The Post Office’ tree no longer exists, its site in a field beside Prehen House outside Derry City, marked only by nettles and brambles. The tree was a sycamore, and a group of other sycamores in the same field helps to keep the memory alive.
The tale associated with the tree is one of the darker stories of Irish landowners. The daughter of the house, Miss Knox, was courted by one of the Macnaghtens of Co. Antrim – surreptitious letters were exchanged by’posting’them in the sycamore tree.
The family was concerned, and father attempted to carry the daughter away to Dublin and safety. Their coach was stopped by the furious Macnaghten, who claimed that Miss Knox had promised to marry him – it is said that she only acquiesced if her father would give permission, which we may assume he did not.
The story has two variants – one is that the villain of the piece attempted to shoot the father, and that the daughter was shot in error, throwing herself in front of her father, in order to save him. The other is grimmer – that Macnaghten shot her deliberately, determined that if he could not have her, no-one else should do so.
He was arrested, taken to Strabane, tried and executed – but the first hanging failed and he survived. Declaring that he had no wish to be known as ‘half-hung Macnaghten’ he insisted that the noose should be made ready again – and this time he was truly hanged. He is of course remembered to this day by the nickname he had coined for himself.
Around Prehen, the tradition of the ‘post office’ tree survives, outliving its subjects.