Henry Joy McCracken, by Jim Smyth, UCD Press, 112 pp, €17, ISBN: 978-1910820520 €17
In Clifton Street graveyard, about a mile north of Belfast city centre, lie the remains of Henry Joy McCracken, executed in July 1798 for his role as the United Irish commander in Antrim and Down. He lies with his sister Mary Ann, herself a dedicated revolutionary in United Irish times and a social activist until her death aged ninety-six in 1866. The graveyard also holds other famous names associated with the United Irishmen, including William Drennan and Reverend William Steel Dickson, who ministered to Henry Joy in his final hours. Itself the scene of sectarian vandalism, and situated as it is between the New Lodge Road and Shankill Road areas, in a broader area of Belfast that saw hundreds of deaths and some of the worst sectarian murders of the Troubles, the cemetery is a poignant reminder of the failure of the United Irish revolution and the absence of the secular future it sought to build.
One of the major strengths of Jim Smyth’s superb short biography is its success in rooting its subject’s life and politics in the history and culture of the town in which he lived and died, and where his memory is called upon in various ways to this day. For a man who was executed in the same street in which he was born, this seems appropriate. Smyth brings both the era and the man to life with his characteristic eye for the telling detail and the revealing anecdote, and does so with the clarity of prose and sense of humour that readers familiar with his body of work, ranging from eighteenth century Ireland to British intellectual culture in the 1950s to the Troubles, have come to expect.
Henry Joy McCracken was born in 1767 into Belfast’s thriving Presbyterian bourgeoisie, to a couple from two of its most respectable families, the Joys and the McCrackens. The Joys, who may or may not have been the descendants of French Huguenots who fled religious persecution in their homeland, were key figures in Belfast’s economic, civic, and intellectual life. Francis Joy, Henry Joy McCracken’s maternal grandfather, founded the Belfast News Letter in 1737, which stayed in the family until 1795, when McCracken’s Whig cousin Henry Joy Junior sold it into what was effectively government ownership, a testimony to how political polarisation squeezed the middle ground. John McCracken, Henry Joy’s father, was a merchant ship captain and business owner who established a successful ropeworks and sold sailcloth. Henry Joy himself, like many of Belfast’s other leading United Irishmen, was an industrialist, owning a textiles business.
In the book’s first chapter, and throughout, Smyth skilfully recounts the development of Belfast in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and how economic prosperity, political culture and civic and political spirit, allied to the Presbyterian bourgeoisie’s frustration at an unrepresentative parliamentary seat and local government that lay in the hands of the small Church of Ireland minority, helped create the conditions for “the Athens of the North” to become the engine of Irish revolution.
The Joys and the McCrackens embodied much of the spirit of the age, not just in Belfast or Ireland, but in Europe and the Atlantic world in the age of Enlightenment. We see this in their prominence in Belfast’s burgeoning public sphere, in associational as well as print culture. For example, John McCracken and his two brothers-in-law Henry and Robert Joy were all involved in local charitable enterprises, such as the Belfast Charitable Society, which created Clifton Street cemetery and built the town’s original Poor House.
Politically, the Joys and McCrackens were Whigs and Patriots, like many of their social class in Belfast. Irish Whigs and Patriots were heavily influenced by classical republican ideas of citizenship, including that of the virtuous armed citizen, and it is no surprise that it was Robert Joy who convened the meeting that created Belfast’s first Volunteer company during the American Revolutionary War. Although Henry Joy McCracken was too young to join, his brothers Frank and William were members, as was his cousin Henry Joy Junior. While in the 1790s Frank and William broke with Whiggery and embraced the revolutionary cause of the United Irishmen, Henry Joy Junior remained a Whig, and opposed the United Irishmen, joining the yeomanry in 1798. As Smyth notes of his cousin, “town and family undoubtedly shaped, but did not determine, Henry Joy McCracken’s politics. He made choices …”
The local context is crucial for understanding McCracken’s politics, but so too are events on the national and world stage, especially the Catholic question and the French Revolution. Smyth stiches the political life into these broader frameworks just as adroitly as he handles the Belfast background. He boils down to their essence the often complicated questions of Ireland’s confessional state, the French Revolution’s impact upon Ireland, the development of the United Irishmen, Catholic agitation for equal rights, the popular politicisation and political polarisation of the 1790s and the successful counter-revolutionary campaign that defeated the United Irishmen, delivering a pithy narrative of the 1790s and Henry Joy’s place in it while also offering a clear analysis as to why events happened as they did.
This contextualising approach to Henry Joy’s life adds depth, but is also in part reflects the fact that, like some other leaders of the United Irishmen’s underground army, such as Samuel Neilson, he left few papers behind. He neither kept a diary nor published political tracts. Moreover, he was cautious in what he said and to whom. As Smyth notes, “in the convivial, hard-drinking world of clandestine politics he had a reputation for being able to hold his tongue”. We have some of his letters, mostly from his imprisonment in 1796 and 1797 and as he faced the end of his life. We also have the recollections of those who knew and loved him, which are of course coloured by their loyalty to, and admiration for, him.
The McCracken that emerges from Smyth’s study is a brave, uncompromising, and hard-headed democratic revolutionary. He is not listed as a member of the original Society of United Irishmen founded in Belfast in October 1791, though Smyth notes evidence that he may have been. What is certain is that in April 1793, he took an action that marked him out to both friends and enemies.
