Today (8th July 2020) marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mary Ann McCracken, the noted activist, abolitionist and social reformer. Mary Ann was born to Captain John and Anne McCracken (née Joy). Her maternal grandfather was Francis Joy, founder of the Belfast Newsletter. Like her siblings Mary Ann was educated at David Manson’s co-educational school, where children regardless of gender studied the same curriculum. When she was little more than a child herself, she was making clothes for the children of the Poor House, today known as Clifton House.
Mary Ann excelled at arithmetic in school, and when she was older she set up a muslin business in partnership with her sister, Margaret. The sister’s enterprise appears in the 1809 Holden’s Directory as Margaret McCracken & Co. Muslin Manufacturers, 37 Waring Street. During times of hardship and economic instability the sisters continued to employ their staff, whilst other companies were letting people go to cut costs. The sisters took the burden of losses themselves, as Mary Ann “…could not think of dismissing our workers, because nobody would give them employment.”
Mary Ann lived through some of the most turbulent years of Irish history including the 1798 rebellion, the Great Famine and the Industrial Revolution. She never married or had any children of her own. However, after the execution of her brother Henry Joy McCracken for his role in the 1798 rebellion, Mary Ann took in his illegitimate daughter Maria. Not all members of the McCracken and Joy families were supportive of Mary Ann’s actions. Her brother John McCracken wrote to his sibling Frank, “We have got an addition to the family since you were here, it is a little Girl said to be a daughter of poor Harry’s, it was bro’[ught], against my inclinations.” However, over time the family appear to have accepted Henry Joy McCracken’s daughter; and Mary Ann and Maria lived together for the rest of Mary Ann’s life.
Mary Ann McCracken was 57 years old when the Ladies’ Committee was formed in 1827. The first matter they considered was a method to instruct the girls of the Poor House in crafts that would provide a livelihood for them. The Gentleman provided a grant of 30 shillings which Mary Ann was to use to purchase tambour frames, piercers and muslin so they could do white embroidery work. Nothing escaped the attention of Ladies Committee and their projects included getting blinds fitted in the hospital, straw mats to protect the mattresses from wearing on the iron bedframes and fireguards in the children’s rooms. Mary Ann served as Treasurer, Secretary and Chair of the Ladies’ Committee at various points.
As well as her interest in the Poor House, Mary Ann was also intimately connected with the Ladies Industrial School from its inception in 1847. Mary Ann’s name is recorded as a committee member in each of the school’s annual reports from its foundation. She was given the position of President of the school which she held until her death. No correspondence survived from her during the Great Famine, but it is clear that she would have felt heartbroken at the destitution, death and famine during the period, and would have witnessed the poor from rural areas flooding into Belfast seeking some form of relief. She was also a member of the committee set up in Belfast to abolish the use of climbing boys in chimney sweeping and was involved in early women suffrage campaigns and prison reform schemes.
Mary Ann McCracken was not parochial in her social reform activities. She was very active in anti-slavery circles in Belfast and practised what she preached in abstaining from eating sugar, a product of the slave trade. In her 89th year she was still standing by the gangway of ships in Belfast harbour, bound for America, handing out abolitionist leaflets to Irish emigrants.
Mary Ann was buried in the McCracken family plot in Clifton Street Cemetery. When her friend, Thomas Russell, a United Irishman was executed for his role in the 1803 rebellion, her last act of service to him was to cover his grave with a plain tombstone engraved with his name in the Parish Graveyard in Downpatrick. She did the same of her friend, Jemmy Hope another United Irishmen who fell into poverty after the rebellion. Sadly, the same service was not provided for Mary Ann upon her death. Mary Ann outlived her generation and her grave remained unmarked for 43 years until Francis Joseph Bigger erected a headstone to commemorate her in May 1909. The inscription ‘wept by her brother’s scaffold’ frames the narrative of this remarkable woman in terms of her brother’s role in 1798.
Mary Ann lived for another 68 years after the execution of her brother, involving herself in many worthy causes. Here at Clifton House we are trying to reclaim her place in Belfast and Irish history. The Gaelic inscription on her headstone reads ‘Dileas go h-Eag’ (Loyal/Faithful until Death), and we like to think of those words as a reference to her loyalty and faithfulness to social reform and the poor of Belfast and further afield. The motto of this remarkable woman, which accurately sums up her character, was that it is better ‘to wear out than to rust out’.
Belfast Charitable Society have recently established the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation to examine not just the life of this remarkable woman, but to look at her legacy and relevance today in the 21st century. It recently republished The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken, 1770-1866, A Belfast Panorama by Mary McNeill, which can be purchased here.