It’s funny how things go. I’ve spent most of the week working on the portrayal of ‘Mother Ireland’ as the ‘Sean Bhean Bhocht’, the ‘Maid of Erin’ and the ‘Colleen Bawn’. It would all be very historic and even ‘begorrah’ if it wasn’t for the deadly struggle that is playing out in the national media between two very modern versions of the ‘Colleen Bawn.’
First up is Mary Lou McDonald. Sinn Féin has managed to re-invent itself in the shape of Mary Lou as a 21st century ‘Colleen Bawn.’ The ‘Bawn’ bit is interesting. It’s usually taken to mean the fair headed lass but it can also mean ‘pure,’ as in not corrupted by worldly things. This suits MacDonald down to the ground. Sinn Féin’s recent electoral breakthrough was built around the construction of MacDonald and her protegées as a straight talking, honest-to-God republicans who aren’t tainted by past associations with the IRA.
Then along comes Mairia Cahill. She claimed on national radio that she had been raped by a leading Republican in 1997 when she was 16 years of age, that Gerry Adams knew all about it and that members of the IRA had subjected her to a kangaroo court, a process that victimised her all over again.
Mairia Cahill it seems has much more in common with Ellie Hanley, the woman whose tragic story was behind the creation of the original ‘Colleen Bawn’. Almost 200 years ago Ellie Hanley was aged 15 when she murdered by John Scanlon and his manservant Stephen Sullivan. Scanlon was the son of a landowner. He was 23 and he had just finished service with the Royal Marines when he met Ellen and persuaded her to elope with him, robbing her elderly uncle and guardian of his life savings in the process.
Two weeks later she was murdered by Sullivan on Scanlon’s instructions. He was hoping to ‘disappear’ her before the marriage, sham or not, was discovered. He dumped her body in the Shannon but six weeks later it was washed up at Moneypoint. Scanlon was immediately suspected and he and O’Sullivan went on the run. The authorities were reluctant to go after Scanlon, one of their own, but public outrage at the crime meant that both were eventually caught and hanged for the murder of Ellie Hanley. She is buried in Killimer in the family grave of Peter O’Connel, the Gaelic scholar.
In 1829 Gerald Griffin wrote a romantic melodrama built around Ellen Hanley’s murder. In 1860 Boucicault came across it and very quickly turned into a a romantic comedy called th e ‘Colleen Bawn. ‘ It was so successful that it ran for an unprecedented 330 nights in London and Queen Victoria was said to have attended it three times in a week. This is hardly surprising given that Boucicault sidestepped the real story (murder most foul) in favour of plot twists, racy comic stylings, and, of course, a happy ending according to Padraig Killeen in his review of the 2013 revival by Druid.
Fictionalising history is at the core of Sinn Féin’s political tool kit. Adams’ handling of allegations that he was a member of the IRA is political theatre – maybe even farce – at the best of times. And there are more twists than Boucicault could dream of in Sinn Féin’s handling of the Boston College Tapes, Gerry Adams’ alleged role in the disappearance of Jean McConville and, his role in the handling of the allegations of the sexual abuse of Aine Tyrell by her father Liam Adams.
This week was different though. When Adams and MacDonald were confronted by Mairia Cahill the wheels came off in a spectacular fashion. Sinn Féin cracked and one of the most remarkable features of the news coverage during the week week has been the ‘touting’ by members of the party … Sinn Féin T.D.s speaking on condition of absolute anonymity. Touting is something that has gotten people ‘disappeared’ in the past
As I write the final act hasn’t happened. Voter reaction is all over the place. A Red C poll published today (26.10.2014) showed a drop in support for Sinn Fein while the B&A poll remained unchanged. Adams’ support is down amongst the people polled but Mary Lou and the party faithful are standing by their man. Support is up at 89%.
Cahill has played a blinder, proving particularly adept at playing Sinn Féin at their own game. She understands the importance of managing the image business. The photograph taken by Gerry Mooney and published by the Irish Independent is a classic of the ‘Colleen Bawn’ genre … in the Ellie Hanly tradition. By contrast Mary Lou is not looking so ‘Bawn’ despite her best efforts. She has stayed backstage but the time has come for her to put up or shut up, as Jody Corcoran put it in today’s Sunday Independent Newspaper.
I’m beginning to think that this version of the ‘Colleen Bawn’ may not have a happy ending.