The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken 1770-1866: A Belfast Panorama, by Mary McNeill, Irish Academic Press, 321 pp, ISBN 978-1788550826
“Wept by her brother’s scaffold.” This phrase is inscribed on the gravestone of Mary Ann McCracken in Clifton Cemetery in Belfast, and it commemorates the most lacerating moment in her long life. It was also a key moment in Irish history. The Battle of Antrim had ended in defeat for the rebels of 1798, and Henry Joy McCracken, reluctant commander-in-chief for the whole of the North, had gone on the run before being captured and sentenced to death. In his poem “Linen Town”, Seamus Heaney alludes to Cornmarket, “where they hanged young McCracken”. By a cruel coincidence, the gallows on which McCracken died was erected on ground presented to the town of Belfast by his great-great-grandfather, the Sovereign George Martin (1648-50). The Joy and McCracken families were of unassailable respectability. They were solidly Presbyterian. The parents of Henry Joy and Mary Ann McCracken were, respectively, a sea captain and the daughter of a newspaper proprietor (the Belfast News-Letter) and owner of paper mills. But they bred a family of advanced thinkers and insurgents. Social awareness, and an inherited leaning towards philanthropic undertakings, made the younger McCrackens exceptionally alive to the ills and exacerbations of the day.
They had plenty to activate their reformist impulse. “Merciful God!” exclaimed the Co. Tyrone novelist William Carleton (looking back from the mid-nineteenth century), “In what a frightful condition was the country at that time.” And “Poor Belfast! When will the inhabitants be in ease and comfort?” wrote the Rev Sinclaire Kelburn from his cell in Kilmainham Gaol in May 1797. Indeed, the town was “strongly held by armed force” and viewed by the authorities as “a sink of rebellion”. Floggings, pitch-cappings, hangings, arson and murder, spies and informers were the order of the day. It wasn’t hard to fall foul of a swaggering soldiery. But against all the disruption and savagery, the injustice and oppression, a countervailing force was gaining momentum. The Society of United Irishmen, dedicated to political reform and ultimately to revolution, was launched in Belfast in 1791. The idea had come from Dr William Drennan, son of the New Light minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street; but the society’s aims and organisation were due in large measure to the ideals and the expertise of a young Dublin lawyer, Theobald Wolfe Tone. Tone’s dream of unity and amity between Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter struck a chord with many of his Northern fellow-idealists. In a moment of commitment and exhilaration he led a party of like-minded political agitators up the Cave Hill in Belfast as far as McArt’s Fort. Here, looking down on the town, they took a solemn oath to devote their lives to the cause of freedom and justice. The Society of United Irishmen soon became a magnet for Presbyterian radicals all over the North, and the image of the Cave Hill insurgents remains among the most potent of Belfast’s historical vignettes.
It is doubtful whether Mary Ann McCracken was present on this occasion alongside her brother Harry and his friends Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell, Samuel Neilson and one or two others at McArt’s Fort. No record places her on the spot and this is a pity, for she too was an enthusiast for reform and regeneration. But she may have been engaged in overseeing the muslin business she had set up with her sister Margaret, and coping with the difficulties encountered while their weavers kept being arrested as part of the general derangement of the time. (A bit later in the year, some pieces of muslin came in useful as bribes to the gaoler’s wife at Kilmainham, while two of the McCracken brothers were imprisoned there.) Her biographer applauds the spirit of independence and industry shown by the McCracken girls (Mary Ann would have been in her early twenties, Margaret a bit older). Indeed, Mary McNeill attributes a similar spirit to the general run of Belfast women in the late eighteenth century, in contrast to the characteristic passivity “of their Victorian granddaughters”. But she hasn’t been able to ascertain whether Mary Ann herself had ever joined a women’s branch of the United Irish Society. She thinks not, but concedes her subject’s familiarity with pikes and guns and the hiding places of arms, and her involvement with all the leading figures in the impending insurrection in the North.
