Next Sunday will be the 250th anniversary of the death of John McNaughton, executed in Strabane for the murder of his sweetheart Ann Knox.
I don’t know how widely the story of Half-Hanged McNaughton is known today. When I was galloping around Rossville Street, everybody knew. Indeed, that’s all we knew about Prehen House - that it had been the Knox family home, from which Ann had set out for Dublin, accompanied by her father, Sir Andrew Knox MP, who wanted her away from McNaughton, whom he deemed a bad match.
It is a matter of some perplexity that Derry isn’t geared up for a weekend of cultural events and historical inquiry to mark the occasion. McNaughton’s story vibrates with passion and high drama that could be transposed to any quarter of the world and yet retain its distinctive Derryness.
We do have John O’Neill’s annual Big Oak Festival in and around the House - poetry in the parlour, stand-up in the barn, Abby in an outhouse and, all around, music with charm to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, to bend a knotted oak, to fill the woods with noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. And that’s just Paddy Nash.
But there’s no public subsidy forthcoming for the Big Oak. Mad, I tell you.
Anyway: Sir Anthony had his face set like flint against marriage between the daughter he doted on and the dashing desperado, and so decided to pack her off to Dublin where she might meet a better class of suitor. (How things have changed since!) But McNaughton emerged at Burndennet pistol in hand, intent on elopement, and called on the coachman to stand and deliver Ann into his arms. Sir Andrew commanded the driver to speed on. McNaughton fired wildly. The bullet struck Ann in the heart. McNaughton was captured, tried at Lifford and sentenced to die in the square at Strabane.
A crowd, allegedly thousands strong, gathered to view the last moments of the romantic villain. It’s said a great lamentation arose and a thousand handkerchiefs waved in the square and shouts of “God bless you, John McNaughton!” filled the air as the man to be stretched walked his slow way to the gallows, acknowledging the adulation. (Another version says that the majority of spectators reckoned he had it coming, but I know which account I prefer.) The trap-door opened, McNaughton plummeted, but it was the rope and not his neck which snapped. So they tried again. And the rope broke again.
As the traditional instant ballad recounted: “The rope it broke, not once but twice/ By the laws of man you can’t hang thrice/ The people cried, ‘Let him go free/ Don’t hang him high on the gallows tree’”.
It was then, the well-sourced legend continues, that John beckoned death, shouting to the throng, “I will not live to be known as Half-Hanged McNaughton.”
“He placed the rope around his neck/A rope so strong it would not b reak/ ‘Half-hanged now I ne’er will be/ Hang me high on the gallows tree.’”
It’s a story crying out for epic treatment. The defining narrative is already in song, by Peter O’Hanlon of Strabane. His “Half-Hanged McNaughton” is narratively stronger than, for example, the “Ode to Billy Joe” (MacAllister, who jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge) - a Bobby Gentry song before adaptation as a full-length movie.
No space to mention Stan McGowan’s “Wood Of The Crows”, premiered in the Playhouse two weeks ago, the first effort, as far as I’m aware, to put the story on stage. But we will make space next week. The first night featured a couple of performances of staggering quality which is would be wrong to skimp on.
The play ends with a tableau of the lovers in gauzy half-light, which I chose to take as confirmation of my remark in another place, that Ann and John can still sometimes be seen, at twilight, together at last, wafting through the woods.
I suppose if we wait another 250 years we will have a culture company or something such to recognise the poetical, theatrical, musical and historical potential of this tale of doomed love in Derry and welcome death in Strabane. Until then, maybe see you on Sunday as the shades of night fall. Maybe see McNaughton, too.
Read more from Eamonn McCann in the Journal every Tuesday.