Mary Ann McCracken, a tireless campaigner for social justice

30 Aug 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 30 Aug 2019

The bust of Mary Ann McCracken at Clifton House

The Belfast Charitable Society, the city’s oldest charity, has set up a foundation to celebrate the life and work of one of Belfast’s most remarkable women – Mary Ann McCracken.

Its purpose is to examine issues around poverty, slavery, human rights and equality  – all of which are causes she espoused and all of which are relevant today.

She was also a pioneer for Early Years education, campaigned against child labour, helped to revive Irish music and was a proto-feminist.

Mary Ann McCracken is best known as the sister of Henry Joy McCracken who led the rebellion of 1798. It is time this tireless campaigner for social justice and pioneer of the charity sector came out from the shadow of her older brother. She deserves to be remembered in her own right.

Therefore the first act of the foundation is to publish through the Irish Academic Press a revised edition of Mary McNeill’s 1960 biography: The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken 1770 – 1866.

Mary was a prodigious letter writer throughout her life and the book quotes extensively from her writings allowing her warmth, intelligence, compassion and great courage to shine through.

She was born into a world of great change, one where Belfast was emerging as an important port with a rapidly expanding population and a burgeoning reputation for its radical, enlightened thinking.

Her family were prosperous Presbyterians with reformist leanings and were prominent in the growth and development of the town. Her maternal grandfather Francis Joy had founded the News Letter in 1737, overcoming a paper shortage by collecting rags across the north and building his own paper mill. Another family business founded the first mill in Ireland to be powered by water.

As Belfast grew so too did more and more unemployed workers, beggars and destitute people drift into the town. There was no welfare system in the 18th Century. It fell to Belfast citizens to alleviate homelessness and poverty. Her uncles Henry and Robert were leading lights in founding the the Belfast Charitable Society which built the town’s poorhouse. The building was designed by Robert and is now known as Clifton House, still home to the charity.

Her father John was a wealthy sea captain and she was brought up on High Street at a time when the River Farset still flowed down the middle of the street.

This was a time of new, radical thinking – and Mary was sent to an extraordinary school run by the eccentric educationalist David Manson. He taught boys and girls togethers, believed that education should be fun, banned corporal punishment and introduced games and play into the curriculum. The Manson approach pre-dated the Montessori schools system by more than a century. This environment influenced her thinking – both on sexual equality and on her own educational initiatives she pursued as an older woman.

She was brilliant at figures and when just 21, started a muslin business with her older sister Margaret. It was a success and gave her the financial independence to support her brother Henry Joy and other revolutionaries during the insurrection which was to follow.

But from her earliest days her strongest motivation was the fight for social justice. This was grounded in her Calvinist faith. McNeill’s book quotes from a letter written in old age: “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.”

And her passion for helping to secure better lives for the working classes and the destitute was clear: “The world affords no enjoyment equal to that of promoting the happiness of others, it so far surpasses more selfish gratification from its not only being pleasant at the time but from affording agreeable recollections afterwards.”

It is not known whether Mary was a member of a secret United Irishmen society but there is no question that she supported a cause which required members to subscribe to the Test: “I in the presence of God do pledge to my country that I will use all my abilities and influence in the attainment of an impartial and adequate representation of the Irish nation in Parliament … I will endeavour to as much as lies in my abilities to forward a brotherhood of affection, an identity of interest, a communion of rights and a union of power among Irishmen of all religious persuasions …”

In 1796, two years before the insurrection Henry Joy McCracken was one of several prominent United Irishmen imprisoned in Dublin at Kilmainham gaol. The private letters she wrote to him there give great insight both into her character and thinking. 

For example she had this to share with him about women’s rights: “is it not almost time for the clouds of error and prejudice to disperse and that the female parts of the Creation as well as the male should throw off the fetters with which they have been so long mentally bound and conscious of the dignity and importance of their nature rise to the situation for which they were designed … there can be no argument produced in favour of the slavery of woman that has not been used in favour of general slavery .. . I write to one whom I suppose capable of forming an opinion from his own experience without consulting the stupid multitude of common thinkers …”

That phrase “the stupid multitude of common thinkers” resonates today.