Mary McNeill’s title is well chosen, as is the subtitle, “A Belfast Panorama”. The first part of the book is concerned with establishing a context for the subsequent events. Trade and manufacture, the Volunteer Movement, the effect on progressive minds of the American War of Independence, the construction of the Poorhouse and the old White Linenhall, the intense sociability of the town’s elite: all these, and more, furnish a vivid backdrop. Newspaper reports, the famous correspondence between Mrs McTier in Belfast and her brother Dr William Drennan in Dublin, historical and biographical accounts are all enlisted in the drive to achieve accuracy and evocation – and to compensate, perhaps, for the want of information about Mary Ann McCracken’s early years. She herself does not come into focus – or “step out of obscurity”, as her biographer puts it – until she is virtually grown up, and even then we have limited access to her thoughts and feelings. However, we do have the letters she wrote to her brother Harry in prison, and to others, which give an idea of her steadfast and unflinching disposition. Her childhood in Rosemary Lane (now Rosemary Street) is largely irretrievable, aside from the few known facts which have come down to posterity: her place as the second youngest in a family of six (a happy family, according to Mary McNeill); her feat in hopping three times across High Street without stopping; her schooling at the hands of the pioneering teacher David Manson, whose ideas on education, including the education of girls, were enlightened and adventurous (“Already, at ten, in your element”, writes the poet Ruth Carr in her 2018 verse sequence based on the life of Mary Ann McCracken, “totting up numbers / taking each problem apart / to solve inequalities …”); her self-imposed task of sewing dresses for the Poorhouse children. The lacunae in her life might allow scope for pure invention or foster a romanticising tendency, but fortunately Mary McNeill has resisted the temptation to speculate wildly or stray beyond the available information. She presents a picture – distant and incomplete as it is – of a tractable, intelligent, self-possessed, staunchly Presbyterian child with a strong belief in doing good to others (a blueprint for the rest of Mary Ann’s life). It seems clear enough that it wasn’t a dour upbringing: there was plenty of gaiety about the town, even in the face of political instability and uproar. The young Edward Bunting lived with the McCrackens for a time and honed his musical talents within the household, eventually acquiring fame as a collector and publisher of ancient Irish airs. He was not a rebel, though others were – and many significant friendships were forged and a common revolutionary purpose adumbrated. For sheer delight, there were frequent visits to the Templeton family at Orange Grove, their lovely house at Malone near Belfast. It seems likely that Eliza Templeton, Mary Ann’s close friend, had matrimonial designs on Harry – but he, though perfectly well-disposed towards Eliza, was having none of it. Equally, Mary Ann’s supposed romantic interest in Thomas Russell is unlikely to have been reciprocated, even though later commentators such as Cathal O’Byrne (in his Belfast book of 1946, As I Roved Out) have built a whole “betrothal” edifice around it. There is no doubt that Mary Ann was deeply impressed by Russell’s “manly beauty”, superior intellect and unimpeachable character; but Mary McNeill can find no evidence to suggest anything more than ordinarily affectionate relations between the two. Russell’s execution in 1803, however, following that of her beloved brother Harry five years earlier, must have shaken to the core Mary Ann’s sense of the rightness of the world. But she never relinquished her adherence to the principles of justice and egalitarianism which had fired the rebels of 1798 and after.
After the Union it was a changed world, a world “that was quickly modifying its opinions”. Mary Ann McCracken lived on and on, adapting her way of life to the altered – and altering – political, social and mercantile conditions and finding an outlet for her talents as a pioneering social reformer, educationalist and upholder of every worthwhile principle that came within her orbit. Everyone marvels at the image of Mary Ann in her eighty-ninth year, down at the docks in Belfast handing out leaflets denouncing the slave trade. In the mid-nineteenth century she contributed crucially to Dr Madden’s monumental Lives of the United Irishmen, when he sought her help as a participant in, and recorder of, that era of turmoil and heroism.
Mary McNeill’s sterling account of Mary Ann McCracken’s life and times was originally published in 1960. It is now reissued in a splendid “250th Anniversary Edition”, with a fine new foreword by the historian Marianne Elliott. As Elliott says, it’s Mary Ann’s extensive correspondence that forms a basis for the biographical enterprise. The book comes with copious quotation from the letters – an invaluable resource, indeed, illuminating and engaging, but also inescapably touched a little with the formal tones of the day (“Those who endeavor to serve the public ought always to have some better motive than love of Fame … This I think was a false principle of honesty …” etc.). She is gently admonitory towards the more boisterous ways of her brother Harry: “Could you not find more amusement in reading than drinking ..?” You never gain an impression of wildness or waywardness in Mary Ann McCracken’s own character: she is constantly upright, resolute and decorous ‑ well, apart from a couple of incidents which do bring out a rather more headstrong and intrepid side of her personality. The first occurs in the aftermath of the Battle of Antrim, when Henry Joy and a few companions have fled the scene and gone into hiding. Accompanied by her sister-in-law Rose Ann McGladdery (wife of her brother William), Mary Ann leaves Rosemary Lane filled with determination to track down the fugitives and offer what practical help she can. It’s a perilous journey to make on foot, first to the village of Whitehouse on the shores of Belfast Lough, then up the Cave Hill and further and further afield into remote countryside, all the while evading Redcoats and yeomen. Mary McNeill envisages the two young women dressed in the fashions of the day – long cotton frocks and straw bonnets – and weighed down with money and provisions. It must have seemed at times a foolhardy journey – but miraculously they suddenly come upon Henry Joy on the “bleak, deserted eminence of black Bowhill”. Alas, it is only a temporary reunion and respite. Afterwards comes Mary Ann’s sorrowful walk to the scaffold, hand-in-hand with her condemned brother, and her desolation when the hanging is accomplished.
The second instance of indocility concerns Mary Ann’s insistence, despite her family’s considerable opposition and in defiance of contemporary protocol, on bringing the illegitimate daughter of her dead brother Harry to live in the McCracken household. (It is generally accepted that the child’s mother was Mary Bodel, daughter of a gamekeeper in whose cottage on the Cave Hill Henry Joy had often taken shelter.) She has her way, and the presence of the child, and later the adult, Maria, is a solace for the rest of her life – a life replete with the virtues she herself ascribed to Thomas Russell during his trial and execution: “composure, dignity and firmness”.
Patricia Craig is an author and critic. Her books include A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland.