Henry Joy McCracken

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Henry Joy McCracken
Henry Joy McCracken.jpg
Born(1767-08-31)31 August 1767
High Street, Belfast, Ireland
Died17 July 1798(1798-07-17) (aged 30)
Belfast, Ireland
Cause of deathcourt-martialled and hanged for treason
Nationality Kingdom of Ireland, Irish
OccupationTextile manufacturer
MovementGreen harp flag of Ireland.svg Society of United Irishmen,

Henry Joy McCracken (31 August 1767 – 17 July 1798) was a leading member in the north of Ireland of the republican Society of the United Irishmen. He sought to ally the largely Presbyterian movement with the Catholic Defenders, and in 1798 to lead their combined forces in Antrim against the British Crown. Following the defeat and dispersal of the rebels under his command, McCracken was court-martialled and executed in Belfast.

Early life[edit]

Henry Joy McCracken was born in High street, Belfast into two of the city's most prominent Presbyterian industrial families. He was the son of a shipowner, Captain John McCracken and Ann Joy, daughter of Francis Joy, of French Huguenot descent. The Joy family made their money in linen manufacture and founded the Belfast News Letter.

With his younger sister Henry Mary Ann McCracken, with whom alone in the family he was to share a radical democratic outlook, he attended David Manson's school in Donegall Street.[1] Manson, whose ambition was to banish "drudgery and fear" from children's education,[2] may have been a very considerable influence.

In his classes David Manson mimicked the social hierarchy with pupils ranked from kings and queens to tenants and subtenants. But in contrast to the hierarchy of Crown and landed Ascendancy against which McCracken was later to rebel, Manson's play scheme was entirely meritocratic; involved mutual obligation (as the rent or tribute paid to rank was a certain portion of reading or a spelling lesson, to receive their due the higher ranks were induced to assist the lower, with all accounts settled at a Saturday "parliament");[3][2] and was not was not coerced (William Drennan noted that the key to the scheme was the "liberty of each to take the quantity [of lessons] agreeable to his inclination").[2]

Together, his sister Henry would go on to imbibe the radicalism of William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft and Tom Paine. Brother and sister may also have shared a patriotic enthusiasm for Irish music: following Belfast Harpist Festival in July 1792, the McCracken family hosted Edward Bunting who collected and transcribed the Irish airs.[4][5]

United Irishman[edit]

In response to William Drennan's proposal for a "benevolent conspiracy--a plot for the people", on April 1,1791 McCracken resolved with Samuel Neilson, John Robb, Alexander Lowry and Thomas McCabe to form "an association to unite all Irishmen [...] for the restoration and preservation of our liberty".[6] Those who gathered for the inaugural meeting in October, and who called themselves, at the suggestion of Theobald Wolfe Tone, the Society of United Irishmen, were men with whom McCracken and his family had been associated in Belfast through the Rosemary Street Presbyterian churches and the Irish Volunteer companies. While his name does not appear in early records, he was in the confidence of the Society's executive committee from the outset.[7]

By the time McCracken formally took the United Irish pledge (or "test") on 24 March 1795 to "persevere in endeavouring to form a brotherhood of affection among Irishmen of every religious persuasion", and "to obtain an equal, full and adequate representation of all the people of Ireland", the Society was abandoning its hopes for parliamentary reform. It was just week since the reform-minded Lord Fitzwilliam was recalled as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland after just 100 days in office, and just four days before trade in Belfast and Dublin shut down in "sullen indignation" at this departure.[8] Under the newly repressive regime of Lord Camden, a decided opponent of Catholic emancipation and of all other concessions, thoughts turned increasingly toward the prospect of a French-assisted insurrection.

In June 1795, with three other members of the movement's Northern Executive, Thomas Russell, Samuel Neilson and Robert Simms, McCracken met with Theobald Wolfe Tone who was en route to exile in the United States (and France). At McArt's fort atop Cave Hill overlooking Belfast they swore the celebrated oath "never to desist in our efforts until we had subverted the authority of England over our country, and asserted our independence'".[9]

Working parallel to the "uniting" efforts of Father James Coigly,[10] during the Armagh Disturbanes McCracken and other emissaries from Belfast travelled extensively in an effort to counter sectarian tensions with the Society's republican programme. For a time he lived in County Armagh, working with Charles Teeling amongst the Defenders (and ranging as far south as King's County), urging them to join the united movement and binding himself in substantial sums to meet the expenses of those hauled before biased magistrates by their Protestant neighbours.[11]

Nearer home, in Belfast and its hinterland in Down and Antrim, McCracken worked with Jemmy Hope organising among Presbyterian tenant farmers, tradesmen and labourers. He also undertook the fraught task of seducing government militia and of carrying information between Belfast and Dublin.[12]

In September 1796 Lord Castlereagh personally presented Neilson, Russell, Teeling and five other prominent United men with warrants for their arrest and pursued McCracken. He was seized on 10 October and lodged with the others in Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. Serious illness, however, permitted his release on bail a little more than a year later, in December 1797.[13]

Rebel commander[edit]

The north did not respond to the call from Dublin and the south to rise on 23 May 1798. In Antrim, Robert Simms, resigned his county command rather than proceed without greater certainty of French assistance. Seizing the initiative, McCracken was elected his replacement by local delegates, and he proclaimed the "First Year of Liberty" on 6 June. There were widespread local musters but before they could coordinate, most were burying their arms and returning to their farms and workplaces. The issue had been decided by the following evening. McCracken, commanding a body of four to six thousand, failed, with heavy losses, to seize Antrim Town where he had planned to surprise a meeting of the county's magistrates.

