One of the earliest recorded public hangings associated with Lifford Courthouse is that of John MacNaghten in 1761. Such was the publicity surrounding the case that even though it is over 250 years ago, the incident is still remembered this day and is now part of local folklore. It was in the newly-built County Gaol that MacNaghten was held while awaiting trial for the murder of his fifteen-year-old ‘wife’ Mary Anne Knox. Apparently “Lifford gaol had to be used to hold MacNaghten since the Strabane prison was not considered either secure enough or clean enough for such a prisoner”.
Born into a wealthy family, the well-educated MacNaghten had gambled away his family fortune while still a young man and had even embezzled £800 to feed his addiction when he was Collector of Taxes in Coleraine. The MP for Donegal, Andrew Knox, took pity on him and invited him to stay at his house at Prehen, near Derry. While there, he was attracted to Knox’s daughter, the young heiress Mary Anne and, unknown to her father, arranged a very dubious marriage ceremony.
Although the marriage was declared null and void, Knox decided to take the teenager to Dublin out of harm’s way. Hearing of this MacNaghten planned to ambush the coach and abduct the young girl. In the skirmish that followed, however, he mistakenly shot and killed Mary Anne while she was trying to shield her father.
After a fierce struggle and an attempt to take his own life, MacNaghten was finally captured and brought to Lifford. On the 7th of December 1761, MacNaghten, suffering from gunshot wounds received in the fracas, was carried into Lifford Courthouse to face trial. Found guilty, at 1pm on the 15th of December he was led from the jail to be hanged. At the first attempt, however, the rope snapped but despite encouragement from the assembled crowd to escape, MacNaghten climbed the ladder once more while making his famous remark that no-one would ever call him ‘half-hanged MacNaghten’. There was no mistake the second time and despite his final wish he is still known as ‘half-hanged MacNaghten’ to this day.
§ Extract from “The Court Will Rise – A short history of the Old Courthouse, Lifford, Co Donegal” by Billy Patton.