Mary Ann McCracken

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Mary Ann McCracken (8 July 1770 – 26 July 1866) was a Belfast republican and social reformer.

Early life[edit]

McCracken was born in Belfast on 8 July 1770. Her father was Captain John McCracken, a Ulster Scot Presbyterian and a prominent shipowner; her mother Ann Joy, came from a French Protestant Huguenot 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.[1]

She was the sister of the Ulster Scot Presbyterian Henry Joy McCracken, who was one of the founding members of the United Irishmen Society 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.[2] Bunting lived with the McCrackens for thirty-five years, before moving to Dublin 1819.

Social worker[edit]

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 from her earliest childhood she had worked to raise funds and provide clothes for the children of the Belfast Poorhouse, now known as Clifton House, Belfast. Following a visit from Elizabeth Fry she formed the Ladies Committee of the Belfast Charitable Society and was chair from 1832-1855. Thanks to the efforts of the committee 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. The committee also inspected the homes were children of the poorhouse were apprenticed out.


Mary Ann led the Women's Abolitionary Ccmmittee in Belfast during the height of the anti slavery movement, wearing the famous Wedgewood 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.


  1. ^ Mary Ann McCracken, Social Reformer
  2. ^ O'Byrne, Cathal (1946). As I roved out. Dublin: At the Sign of the Three Candles. p. 192.

'The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken 1770 – 1866: A Belfast Panorama.' Mary McNeill. The Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 1960.

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