Mary Ann McCracken and the tragedy of 1798…


DSCN4163LAST YEAR in our Radio Ulster history series The Long and the Short of It, comedian Tim McGarry and I explored the life and times of Mary Ann McCracken. Mary Ann is one of Tim’s heroines and although at the start I knew more about her slightly more famous brother, by the end of the work for the programme we had met a variety of people to talk about this extraordinary woman and I had a greater knowledge and a decided appreciation of her.


That story is, of course, wrapped up in the story of Harry, her beloved brother, better known as Henry Joy McCracken. But the story also involves other members of the family as well, for Henry’s brother William was also imprisoned with him for a time in 1797 and was involved in the same activities as his brother, while another brother John was diametrically opposed to their activities to the point where Mary Ann distrusted his motives.


The story of Mary Ann and Henry Joy is a story of Presbyterian times, of increasing middle class prosperity, of new political ideals, of radicalism fostered in Belfast and the villages and towns around. A story of a hoped for political alliance across the religious divide.


The McCrackens were a prosperous Belfast middle class family, but Presbyterians – as a rising middle class – were disadvantaged in a society which legislatively had side-lined Roman Catholics and Nonconformists. Hence the discontent and the desire to prompt change against political and social injustice.


Mary McCracken was born on the 8th of July 1770. She was the youngest but one of a large family, of whom four sons and two daughters lived to grow up, and several, including herself, attained to an advanced age. She was a delicate child, and thought to be suffering from consumption. She appears to have also been an active child and she was very fond of animals—a liking she retained to the end of her days.
Mary Ann was extremely fond of her bother Harry, or Henry Joy as was his proper name.


Henry Joy McCracken was born on August 31, 1767. He was a devout Presbyterian and one of those involved in founding the first Sunday School in Belfast and also a circulating library to encourage the habit of reading among the people and an increase in knowledge. He served his apprenticeship to the linen trade but later became a cotton manufacturer.


Henry Joy was a liberal thinker and was drawn to the movement for reform in society and to the cause of Catholic Emancipation. In 1790 he had become an intimate friend of Thomas Russell, librarian of the Linen Hall Library and a man admired too by his sister Mary Ann, although historians are divided as to whether this was an unrequited romantic admiration on her part. Russell and Henry Joy were the earliest supporters of Samuel Neilson in founding the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast in October 1791.

United Irishmen


The original aim of the United Irishmen had been to seek change through reform. However McCracken became convinced that the government would not reform and he witnessed the outworkings of this in actions against the radicals, which forced them underground.


In June 1795 McCracken was one of a small band who, having ascended to the summit of the Cave Hill, took an oath never to desist from their efforts until independence had been achieved. He had set himself on a fatal course.


McCracken had come to the attention of the authorities and on 10 October 1796 he was arrested and taken to Dublin, where he ended up in Kilmainham gaol, his brother William already being imprisoned there. After 11 months his health broke down and he was released. In February 1798, however, McCracken was back in Dublin to meet the national executive of the United Irishmen and to advocate insurrection even without the assistance of the French, as he feared that continual attrition by the authorities would disable the movement. His view that it was better to act while they still could.


Dickson suggests in his work that McCracken was quite radical and had suggested the capture of the officers of the Belfast garrison while they were attending a musical entertainment on 21 May 1798 and the holding of them as hostages. The rejection of this proposal by the Belfast leadership is believed to have had a damaging effect on morale and suggested that once the reality of revolution had emerged, some were not so keen after all.


This comes across in the decision of Robert Simms, who had been appointed Adjutant General for County Antrim, to resign his post owing to disagreement over imminent rebellion. His place was taken by McCracken. In addition he became Commander in Chief of the army. There were just six days in which to prepare.

Battle of Antrim, 1798


McCracken assembled on the morning of June 7 at Roughfort, where he led a small but growing detachment of men towards Antrim town. He had served in the Irish Volunteers and wore his Volunteer uniform, which is now in the care of the Ulster Museum. McCracken led the action at Antrim but disaster overtook the actions of the rebels and he was forced to retreat towards Donegore and then Slemish, where, among those who were in his band was James Orr, the Bard of Ballycarry.


