Belfast’s Mary Ann McCracken was a truly remarkable radical. A recent pamphlet by John Gray reinterprets the significance of her life of activism and we republish the introduction to that pamphlet here.
Mary Ann McCracken has reasonable claims to be considered Belfast’s most formidable female radical of her era. I have sought to offer a new and penetrating analysis of her life.
What can I add to Mary McNeill’s pioneering biography which has rightly been republished by Irish Academic Press this year ? That was a question I asked myself as far back as 1998 when I was asked at relatively short notice to give a lecture on her at the Byrne Perry summer school in County Wexford. Surely all the information I needed and more was in Mary McNeill’s biography and yet that seemed a bit of kop out, and I also had an indefinable feeling that McNeill’s account didn’t ring entirely true.
What could I do? Nothing for it but to go to the original sources that McNeill had used, that is Mary Ann and Henry Joy’s correspondence in the Madden papers in Trinity College. I always recommend seeing the originals – they exude passions that can get lost in cold print. Certainly, the find of a lock of Henry Joy’s hair added a frisson that could not be found in any book, but could I find any evidence that would significantly change our assessment of Mary Ann?
I did. Mary McNeill and I are at one with regard to Mary Ann’s devotion to her brother, Henry Joy, though I suggest that she took quite a leading role in the relationship. After all, in 1797 she wrote to him urging that Ireland’s ‘best patriots’ should ‘not sink [from] their duty, but meet their fate equally unappalled, whether it be on the scaffold or in the field…’ thus foreshadowing his death. It was in this period, and as a reader of Mary Wollstonecraft, that she urged upon her brother the rights of women in the United Irish organisation and elsewhere.
If her obligation was to her brother alone that surely ended with his execution in 1798, yet Mary Ann remained actively involved in events up to the failed rising in 1803 and, along with her sister, Margaret, and her brother, John, made every effort to save Thomas Russell. Mary McNeill suggests that Mary Ann’s involvement arose from her devotion to Thomas Russell, and that she may have wished to marry him.
The crucial letter which explodes this theory was one that Mary Ann wrote to her Dublin based cousin, Grizzey, in 1799.
‘What a wonderful clamour is now raised at the name of Union, when in reality there has always been such a union between England and this country, as there is between husband and wife by which the former has the right to oppress the latter.’
From this we may conclude that Mary Ann opposed the Act of Union and had no desire to marry anyone, indeed like her sister, she was to remain unmarried. Her relationship with Russell was that of a comrade.
Read it this way and we remove the adoration of male heroes as Mary Ann’s motivating force, and she emerges as a determined revolutionary in her own right.
How did she and the other members of the McCracken family come to be so centrally engaged in the United Irish enterprise? The story of the exclusion of the overwhelmingly Presbyterian citizenry of small-town Belfast from political power and their resentment of the corrupt and largely useless Corporation is well known. Less well analysed is their creation of an alternative civic republic based on the three Presbyterian meeting houses in Rosemary Lane, on the Charitable Society and poor house, in the Belfast Library and Society for Promoting Knowledge, and in the revived Volunteer movement which sought to imitate the French National Guard.
One aspect of this deserves further examination. Like nearly all the United Irishmen and women, Mary Ann was deeply religious, though hers was a religion that decreed ‘love thy neighbour’. Her father Captain McCracken came from the Scottish covenanting tradition, many of whom were driven forth to Ulster in the 1690’s. They were members of the theologically conservative 3rd Presbyterian Church rather than the ‘new light’ 1st Presbyterian Church where the Reverend William Bruce, a bitter opponent of the United Irishmen, held sway.
By contrast the McCrackens’ minister, the Rev Sinclare Kelburn, a close family friend, was to the fore in every radical meeting of the period and epitomised Covenantor distrust of unjust government. In 1792, he declared ‘He had heard of a government by Kings, Lords and commons, but could never approve of hereditary legislators, because wisdom is not hereditary’. As far as the government was concerned he was a Jacobin and he was imprisoned alongside Henry Joy for his pains.
Following the defeat of the United Irishmen Mary Ann had to come to terms with the new order, but only up to a point. In the course of assisting Edward Bunting in his pioneering work collecting and publishing ancient Irish music she made the acquaintance of another almost forgotten woman, Mary Balfour, who ran a school for girls, was Belfast’s first published poetess, and who continued to revere the United Irish martyrs in verse. Her poem celebrating Henry Joy was so incendiary that it was only published in 1896.
Mary Ann and her sister had been unusual in running their own muslin business, but it fell foul of the recession at the end of the Napoleonic war. Unlike other employers they had continued to pay their weavers but it was an unsustainable position in ungenerous times.
One of the few openings for unmarried women in the 19th century was to engage in charitable work. Best known is Mary Ann’s role in the Belfast Charitable Society as Secretary of the Women’s Committee. There she pushed the boundaries of what it was possible for a Women’s Committee to do in a male dominated organisation as far as it was possible to do so.
She was engaged in multiple other causes and primarily with women’s committees. Further work needs to be done on these but what I have identified is that they were determinedly non-sectarian in their approach to education for the poor or in the cause of famine relief, in a world where philanthropy became increasingly sectarianised by mid-century. There were too many who were prepared to educate poor children but wished to save their souls first or saw famine relief primarily as a means to conversion.
Mary Ann also recognised the limitations of philanthropy and advocated the introduction of income tax as a fair basis for providing for the poor, though saw no hope of its introduction in her time.
Mary Ann recognised the shift in opinion in favour of the Union with Britain but remained a doubter as to its benefits. Although there is no evidence that she backed Daniel O’Connell’s campaign for the Repeal of the Union she was an admirer of his. For her he deserved ‘the lasting gratitude of all true philanthropists’ and had the capacity to ensure that Ireland ‘would be the finest nation in the world.’
In the 1850’s and now in great old age she complained about government complicity in the revival of the Orange Order, about landlord oppression and about brutal British conduct in India.
That other cause with which she is most closely associated was the abolition of slavery. She saw parallels between black slavery and the slavery of women. She was active at the time of Frederick Douglass’s visit in the 1840’s, and active to the last still handing out leaflets on the Belfast quays in the 1860’s, by which time she was bemoaning the falling away of the town’s support for the cause in favour of ‘filthy lucre’.
Mary Ann never forgot the sacrifice of her brother but she was determined that the historical record for the United Irish enterprise as a whole should be set straight.
She was a vital informant to Richard Madden in writing his Lives of the United Irishmen during the 1840’s, and gave him all her surviving papers – hence that wonderful archive in Trinity College Library. In doing so she offered Madden guidance that has stood the test of time. She wished;
‘… that truth and falsehood might be separated while there were competent witnesses to do so; I do not think it would be consistent with truth (the legitimate object of history) to suppress any well authenticated fact, let the blame rest where it may, the run of history being to promote the knowledge of mankind, and the service of governing.’
That is advice which should be applied with equal validity in dealing with the legacy of our own ‘Troubles’.
It may seem obvious to us today that Mary Ann was on the right side of history and thus she can be readily co-opted by all sides as a model female pioneer. What we forget is how far ahead of her times she was and how she had to struggle against the odds. Her story should accordingly lend strength to new generations willing to fight for a better society however daunting the task.
John Gray’s pamphlet, Mary Ann McCracken 1770-1866, is available here.