And here she is, unwittingly prophetic about her own brother’s fate: “ If the compleat Union of Ireland should demand the blood of some of her best patriots to cement if they will not sink their duty but meet their fate unappalled whether it be on the scaffold or in the field convinced that in the end the cause of Union and of truth must prevail and that happiness flowing from Liberty and Peace will ultimately bless the united effort of their country.”

There is also frustration with her brother for not writing back: “Your almost continual neglect of availing yourself of any opportunity that occurs of writing to your friends in Belfast is enough to make us suppose you have entirely forgot them … “

And he gets told off for drinking too much: “could you not find more amusement in reading than drinking, now that you subscribe to a circulating library?

She sends him money and clothes in passages which give a vivid insight into prison conditions at the time: “the bundle of clothes that were sent you contain a new pair of blankets, an old under one a pillow and quilt lined with diaper, two pillow cases one bolster case one pair of pantaloons and a pair of red slippers …”

Henry Joy McCracken was released from prison in December 1797. By then the United Irishmen were riddled with informers and chaos ensued. The French withdrew their support for a rising. Steele Dickson, commander in Down was arrested, Robert Simms commander in Antrim resigned in mysterious circumstances – and Henry Joy was made leader. On the 6th of June 1798 he issued this proclamation:

“Tomorrow we march on Antrim – drive the garrison of Randalstown before you, and hasten  to form a junction with the Commander in Chief.

Henry Joy McCracken

The First Year of Liberty”

After the defeat Mary Ann defied the curfew to wander through the Belfast hills to find him in his hiding place, funded an escape bid but he was arrested outside Carrickfergus.

At 5pm on 17 July she walked with her brother to the scaffold in front of the Market Place, where, flanked by the severed heads of four of his comrades he was hanged.

Afterwards she wrote “I never once wished that my beloved brother had taken any other part than that which he did take.”

Mary Ann McCracken never married but she appears to have had strong feelings about Henry Joy’s great friend and fellow revolutionary Thomas Russell. She wrote he was a “model of manly beauty, he was one of those favoured individuals whom one cannot pass in the street without being guilty of the rudeness of staring in the face while passing, and turning round to look at the receding figure.”

Russell was executed for his part in the abortive rebellion of 1803 after his request for a delay of three days so he could finish translating the Book of Revelation from Greek was declined.

She lost her brother and her friend and in 1815, during recession, lost the muslin business as well.

The rest of her life was devoted to the hard, practical work of campaigning for social justice and she became a pioneer for what we now call the Third Sector.

She fought for better conditions in cotton mills, writing to the News Letter: “Quicklime should daily be thrown into the houses of convenience which will destroy all fetid effluvia and produce a most valuable manure.

Mary was prominent in efforts to stop young children being made to climb chimneys by sweeps. She was passionate about the abolition of slavery, refusing to eat sugar in protest and writing: “America considered the land of the great, and the brave may more properly be styled the land of the tyrant and the slave.” At 88 she was still leafleting on slavery at Belfast docks.

There was more. She volunteered with the Belfast Charitable Society for more than two decades, most of which were served on the “Ladies Committee” which tirelessly lobbied the Gentlemen’s Committee on reform and improvements.

The most innovative of these was the setting up of a nursery at the Poor House at a time when infant education was not understood. “There are at present under the care of one old woman 19 babies and in Mrs Gilpin’s school there are 13 more.”

This, together with the use of play and outdoor spaces, was extraordinary for its time – particularly as we consider how much work the Early Years movement still has to do today.

She was the secretary of the Ladies Committee and her minutes sent to her male colleagues are infused with a passionate commitment – on providing more soap, improving diets allowing children to be indentured to employers a month’s probation to see if the work suited them and campaigning for youngsters to be given candles and books so they could read at night.

One final vignette. When Henry Joy was in Belfast awaiting execution she paid a man to deliver him a bottle of whiskey, which he stole. Afterwards a relative wrote to her to tell her that the thief had been lashed and sent to the West Indies. She replied: “This note we felt as an insult, in supporting that we would delight in the suffering of others.”


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