One of Orr’s poems, The Wanderer, was about seeking shelter at Slemish and the Spartan Band did so but word reached them that the military was to seek to dislodge them, and they instead headed towards the Collin above Ballyclare. At Wee Colin, they were said to have heard the sounds of the cannons at Ballynahinch, where the United Irishmen under Henry Monroe had engaged in battle. McCracken decided to join the County Down rebels and travelled to the vicinity of Divis Mountain. But as he made his way he learned of the defeat of Monroe and briefly hoped to get south to Wexford to join the insurgents there.

Instead he remained on the Cave Hill, where his friend David Bodel gave him and others shelter. It was a far cry from the expectations which he had entertained at Roughfort on the morning of June 7.


Mary Ann went in search of her brother, something which would not have been easy amidst the furore and danger of a rebellion and a military crackdown. She found him at the Cave Hill.  The authorities were undoubtedly looking for him but he managed to evade them for three weeks, while Mary Ann sought to make arrangements for his safe departure from Belfast. A pass was procured for him using an assumed name and an arrangement was made with foreign-bound vessel to take him on board, either at Carrick or Larne. The aim was that Harry would find a new and safe life in America, which was to be refuge for so many of the 1798 participants.


McCracken and two companions, John Queery and Gavin Watt, then began the journey from the Cave Hill on July 7. The spent the night in a safe house at Greencastle and next morning set off again, McCracken wearing workman’s clothes and carrying a bag of carpenter’s tools.


Accounts now differ as to where there were when they were detected. One account says they were walking from Greencastle to the outskirts of Carrick, another that they were on the Commons above the town (which would make more sense if they were heading towards Larne).


What is not in question is that they had the misfortunate to meet some yeomen and that one of them recognised McCracken. There was an attempt made to buy their silence and also a scuffle in which a musket was disabled by Watt, who urged McCracken to run. The latter would not leave his two companions. The account of Edna Fitzhenry talks of the yeomen having halted at a public house to discuss an offer by McCracken to buy their freedom and that while three of the men were tempted, a fourth went off and returned with an officer, which ended the debate.


Mary Ann learned of his arrest on July 8, her 28th birthday. Her father was 78. When they visited her brother in his cell she noted that he had scratched a line from a poem which his mother had sent him on the Cave Hill: “A friend’s worth all the hazard we can run”.


On July 16 the prisoner was brought under heavy military escort to Belfast. He was tried there by court martial on July 17.


Before bringing the prosecution witnesses to the stand, the prosecutor, John Pollock, took Captain McCracken aside and told him he had enough evidence to hang him but that his life could be spared if he would say in whose place he had acted as Commander in Chief during the Rising. McCracken remained a man of principle.


The Prosecution was unable to persuade William Thompson, an English calico printer, to testify against his employer, while Samuel Orr, who had defected at Antrim, similarly failed to take the witness stand. But two men whom McCracken had never seen before, named Miniss and Beck, did give incriminating evidence and his fate was sealed.


The time between the sentence and the execution was extremely short – McCracken was told that he was ordered for immediate execution, something which visibly shocked him. The body was given to Mary Ann on the basis that interment must take place that evening otherwise the military would take charge of her brother’s corpse.


After failure to resuscitate Henry Joy by a surgeon which Mary had arranged, she stayed with her brother’s body while mourners filed past to pay their last respects. When the funeral procession set off to St. George’s churchyard, she was initially the only member of the family to follow the coffin, although a kindly man took her arm in his as they walked and her brother John ran after her and stayed by her side. When the first shovelful of earth fell on the coffin, she fainted, and it was John who brought her home.


Mary Ann McCracken lived into old age, dying in 1866 at the age of 96 years. She devoted the rest of her life to social reform, improving the lot of women, children and the poor. As an old woman of 88 she was to be found often at Belfast docks handing out literature opposing slavery to those emigrating to the United States.