With Britain and France at war since February 1st, 1793, defenders of the status quo ramped up the pressure on the discontented, using both legal and illegal measures. During 1793, government granted Catholic enfranchisement to try and win greater support, but also established a militia, which led to violent conflict over much of the island, stepped up prosecutions for sedition, banned the Volunteers, restricted access to arms and ammunition and passed the Convention Act to prevent another Catholic and/or reform convention. Determined to bring the Belfast radicals to heel, government soldiers rioted in Belfast on March 9th, singling out the businesses and homes of prominent radicals for attack, and smashing signs supportive of the American and French revolutions.
In April, another clash saw two soldiers beaten by the locals. Colonel Barber went to draw his sword, only to find the hand of the imposing Henry Joy McCracken (who was nearly six feet tall) on his arm to stop him. Barber accused him of being “a ringleader of the mob and a rascal”. McCracken replied that he was his equal, and demanded satisfaction. When Barber told him that the place was unsuitable and he didn’t know who he was, McCracken told him to ask the town sovereign. McCracken refused to apologise the next day. The duel was never fought, one of several potential duels around this time between United Irishmen and their opponents that never came to pass.
This incident demonstrated Henry Joy’s courage, his democratic rejection of the existing social order, and the extent to which even revolutionaries remained locked into an essentially aristocratic concept of masculine honour. As Smyth also notes, it exemplifies the intimate nature of politics in Belfast at the time, and it was characteristic of Henry Joy, “a man of action, that he re-enters the historical record at this moment of escalating conflict”.
McCracken’s willingness to face death in pursuit of his politics and his masculine honour help explain his later actions in 1798 – when others withdrew, he stepped forward. In the years after 1793 he set about building the revolutionary alliance of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter. He was one of those with whom Wolfe Tone, headed into exile in America with plans to travel to France to seek an alliance, swore an oath on Belfast’s Cavehill in 1795 to never stop until Irish independence was achieved. By then McCracken was active organising the underground army Neilson had been working towards for several years, and he joined both the Freemasons and the Defenders in pursuit of this goal, achieving a leadership position in Antrim’s Defenders.
McCracken played a vital role in forging the alliance of United Irishmen and Defenders, and his revolutionary ardour, organising abilities and sense of social justice made him, according to his lieutenant the working-class United Irishman Jemmy Hope, “the idol of the poor”. Smyth states that Henry Joy “probably more than any other leadership figure” brought the alliance into being. Government recognised his importance, as he was one of the leading Northern figures taken and held without charge as state prisoners in autumn 1796. Smyth traces his prison experience, with its ups and downs, alliances and fallings out (including an assault with a metal pot by another United Irishman). Prison so adversely affected his health that he was released in December 1797.
Shortly afterwards, Henry Joy collapsed due to stress, ill-health and what Smyth calls “liquid self-medication”, but he was soon active again. In early 1798 he played an important role liaising between Belfast and Dublin, where the United Irish centre of gravity had now shifted. He took the side of those demanding an immediate rising against those who wanted to keep waiting for French help. The urgency of the situation was increased by the arrest of the United Irish Leinster Directory in March 1798, and the arrest and death of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, their military commander in May. The rebellion that broke out on May 23rd bore little resemblance to what was planned, and Robert Simms, the wealthy industrialist who was adjutant general for Antrim, resigned on June 1st. McCracken replaced him. When Steel Dickson, adjutant general for Down, was arrested on June 5th, he stepped into his role as well, making him the commander of the United Irishmen in Ulster. He ordered his men into battle for June 7th. The United Irishmen under his command were defeated at the Battle of Antrim, due to a combination of enemy resistance, informers whose information ensured government reinforcements arrived in time, and poor planning.
McCracken hid among the poor in the Belfast mountains, where Mary Ann was able to track him down. He was staying with the family of the mother of his secret illegitimate daughter. Mary Ann arranged passage for him on a ship to America, but he was recognised and arrested on his way there. He scorned an offer to save his life by naming the Antrim commander he had replaced. He faced the scaffold with firmness. He died angry at those who had refused to turn out or abandoned their posts. It was these men, and especially Simms, he had in mind when he wrote in one of his last letters that “the rich always betray the poor”.
These words remind us that the United Irish movement was a broad coalition. There were those like McCracken, Hope and Russell who were social radicals, but there were also those who had participated in breaking strikes. The class tensions within the movement were never fully resolved, nor the religious ones. Smyth notes that without Henry Joy there might not have been a United Irish rising in Ulster at all. Despite his position within the Defenders, however, they mostly stayed at home, and one outcome of 1798 was deepened sectarian division.
McCracken’s words about the rich betraying the poor are also among the most prominent, and recited, aspects of his memory, a topic Smyth covers in a welcome final chapter that seeks to explain why Henry Joy has been and is remembered, suggesting that it is a combination of the future that never came to pass and his relationship to Belfast. That McCracken lies in Clifton Street is itself a testimony to his memory. What were believed to be his bones were dug up during construction work in 1902 and kept safe before being placed beside those of his sister in 1909. Mary Ann’s efforts to keep her brother’s memory alive are one of the major reasons for his place in popular memory. The book might have said more about this, especially given the obvious comparison with Matilda Tone. Smyth notes that the authorities worked, as they would do with Tone, to prevent a cult growing around McCracken from the start. A lock of his hair was confiscated from Mary Ann, and his burial was ordered to take place in secret. Popular memory, however, is not so easily shaped.
Jim Smyth has played a major role in reconfiguring our understanding of the 1790s, and here he offers us a vision of Henry Joy McCracken that takes into account the historiographical advances of recent decades and provides a richly evocative picture of a man, his times and his place. Anyone interested in the eighteenth century, the United Irishmen, or Belfast, should read it.