Businesswoman, campaigner – the remarkable Mary Ann McCracken

Mary Ann McCracken was a successful businesswoman, philanthropist and campaigner, and lived a long and useful life
Mary Ann McCracken was a successful businesswoman, philanthropist and campaigner, and lived a long and useful life

On the eve of the 150th anniversary of her death, historian GORDON LUCY looks back at the life of Mary Ann McCracken, granddaughter of the founder of the News Letter and a woman who packed a lot of causes and living into her 96 years

Born on July 8 1770, Mary Ann McCracken – known as Mary within the family – was the sixth child of Captain John McCracken, a Belfast shipowner and rope maker, and Ann Joy, daughter of Francis Joy, who had founded the Belfast News-Letter and General Advertiser in 1737. Mary Ann had a sister, Margaret, and four brothers: Francis, William, Henry Joy and John. She was very close to Henry and in later life she became the jealous guardian of her brother’s reputation. However Mary Ann ought to be remembered as an extremely impressive and formidable individual in her own right.

Henry Joy McCracken was accompanied to the gallows in 1798 by his sister

Henry Joy McCracken was accompanied to the gallows in 1798 by his sister

Mary Ann was only three years younger than her celebrated brother and, as a result, they were educated together at David Manson’s school, a co-educational establishment, where the ethos was to teach ‘by way of amusement’ and reward rather than punishment. Together, they imbibed the radicalism of William Godwin (1756-1836), Mary Wollstonecraft (1759- 1797) and Tom Paine (1737- 1809). Other members of the family did not espouse their radical politics. She fully supported Henry’s decision to join the Society of United Irishmen in March 1795, when it was on the cusp of becoming a clandestine revolutionary and military organisation.

After the Battle of Antrim on June 7 1798 Henry Joy McCracken, Jemmy Hope and others took refuge on Slemish and then hid in the hills of south Antrim. While hiding there Mary Ann sought him out and brought him much-needed clothes and money. She was arranging for a ship to take him to America when he was recognised by three Carrickfergus yeomen and arrested near the town on July 7 1798.

On July 16 McCracken was transferred from Carrickfergus gaol to the Artillery Barracks in Belfast. Mary Ann visited him there and attended the court martial in the Assembly Rooms at noon on July 17. Later that afternoon, she walked with her brother hand-in-hand to the gallows. She subsequently confessed: ‘I did not weep till then’. At 5:00 he was hanged outside the old market house, built on ground which his great-great-grandfather had given to the town, in Cornmarket.

General Nugent allowed the body to be cut down quickly and entrusted it to Mary Ann. She arranged for a surgeon to resuscitate her brother but his efforts proved unavailing. McCracken was buried in the old graveyard of St George’s church in High Street.

Mary Ann McCracken's former home in Belfast is marked with a blue plaque

Mary Ann McCracken's former home in Belfast is marked with a blue plaque

After Henry’s death she defied family opposition and brought up his illegitimate daughter Maria Bodel in the family home.

Mary Ann was a successful businesswoman (in the muslin trade) and a great philanthropist. Throughout her long life she campaigned tirelessly for causes as varied as the welfare of women and children, the abolition of ‘the diabolical system of slavery’, prison reform and political equality for women. She had a particularly keen interest in the affairs of the Charitable Institution (better known today as Clifton House) which her uncles, Robert and Henry Joy, had helped to found in 1771.

Although she had a sweet tooth, Mary Ann abstained from eating sugar as an earnest of her opposition to slavery and led the Women’s Abolitionary committee in Belfast during the height of the anti-slavery movement. As ‘an old woman within 17 days of 89’ she was in Belfast docks, handing out anti-slavery tracts to those emigrating to the United States, where slavery was still practised. In 1859 she wrote to Dr R. R. Madden, whom she had greatly assisted over many years in compiling biographies of the United Irishmen, bitterly observing: ‘I am both ashamed and sorry to think that Belfast has so far degenerated in regard to the Anti-Slavery Cause’.

Nevertheless on other occasions she was prepared to acknowledge progress. The avowed aims of the United Irishmen were parliamentary reform, religious equality and free trade. By the mid-1860s Ireland had experienced two measures of parliamentary reform (in 1800 as a byproduct of the Act of Union and the Great Reform Act of 1832) and was on eve of a third, the Second Reform Act of 1867. Catholic Emancipation, although delayed for a generation, contrary to the wishes of Pitt and Castlereagh, had been achieved in 1829 and the Church of Ireland was about to be disestablished. And Belfast and its environs were flourishing under the Act of Union. As Emerson Tennent, one of Belfast’s two MPs, observed in the House of Commons in 1834: ‘The north of Ireland had, every five years, found its trade doubled since the Union’. Well might Mary Ann muse ‘in thinking of those who were gone, and how delighted they would have been at the changes that have now taken place ...’

Mary Ann never married but she may have been more than a little in love with Thomas Russell whom she described as ‘a model of manly beauty’. Unfortunately Russell was to suffer the same unhappy fate as her much-loved brother, being hanged in Downpatrick for his sorry role in Emmet’s Rebellion on October 21 1803. Mary Ann arranged and financed his legal defence and paid for the erection of his tombstone. Nevertheless Jean Agnew, the editor of the Drennan letters, contends that there is no evidence for a romantic attachment and suggests that Mary Ann was motivated by commitment to the United Irish cause rather than love for the man.

Unlike her brother, Mary Ann enjoyed a long and useful life and died, aged 96, on July 26 1866, well into the Victorian era. She was buried in Clifton Street in the shadow of the poorhouse to which she had devoted so much of her time and energy. Her grave remained unmarked until her brother’s alleged remains were exhumed from St George’s church in High Street and placed in his sister’s grave in 1909, the headstone recording that she ‘wept by her brother’s scaffold’.

A blue plaque has been placed by the Ulster History Circle on the house at 62 Donegall Pass, Belfast, where she lived for much of her later life.