Catholic Defenders turned out, but in the march upon the town tensions with the Presbyterian United Irish may have caused some desertions and a delay in McCracken's planned assault.[14] The Crown forces meanwhile prepared and were able themselves to surprise McCracken with reinforcements from their main base in Lisburn.

On 15 June McCracken, together with his brother William, James Hope, James Orr, James Dickey and about 50 other rebel survivors took refuge on the slopes of Slemish, near Ballymena. There they received news of the defeat of the Down insurgency at Ballynahinch on the 12th and, under threat of attack from Scottish Fencibles, dispersed.[15]

Court martial and execution[edit]

McCracken sister, Mary Ann, met with him twice while he was on the run, supplying him with money and clothes. On July 8 she received news that he was in Carrickfergus Gaol: where he had been seized with two companions hoping to embark on a foreign vessel. Court-martialled on July 17,[16] he refused clemency in return for naming the Robert Simms. His last request of his sister, who walked with him later that afternoon to the gallos, was that she convey to his friend Thomas Russell (who, five years later, was to suffer the same fate) the simple message that he had done his "duty".[17] McCracken was hanged in the Corn Market, Belfast (land his grandfather had donated to the town) on 17 July 1798, aged 30.[13]

General Sir George Nugent allowed the body to be cut down quickly and entrusted it to Mary Ann. She arranged for a surgeon to resuscitate her brother but his efforts proved unavailing.


Spared the indignity of decapitation (comrades who had preceded him had had their heads displayed on spikes), McCracken's body was buried in the Parish Church of St George in Belfast. In 1909, after the High Street graveyard had been cleared for redevelopment, Francis Joseph Bigger reinterred what he believed were McCracken's remains in Clifton Street Cemetery, Belfast, alongside his sister Mary Ann and his daughter Maria (thought to be the child of Mary Bodell) for whom Mary Ann had cared.[18][19]

Jemmy Hope, who survived both 1798 and his attempt with Robert Emmett and Thomas Russell to renew the insurrection in 1803, named two of his sons (the first having died in infancy) Henry Joy McCracken Hope.[20] "When all our leaders deserted us", recalled Hope, "Henry Joy McCracken stood alone faithful to the last. He led the forlorn hope of the cause ...".[21]


  1. ^ "Businesswoman, campaigner '" the remarkable Mary Ann McCracken". www.newsletter.co.uk. Retrieved 3 May 2021.
  2. ^ a b c Drennan, William (February 1811). "Biographical Sketches of Distinguished Persons: David Manson". The Belfast Monthly. 6: 126–132.
  3. ^ Hamilton, Elizabeth (1837). The Cottagers of Glenburnie: A Tale for the Farmer's Ingle-nook. Stirling, Kenney. pp. 295–296.
  4. ^ McNeil (1960), pp. 81-81
  5. ^ https://rosemarymccracken.wordpress.com/2018/08/28/on-the-trail-of-henry-joy/
  6. ^ Bardon, Jonathan (1982). Belfast: An Illustrated History. Belfast: Blackstaff Press. p. 54. ISBN 0856402729.
  7. ^ McNeill, Mary (1960). The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken, 1770–1866. Dublin: Allen Figgis & Co. p. 76.
  8. ^ McNeill (1960), pp. 102-103
  9. ^ William Theobald Wolfe Tone, ed. (1826). Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, vol. 1. Washington D.C.: Gales and Seaton. p. 127.
  10. ^ Keogh, Daire (Summer 1998). "An Unfortunate Man". 18th - 19th Century History. 5 (2). Retrieved 21 November 2020.
  11. ^ McNeill (1960), pp. 97-98
  12. ^ McNeill (1960), p. 98
  13. ^ a b Hamilton 1893.
  14. ^ "Author on the hunt for local tales as he pens new book on the Battle of Antrim". Antrim Guardian. 13 December 2019. Retrieved 25 March 2020.
  15. ^ M. Young (1893), Ulster in '98 : episodes and anecdotes, Belfast, Marcus Ward & Co., Limited, Royal Ulster Works, London and New York, pp. 32-38.
  16. ^ Patrick C. Power (1997). The Courts Martial of 1798-9. Irish Historical Press. p. 137. ISBN 978-1-902057-00-2.
  17. ^ McNeill (1960) p. 184
  18. ^ Guy Beiner (2018). Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198749356.
  19. ^ "Henry Joy "Harry" McCracken". Find a Grave. Retrieved 28 November 2020.
  20. ^ Bob Armstrong (1998), "Jemmy Hope--Writer and Revolutionary", in The Liberty Tree: The story of the United Irishmen in and around the Borough of Newtownabbey, Archie R. Reid (ed.), A Newtownabbey Borough Council Bi-Centenary Publication. ISBN 0953337308.pp. 36
  21. ^ Hope, James (2001). United Irishman: The Autobiography of James Hope (John Newsinger ed.). London: Merlin Press. p. 127. ISBN 9780850364965.