A story to inspire ...

20 Jun 2023 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 20 Jun 2023

Bust of Mary Ann McCracken at Clifton House

We can and we should learn from the past. Whatever lies ahead has happened before: we should try to take lessons from that.

In recent years Belfast’s oldest charity the Belfast Charitable Society has done much to rehabilitate the memory of Mary Ann McCracken.

She was an innovative and remarkable proto-feminist and campaigner for social justice. Mary Ann was tireless: she died at 96 and to the end of her days she trudged to Belfast docks handing out leaflets protesting against the slave trade.

Her career contrasts with that of her much more famous brother Henry Joy McCracken who was leader of the defeated United Irish army at the Battle of Antrim in 1798 and executed aged 30.

They were devoted to each other and both believed in the cause for which he fought and died but you could well argue that she ultimately had the greater and certainly the longer-lasting impact on social justice and equality.

Earlier this week an event was held at Clifton House which celebrated the life and legacy of Mary Ann McCracken, and reflected on how much of her work was inspired by her close reading of the remarkable philosopher, writer and human rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft.

It is right and important that we recognise and celebrate the part that so many women played in our history, especially given the discrimination they suffered.

For all that, it would also be good to see much more focus on the Belfast Charitable Society itself.

Leaders of charities today are under incredible pressure: starved of funding as the clients who rely on them continue to suffer, they were rocked by the pandemic, the cost of living crisis and deep government cuts.

Morale is understandably low and inspiration is needed to keep going at a time of great stress.

There could not be a better place to find that than by studying the extraordinary story of the Belfast Charitable Society. It was founded in 1752 when Belfast had a population of just 8,000 which is roughly the same as Portstewart today.

In the 18th Century the town was predominantly Presbyterian and under the influence of a range of radical new ideas stemming from the Scottish Enlightenment.

But it was leaderless - its landlord Arthur Chichester, Lord Donegall was an absentee who lived in England. The void was compounded by the town’s small size – because it was not a city or a county town it had no financial support or independent governance.

And the town was already starting on a trajectory of rapid population growth which reached 17,000 by the end of the century and 350,000 by the dawn of the 20th Century.

Meanwhile all this took place at a time when there was no health service and no welfare system and no support for the wandering poor, drifting in from the countryside in search of opportunities.

On top of that there wasn’t even a service that provided running water and no organised system of education for all. The town’s cemeteries were also close to capacity, leaving no space for burying the additional dead a larger population would also inevitably involve.

It had no choice – if Belfast were to thrive it could not rely on others it had to achieve everything by itself.

This was a chance not just for wealthy people to salve the consciences but to launch social experiments, establishing Belfast as a progressive, modern centre which embodied some of the principles which underpinned a modern age.

The first task was to set up the Society which was set up to tackle poverty. The Society completed the Belfast poor house in 1774.

Its location on Clifton Street which overlooks Donegall Street was significant. Donegall Street was intended as the main thoroughfare of the emerging city and so the poor house was a symbol of the new Belfast’s civic pride and a bold statement of its approach to the creation of civil society.

The message was that Belfast’s poor house would be every bit as elegant and well designed as the finest dwelling in the city.

Visitors thought so. The preacher and evangelist John Wesley wrote: “the Poorhouse stands on an eminence fronting the main street and having a beautiful prospect on every side over the whole country”

In the early days Clifton House was a magnet for polite society too, holding regular balls and even having a card room.

The Belfast Charitable Society’s next project was to do something about the need for piped running water – the population had risen to 19,000 by this stage. It acquired the lease of land with springs which it enabled it to create a water source. The necessary legislation was passed in 1800, the last act of the Irish parliament before its dissolution. The Society remained Belfast’s water authority until 1840.

By that stage it had survived the 1798 Rising. This in itself was remarkable – several prominent members were leading radicals and the building itself was occupied and used as a barracks. But there was never a split – members put their agreement to combat poverty before anything else.

Meantime the town’s rapid growth meant that its citizens soon found that they were fast running out of space to bury the dead. Once again the Society stepped in: in 1799 it opened a new graveyard.

This was rather different from the traditional church yard. Non consecrated graves were not laid out east to west as in the Christian tradition, instead there was a highly innovative landscaped cemetery.

This was not just a non-denominational cemetery it was a secular one and is believed to be the first of its kind in Western Europe.

The Society was also courageous enough for yet another innovation - it allowed Catholics to learn religion from their own denomination at a time when the only other providers of Catholic education were hedge schools.

And at a time when there was no health system the poor house’s infirmary was the only form of accessible medical relief for the poor of Belfast for 20 years.

The main driver for the society then was a thirst for social justice coupled with a determination of at least some of the wealthy to devote some of their earnings to good causes.

This was exemplified by Mary Ann McCracken, a committed Calvinist who, towards the end of her life wrote: “Some object to joining religion and politics together; but surely religion should be the ruling principle of every action and of every thought … in such direction no government could inflict the wrongs on a people which ours have endured and found to be intolerable in 1798.”

There are many differences between the society of the early 19th century and that of today. And civil society has evolved to take many forms.

But those currently working in the Sector, deprived as they are of resources whilst people who rely on them continue to suffer, should always remember that the development of the great city of the north was made possible by Ireland’s oldest and greatest charity whose members were dedicated to upholding the principles of social justice.

Its achievements were simply remarkable. These great men and women should inspire us today. Cuts, setbacks and the manifest injustice we see all around us should spur us to reclaim that same spirit and to continue the great campaign they started until social justice and equality have been achieved.


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