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Journal of Victorian Culture 12.1 (2007) 1-25

The Many Lives of the Colleen Bawn:
Pastoral Suspense
Nicholas Daly
(University College Dublin)

On 1 October 1860 the theatre advertisements in the Times contained a notice for the New Adelphi Theatre announcing the 'continued success of the new and original drama of The Colleen Bawn'. Citing approving reviews from the Morning Chronicle, the Daily News, and the Morning Post, inter alia, the advert claimed that 'the London public at last has been roused by a real theatrical "sensation"'.1 We might allow for a certain degree of advertiser's exaggeration here, and certainly the critical response was more mixed than the advert suggests, but other sources indicate that the public had indeed been stirred to no small extent, securing what the Illustrated London News termed a 'triumph' for the Adelphi while other theatres enjoyed mixed fortunes.2 Punch's 'roving correspondent', 'Jack Easel', described his own visit to see the popular play:

Of course I went to see the Colleen Bawn. I couldn't help myself. Everyone was bothering me about it. 'Have you seen the Colleen?', says one. 'What d'ye think of the Bawn?' … (between ourselves I've not the wildest notion what either of those words mean.)3

The 'Bawn' that drew the crowds to Benjamin Webster's theatre inthe Strand, a venue well-known for its spectacular melodrama, Dion Boucicault's The Colleen Bawn, or The Brides of Garryowen, was a romantic mortgage melodrama adapted from Gerald Griffin's The Collegians (1829). The action takes place in rural Ireland towards the end of the eighteenth century, and centres on the financially beleaguered Cregan family, country gentry who face ruin and the loss of their Killarney estate to the counter-jumping moneylender, Corrigan.4 The villain also hopes to obtain the hand of the extremely reluctant Mrs Cregan, who seesa chance of saving herself and the estate by marrying off her son, Hardress, to Anne Chute, an heiress. Unfortunately there are impediments to this marriage: a minor one, in the shape of Anne's attraction to Hardress's friend, Kyrle Daly; and a major one in the form of [End Page 1] Hardress's existing clandestine marriage to a local rope-maker's daughter, Eily O'Connor, the Colleen Bawn herself (translated in the play by Anne Chute as 'the pretty girl' ([Act 2.iii] – a more literal translation of the Irish cailín bán would be the white or fair girl).5 Hardress secretly visits Eily every night, rowed across the lake to her cottage by Danny Mann, a hunchbacked servant, who is fiercely loyal to his master and foster-brother, although it was he who was responsible years earlier for the injury to his back. Through a series of misunderstandings Danny comes to believe that his master wants him to murder Eily. He takes her out on the lake in his boat and attempts to drown her in a water cave, known variously as Pool a Dhiol [sc. Ir. Poll an Dhiabhail, the devil's cave or hole] and O'Donoghue's Stables, but is prevented in the nick of time by Myles-na-Coppaleen [sc. Ir. Myles na gcapaillín, Myles of the ponies], a local poacher, poteen-maker, and general scapegrace, who is also in love with Eily, and who has come to visit the illicit still he maintains in the same cave .6 In one of the play's more ludicrous contrivances, Myles mistakes Danny for an otter, and shoots him, but not before the hunchback has pushed Eily into the water, having already persuaded her out of the boat and onto a rock. Then, in the play's famous sensation scene, Myles saves the drowning girl by making a daring dive, or 'header', into the lake:

Danny. … Take your marriage lines wid ye to the bottom of the lake. (He throws her from rock backwards into the water with a cry; she reappears, clinging to rock.)

Eily. No! save me. Don't kill...


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pp. 1-25
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Archived 2009
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