Belfast Charitable Society Board Member, Captain John McCracken was enchanted by all things French. He spent considerable time travelling between Belfast and Bordeaux, transporting wine for his employer, the Black family. He had been held prisoner in France in the mid-1700s, but it did not diminish his admiration for the French people. When French prisoners were quartered in Belfast, Captain McCracken, his brother-in-law Robert Joy and other prominent businessmen of the town suggested to the government in London that a committee of townspeople should be appointed to look after the welfare of the prisoners of war. John also sought the services of an old weaver to teach his children French. She was the only native speaker in all of Belfast and she taught Mary Ann, Henry Joy and the rest of the McCracken children the intricacies of the French language.
The beginning of the French Revolution spurred the Presbyterians of Belfast to campaign anew for Parliamentary reform. Belfast celebrated Bastille Day each year and in 1791 the Belfast Volunteers, many of whom were members of the Belfast Charitable Society, set out with unarmed members of the public from the Exchange Rooms, carrying a portrait of Franklin. After marching to the White Linen Hall the Volunteers and the citizens of Belfast agreed to send a declaration to the National Assembly of France. A month later a reply was received from Nantes:
“LIBERTY OR DEATH! . . . Citizens of Belfast! you have celebrated that Triumph of the human mind, and you have done it with such splendour, as renders you truly worthy to partake of the hatred with which we are honoured by crowned tyrants… we swear to preserve it in our archives.”
The celebrations to mark the third anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille captured the imagination of the people of Belfast. During the same period the now famous Harper’s Festival was taking place at the Assembly Rooms on Waring Street. It is likely that the Festival organisers- in most cases organisers of the Bastille Day celebrations- seized the opportunity of such an influx of Volunteers and their friends in order to disseminate interest in their traditional music project. The Harp Festival started at 1pm each day with the exception of Bastille Day, when it moved to 7pm to accommodate the revellers.
The French Revolution, in the name of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, resonated with many in Belfast. The Belfast Newsletter described the French Revolution as “the greatest event in human annals”. However, with the onset of “Reign of Terror” many turned against the French. Martha McTier, wife of Belfast Charitable Society board member Samuel McTier, and sister to Dr William Drennan, summed up public opinion on hearing of the massacres in a letter: “I am turned, quite turned against the French”.