion he set out with sixteen men in the month of December from the borders of Kenry, in a small, narrow cot.  They rowed in a north-westerly direction through the Shannon Harbour, and put in at Inis-Cathaigh, where they stopped for that night. 

When Turlough, the son of Teige, son of Murrough, son of Teige Roe, son of Turlough (the son of Mac Mahon from East Corca-Bhaiscinn) heard that David had passed by him, he launched a boat upon the blue-streamed Shannon in the early part of the night, and entering it with the number of men he had along with him, he made no delay until he reached Inis-Cathaigh, and landed on the strand of the fair island. 

They then went to the house in which David was, and immediately set fire to it.  David, with his people, quickly came out, unarmed, casting himself on the mercy of the son of Mac Mahon, who instantly took him and his people prisoners.  The son of Mac Mahon returned on that night to Baile-mhicColmain, taking his prisoners with him. 

On the following day David’s people were hanged on the nearest trees they met; and the heroic soldier himself was sent to Limerick, where he was immediately put to death.[3]


The Fate of Captain Achin


Anno Domini, 1581
The Rebellion in Munster being thus quash’d, and Desmond not daring to appear publickly; the Lord-Deputy Disbanded the Army in Munster (except Four hundred Foot and Fifty Horse) to save Charges: But this course was no sooner taken, but the Lord Lixnaw and his Son flew into open Rebellion, and made themselves Masters of Adare, Killing Captain Achin and the Garrison; they took also the Castle of Lisconnell, and Burnt and Plunder’d the Counties or Ormond, Tipperary, and Waterford, at their Pleasure.[4]


Ballycahane Castle in Later Years


Dr John O’Donovan, in his Ordnance Survey Letters for Limerick, described the condition of the castle in 1840:


The old castle of Ballycahaan stands in ruins about a furlong West of [Ballycahane Church of Ireland] and measures 27 feet by 18 feet.  It was 3 stories high.  The floor next over the ground one, is arched beneath.  A square tower on N. West corner, rises to a height of 12 feet above the side wall which is 40 feet high.  The walls are 4 feet thick.[5]


Surrounded: The ruined Ballycahane Castle nestles in farm buildings.  In the centre, the nearby ruined Church of Ireland


In 1936, the castle was ‘in very fair preservation’:


It is a great fortified enclosure, a fine specimen of the structures erected for the safe keeping of the family and retainers and of the herds of cattle which formed the chief wealth of the owner.  Its walls are still in very fair preservation.  It is of massive construction, being almost an exact square, each side about sixty-five yards long, the corners strengthened with towers and the walls thirty feet in height.  It is built close to the River Maigue into which flows a stream which provided water for the moat that surrounded the castle to make it difficult for besiegers to get easily near the foundations.[6]


The castle today, surrounded by farm buildings, is on private land and inaccessible to the public.


[1] ‘Mrs Reeves, Bessborough House, erected a Celtic Cross at the grave, but it was chipped away by souvenir hunters.  The stone at present there is also going the same way, and summer after summer, visitors may be seen taking away pieces as souvenirs’ (Nenagh Guardian, 6 December 1924).  Mrs Reeves would seem to have been Grace Dorothea Vandeleur, who married Robert William Cary Reeves DL JP (1837-1901) of Bessborough House, Co Clare (and of Burrane, Knock and The Cedars, Putney, Surrey) on 18  July 1866.  She had issue Grace Wilhelmina Reeves, Rose Frances Reeves, Elizabeth Mary Reeves, Shela Alice Reeves, Eileen Rosetta Reeves and William Vandeleur Reeves.  Mrs Grace Dorothea Reeves of 60 Madeira-road, Streatham, formerly of Lota Ville, Cork, Irish Free State, left £2,906 in her will published in January 1929.

[2] The Colleen Bawn, p50.

[3] Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters (1856) translated by Dr John O’Donovan, Vol V, pp1759-1762.

Some of the accounts found elsewhere are noted here:

‘AD 1581 The war in Munster had now assumed a savage character, of which it is almost impossible to convey any adequate idea.  The brutal barbarities of Lord Grey and his captains had driven many of the most loyal of the Irish and old English to espouse the now desperate cause of the insurgents.  Each official endeavoured ‘to do some exploit’ as it was phrased, and Raleigh, who received the command in Cork, was one of those who evinced the most fiendish activity in tracking and hunting down the miserable Catholics.  He repaired to Dublin for enlarged powers to proceed against the old English families of the Barrys and Roches, against whom some charges of treason had been trumped up.  Lord Barry indignantly set fire to his castle rather than allow it to be overrun by the soldiery, and repaired to the woods, where he joined John of Desmond; but Lord Roche, who along with his lady, was seized and carried prisoner to Cork, established his innocence and escaped.  Some soldiers from Adare going on a marauding excursion into the barony of Kenry were cut off by David Purcell, the representative of an ancient Anglo-Irish family, who had hitherto been an exemplary loyalist.  Captain Achin, the officer in command of the station at Adare, obtained some troops from Kilmallock, and entering Kenry to wreak his vengeance on the people, came to Purcell’s castle of Ballycalhane (sic) near Kildimo where, finding that David and his men had fled to the woods, he massacred one hundred and fifty women and children who had sought refuge in the castle’ (The History of Ireland, Ancient and Modern, for the use of Schools and Colleges (1860) by Martin Haverty Esq, p519).

