Mary Ann McCracken was a philanthropist, feminist, humanitarian, nationalist radical born in Belfast on 8th July 1770. She was born into a prosperous, liberal Presbyterian family.
The McCracken’s were respected merchants and her mother Ann’s family, the Joys, owned and edited the Belfast Newsletter, having made their money in the linen trade. Mary Ann benefitted from her parents far-sightedness and was sent to David Manson’s progressive school in Belfast, where girls were given the same education as boys.
Support for political reform
During the 1780’s, along with some other middle-class families, the McCrackens urged political reform. As Presbyterians, they suffered some of the civil and political restrictions imposed on the dispossessed and disenfranchised Catholic majority in Ireland.
In the 1790’s the three elder sons in the family joined the United Irishmen, an organization campaigning for liberty and equality for all. Their aim was to see a land free of English rule and governed fairly by both Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics. Mary Ann was committed to the cause and also pressed for these same goals to be extended to women
is it not almost the time for the clouds of error and prejudice to disperse and that the female part of the creation as well as the male should throw off the fetters with which they have been so long mentally bound and conscious of the dignity and importance of their nature rise to the situation for which they were designedMary Ann McCracken
After the failure of the 1798 Rebellion and her brother Henry Joy McCracken’s arrest, trial and execution, Mary Ann continued to help and give practical support to the United Irish movement. She was an admirer of Daniel O’Connell and remained politically active throughout her long life.
Support for the Belfast poor
As a child Mary Ann had a great compassion for the poor and raised funds to provide clothes for the children residing in Clifton House, the Belfast Poor House. Throughout her life she was concerned with the welfare of poor women and children in Belfast. From 1814 she was a member of the ladies’ committee of the Belfast Charitable Society. In 1832 she became secretary and battled endlessly to secure improvement to conditions in the Poor House. The minutes of this organisation reflect her concerns as she is seen asking for more soap, improved diets and for candles and books so that the children can read at night. She also ensured that children only be indentured to approved employers and that these situations be regularly inspected.
She continued to advocate for women’s rights particularly by giving girls the right to an education. She was a pioneer for early years learning and insisted on children being given time to play both indoors and outdoors.
Mary Ann also campaigned vigorously against child labour, including the practice of sending young boys up chimneys as sweeps. She taught in a non-denominational Sunday schools, nursed the destitute sick and worked strenuously to help famine victims.
Abolition of slavery
Mary Ann was a great social reformer and was passionate about the abolition of slavery. All her life she campaigned against the great evil of the slave trade. She was often seen wearing the famous Wedgewood brooch depicting a slave and with the motto ‘am I not a man and brother’. Indeed in her late 80’s she was still distributing anti-slavery leaflets at Belfast Docks to those sailing to America. She refused to take sugar in solidarity with those victims of slavery.
May Ann never married, it is said that she had given her heart to Thomas Russell, a fellow revolutionary and close friend of her brother Henry Joy. Indeed Mary Ann helped Russell to escape to Dublin after the failed rebellion in 1803. She subsequently financed his defence at his trial in Downpatrick and finally paid for his tombstone.
Mary Ann died on 26 th July 1866, at the home of her niece Maria, daughter of Henry Joy, whom she had adopted. She is buried in Clifton Street Cemetery. Remaining physically and intellectually active well into her 90’s Mary Ann McCracken was, and still is, an inspirational figure!
The world affords no enjoyment equal to that of promoting the happiness of othersMary Ann McCracken
Mary Ann McCracken – Legacy
Historian Professor David Olusoga launched the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation: The Legacies of Slavery on Wednesday 20th January 2021 at 7.30pm at the former Clifton House poor house (cliftonbelfast.com).
Mary Ann McCracken is truly a woman for any era.
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