Historians debate over whether she was a revolutionary or a reformist in her politics. In the late 1830s as Queen Victoria came to the throne, she wrote “And now a better day has dawned…in looking forty years back, and in thinking too, of those who were gone, how delighted they would have been at the political changes that have taken place – which could not possibly in their day have been anticipated, by peaceful means…”  It is likely she was thinking not of the Act of Union (although some Presbyterian rebel leaders welcomed that as well in 1800) but of two measures which had been brought about – Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the Reform Act of 1832.




However, at an earlier stage, in 1797, a different Mary Ann McCracken appears to speak, in correspondence to her beloved brother when he was in Kilmainham jail.  She predicted in a letter to Henry Joy “If the complete Union of Ireland should demand the blood of some of her best Patriots to cement it, they will not sink (from) their duty, but meet their fate equally 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.”


This view was backed up by a strong faith in divine providence, expressed to her bother on the morning of his execution: “During the early part of the day, Harry and I had conversed with tranquillity on the subject of his death. We had been brought up in a firm conviction of an all-wise and over-ruling Providence, and the duty of entire resignation to the Divine will. I remarked that his death was as much a dispensation of Providence as if it had happened in the course of nature, to which he assented.”


Modern republicans would dispute that Mary Ann became a unionist, although she was henceforth involved not in revolution but in social reform. Presbyterians could point to the long established radical and reformist tradition which she represented and some would argue that, like most Presbyterians of north east Ulster, Mary Ann settled into the new political arrangements which came about with the Act of Union. Similarly some see her as a proto-feminist, an admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft, whose 1792 book A Vindication of the Rights of Women is cited by Mervyn Bragg (2006) as one of the 12 books that changed the world. Others see her as a social reformer who was interested in educating Belfast working-class girls not to be equal but to be more practical and position themselves better for their future lives, which would still be unequal. Yet there is the legacy of David Manson and his co-educational approach to be borne in mind too.


Perhaps ultimately Mary Ann is a figure of such stature that interpretation is entirely feasible. She will be remembered for her charitable works. Of her humanity there is no doubt, both in general terms and at a personal level.


After the death of her brother Rev. Steel Dickson came to Mary Ann to tell her that Harry had an illegitimate daughter, a little girl called Maria who was almost four. It is believed that her mother was Mary Bodel, whose father had sheltered McCracken on the Cave Hill. Her mother and family were assisted to emigrate to America by Mary Ann. The child had been left to the care of the McCracken family and despite initial objections from John, she was brought into the family, where she would grew to be Mary’s constant companion and a willing helper in all her charitable enterprises; Maria was a direct link to the brother she could never forget, and perhaps the child that she never had herself. In middle age Maria married William McCleery, a widower, another Belfast radical, and it was in their home that Mary Ann McCracken spent her last years.


In 1827 a Ballycarry man died in his new home in Charlottesville, Virginia. His name was John Neilson and he was personal architect to President Thomas Jefferson and designer of his famous house Monticello. John had lost his two brothers to the 1798 Rebellion, Samuel died on a prison ship and William (16) was hanged by the authorities outside his mother’s door. The family were deeply involved in the Rising. Consigned to a Plantation in the West Indies, John was freed when his ship was captured by the French and he ended up in Virginia and became an American citizen.


He had left a wife and his mother back in Antrim and for whatever reason was not reunited with the former, who is buried in Loughmorne. But before he died Neilson’s had made a request that his likeness would be taken back to Ireland to his mother. There was a circle of United Irish exiles and supporters around Jefferson in Virginia; one of the women, a lady named Leitch from Tyrone brought back the likeness across the Atlantic.


It was to be given to a women in Belfast to be taken to the Widow Nelson in Islandmagee. The woman it was handed to in Belfast was someone who would not forget any man who had stood with her brother at the Battle of Antrim. Her name? Mary Ann McCracken. One small act of kindness in a lifetime devoted to others.


2 thoughts on “Mary Ann McCracken and the tragedy of 1798…

  1. Hello, I am a doctoral researcher working on the letters of the wonderful Mary Ann McCracken. I was wondering if you could tell me where you sourced the information on John’s Neilson’s portrait? I am working with a few letters to do with John Neilson’s estate but so far I have not come across any information about the portrait being brought to Belfast and given to Mary and would be intrigued to learn more.
    Many thanks in advance,
    Cathryn McWilliams


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