‘Some soldiers from Adare, going on a marauding excursion into Kenry, were cut off by David Purcell, the representative of an ancient Anglo-Irish family.  Captain Catterick, the officer in command of the station of Adare, obtained some troops from Kilmallock, marched to Purcell’s Castle but Purcell, on learning that Catterick was coming with an armed force, three times the number that he had himself, fled with his men to the woods, so that when Catterick arrived he found the place quite deserted.  When Catterick was thus defeated of his vengeance, he marched to Kenry to rake it on the poor unarmed villagers and the latter, who could do nothing to defend themselves, ran to the woods; but the most part of them fled to Purcell’s Castle, where they expected to gain protection.  Of course they were disappointed, but in spite of that they flocked into it in great numbers.  Catterick, on learning this, sent back about half the number of his men to it, who immediately set it on fire, and if any of the people attempted to escape from the flames they were stabbed or shot by the enraged soldiery.  The rest of the poor villagers who had sought refuge in the woods were immediately followed by the soldiers and hanged on the tree nearest to where they were captured, or else shot; and many of the women were found the following morning after the horrible massacre with their children at their breasts strangled with their mother’s hair’ (Rory Oge O’More, Or, The Son’s Revenge by Patrick McCorry, Glasgow Free Press, 31 August 1867).

‘A fierce conflict occurred at Ballycahane during the reign of Queen Elizabeth.  At the time the place was in possession of the Purcells, who had the reputation of being loyal to the English.  Ballycahane, according to contemporary accounts, was one of the towns belonging to Purcell, who always sided with the Crown from the beginning of the war between the English and the Geraldines till that time.  Two raiding parties set out from the English garrison holding the strong fortress of Adare Castle for the purpose of ravaging the country on the left bank of the Maigue, which meant death and pillage for the people.  It was planned to send one party in boats following the river route, while the other proceeded by land, and both were to unite at Ballycahane.  These raiders were however well watched by native scouts who gave warning of their approach and David Barry, with a reliable body of Geraldine followers, was waiting to give them a reception of which they little dreamt.  They attacked with such ferocity that the raiders were almost exterminated, the few survivors who escaped bringing news of the disaster to Adare.  Immediately word was sent of the occurrence to Kilmallock for reinforcements to help those in Adare, and the Captain of the town rallied out to take vengeance for the slaughter of his soldiery.  They made straight for Ballycahane Castle where it was found once more that loyalty did not protect the people from the senseless soldiery out for vengeance.  David Barry of the Lake had fled and so escaped falling victim to their rage.  But Ballycahane remained, and though likely it was known to some of their leaders at least that the occupying Purcells and their retainers were friends of the English, it did not suffice to scare those within the walls.  A breach was made in the defences through which poured in the infuriated troops who slew all they found in the castle, to the number of 150, including women and children.  During the Elizabethan regime up to 1580, the Corcovaskin MacMahons had taken little part in County Clare affairs.  But a change for the worse came over them, and in 1581, one of them, the son of MacMahon, of East Corcovaskin, now Clonderalaw, ‘signalised himself by a deed of great treachery and cruelty in favour of the English’: The Earl of Desmond was still holding out against the English south and east of the Shannon.  One of his bravest captains, David Purcell, with sixteen more, rowed across for some reason not specified, perhaps being hard pressed, and rested for the night in Iniscatha.  MacMahon, hearing this, surrounded the house in which they were, set fire to it, and as they came out, unarmed, asking for mercy, they were all captured.  He hanged the soldiers on the following day and handed over Purcell to the Limerick garrison by whom he was soon put to death’ (History of Clare and the Dalcassian Clans (1893) by Very Rev Dean Patrick White, extracts from which were reproduced in the Limerick Leader, 11 July 1936).

The Schools’ Collection contains a number of accounts of this massacre.  ‘The English garrison at Adare ravaged the district along the Maigue. All went well until they came to Ballycullane. The Purcells sallied out and annihilated them.  The survivors made their way back to Adare and a stronger force was sent to take revenge on the Purcells.  This force camped on a hill nearby which has been called Craggaun Lumpard.  After a firm resistance the wall was breached.  The English rushing in, slaughtered everyone in the castle, women, children, the aged.  Purcell alone escaped and found refuge with David Barry of the lake.  From there he made his way to Scattery Island where he was given up to the English by the Mac Mahons’ (Volume 0504, Page 086).

[4] The Antiquities and History of Ireland by the Right Honourable Sir James Ware, Knt (1705), p30.  The account appeared earlier in Hibernia Anglicana (1689) by Sir Richard Cox: ‘But the Lord of Lixnaw and his Son pretending injuries from the Governour, took advantage of the reducement of the Army, and boldly went into Rebellion again, and his beginning was very successful, for he slew Captain Achin and the Garrison of Adare, except some few that saved themselves in the Abby, and recovered that Fortress, also he took the strong Castle of Lisconnell by Stratagem, and threw the Garrison over the Walls, and tho he fall'd in his cunning design on the Castle of Adnagh, yet he ranged over the Countries of Ormond, Tipperary, and Waterford without resistance.’

[5] Ordnance Survey Letters Limerick (2014) Edited by Michael Herity MRIA, p192.  The entry concludes: ‘The ‘Liber Regalis Visitationis’ says: Ballicane Rect. Non residens cur. Residens.  } Rector Robertus Rayner, Philippus Jenkins Curatus. Ballicane is placed in the Deanery of Adare.’

[6] Limerick Leader, 11 July 1936.  ‘Near it numerous ancient silver and copper coins have been found.’