Mary Ann McCracken was a Belfast social reformer. Her father was Captain John McCracken, a prominent shipowner; her mother Ann Joy came from another wealthy family which made its money in the linen trade and founded the Belfast News Letter. Mary Ann’s liberal and far-sighted parents sent her to David Manson’s progressive co-educational school, where ‘young ladies’ received the same education as the boys; Mary Ann excelled at mathematics.
She was the sister of one of the founding members of the Society of the United Irishmen, Henry Joy McCracken, who was executed in Belfast following his role in the Battle of Antrim in June 1798. After the death of her brother, whose body she had doctors attempt (unsuccessfully) to resuscitate, Mary Ann took over the care of his illegitimate daughter, Maria. After Henry’s execution in 1798, she and her sister Margaret opened a muslin manufacturing business at 27 Waring Street, Belfast.
She lived with Maria and her family until her death on 26 July 1866 at the age of 96 years. She is buried in grave number 35 at Clifton Street Cemetery.
Mary Ann also shared her brothers interest in reviving the oral-music tradition of Ireland, and was a founding member of the Belfast Harp Society (1808–1813). She supported Edward Bunting in his collecting of traditional music, introducing him to people who could help, acting as his unofficial secretary and contributed anonymously to the second volume of his work The Ancient Music of Ireland in 1809. Bunting lived with the McCrackens for thirty-five years, before moving to Dublin 1819.
Mary Ann, like her brother, held radical beliefs and these extended not just to the politics of the time, but to many social issues, such as poverty and slavery.
Mary Ann was dedicated to the poor of Belfast and as a member of the Ladies Committee took on a leading role in looking out for the interests of the poor house. Due to her efforts a school, and later a nursery was set up to educate the orphans of Belfast. She took particular pains to find a suitable teacher, displaying a high level of dedication and compassion for her cause.
Mary Ann led the Women’s Abolitionary Committee in Belfast during the height of the anti-slavery movement, wearing the famous Wedgwood brooches adorned with slave and slogan “Am I not a man and brother”, and continued to promote the cause long after the spirit of radicalism had died in Belfast. By the 1850s the liberality of the 1790s had largely evaporated in the aftermath of the failure of the 1798 United Irish rebellion and the subsequent executions or exile of the leading protagonists. In 1859 Mary Ann McCracken wrote to Dr Madden saying “I am both ashamed and sorry to think that Belfast has so far degenerated in regard to the Anti-Slavery Cause”.
In many ways Mary Ann McCracken had outlived her generation, and she commented to a friend how “Belfast, once so celebrated for its love of liberty, is now so sunk in the love of filthy lucre that there are but 16 or 17 female anti-slavery advocates and not one man though several Quakers…and none to distribute papers to American emigrants but an old woman within 17 days of 89”. At the age of 88, she was to be seen in Belfast docks, handing out anti-slavery leaflets to those boarding ships bound for the United States, where slavery was still practised. The continued campaign of Mary Ann McCracken long after the deaths of her counterparts serves to demonstrate the strength of radicalism that existed in certain circles of Belfast society at the close of the eighteenth century.
Photo: Grave of Mary Ann McCracken in Clifton Street Graveyard, Belfast