Great Women: Mary Ann McCracken

Mary Ann McCracken was born in Belfast on 8th July 1770 and was the second youngest child of Captain John McCracken and Ann Joy’s seven children. The McCracken children had a happy childhood which was full of enjoyment and affection with many friends and family members visiting their home.[1] Remarkably, Mary Ann McCracken’s open-minded parents sent her to be educated at David Manson’s co-educational school where girls received the same extensive education as boys.[2] Typically, before 1850, middle-class girls were taught how to read, write, domestic skills and polite social accomplishments, such as drawing and singing, which would help them make suitable marriages.[3] Within Manson’s school, it was reported that Mary Ann McCracken excelled at numeracy, a skill that would prove useful in her later years.[4]

Mary Ann McCracken, like many other Irish women, has often been depicted as the sister who wept for her brother, Henry Joy McCracken, who was executed for his involvement in the 1798 Irish Rebellion- a major uprising against British rule in Ireland.[5] Yet the figure of Mary Ann McCracken is more complex and diverse than this simple typecast. She played an important role in the aftermath of the rebellion as, despite a strict military curfew, Mary Ann McCracken searched for her brother in the surrounding area near Cave Hill and once found, made travel arrangements for Henry Joy McCracken to escape to America.[6] Unfortunately, Henry Joy McCracken was recognised by an associate, arrested, tried by court-martial and was sent to the gallows to await his execution. After her brother’s death, Mary Ann McCracken took care of his illegitimate daughter Maria despite facing opposition from her family.[7]

Mary Ann McCracken and her niece, Maria c.1801. Source: National Museums NI

Mary Ann McCracken was also a renowned businesswoman. In her early twenties, Mary Ann started a muslin manufacturing firm with her older sister, Margaret, in Belfast.[8] Despite initial financial problems and suffering from the aftermath of the Irish Rebellion, their business proved successful as they had at least two agents in Dublin and the sisters were considered pioneers in the production of checked and patterned muslin.[9] The popularity for the material was that high that the sisters could not meet demand and they, generously, shared information about the product with other muslin manufacturers.[10] In 1808, it was recorded in Belfast Street Directory that the McCracken sisters moved their business from Rosemary Lane to 39 Waring Street which was an important commercial area due to closeness of the quays.[11] Due to increasing business difficulties as a result of monetary issues within the cotton industry, the sisters decided to retire around 1815.[12]

She was also known for her philanthropic work with the Belfast Charitable Society and its Poor House. Inspired by the renowned social reform Quaker Elizabeth Fry, who visited Belfast in 1827, Mary Ann McCracken, now aged 57, and several other women established the Belfast Charitable Society’s Ladies Committee. The purpose of the Ladies Committee was to oversee the ‘female department in the Poor House’ which included elderly women, those who were hospitalised and girls who resided within the institution and those who were apprenticed out.[13] Whilst Mary Ann McCracken was chairwoman (1832-1851) of the Ladies Committee, dietary and hygiene standards within the Poor House improved and established an infant school for young children who were not ready for the boys or girls’ schools.[14] They also improved the girls’ vocational training to include domestic skills so that they had the best possible chance to make a living.[15] From 1848 the number of women attending the Ladies’ Committee meetings begun to diminish as a result of the 1838 Irish Poor Law Act which meant that the number of poor house inmates decreased with the opening of the Belfast workhouse.[16]

Photograph of Mary Ann McCracken taken between 1857 and 1866. Source: National Museums NI

After working with the Ladies Committee, Mary Ann McCracken became involved with other charitable societies including the Belfast Ladies Association for the Relief of Irish Destitution, Belfast Ladies’ Clothing Association, the Society for the Relief of the Destitute Sick and she set up a committee in Belfast to abolish the use of young boys as chimney sweepers.[17] But it was the anti-Slavery movement that deeply moved Mary Ann McCracken. At the age of 88 (within 17 days of her 89th birthday), Mary Ann McCracken was very active in anti-slavery circles and could be found at the gangways of ships at the Belfast docks handing out abolitionist leaflets to passengers heading to America.[18] She also led by example by refusing to eat sugar which was a product of the slave trade.[19]

Mary Ann McCracken died on 26th July 1866 after celebrating her 96th birthday on the 8th of that same month. She was buried at Clifton Street Cemetery which was near to the Poor House that she devoted much of her energy to improving the lives of the poor. Her grave was unmarked until 1909 when the remains that were supposedly those of her brother, Henry Joy McCracken, were interred into the plot. Francis Joseph Biggar, an antiquarian and solicitor, had a headstone erected which emphasised that Mary Ann McCracken was the ‘beloved sister’ of the noted United Irishman.[20]

The Mary Ann McCracken Foundation was launched on Wednesday 20th January 2021 to raise awareness of the life and legacy of one of Belfast’s most important, yet least recognised, abolitionists, philanthropists and social reformers. Find out more about the Foundation at https://belfastcharitablesociety.org/mary-ann-mccracken-foundation/ 

Footnotes:

[1] Mary McNeill, The life and times of Mary Ann McCracken 1770-1866: A Belfast panorama (Dublin, 2019), p. 30.

[2] Ibid., p. 35.

[3] Susie Steinbach, Women in England, 1760-1914: A social history (London, 2005), pp 174-5.

[4] McNeill, The life and times of Mary Ann McCracken, p. 35.

[5] Clodagh Finn, ‘Why isn’t Irish anti-slavery campaigner Mary Ann McCracken better known?’ (https://www.irishexaminer.com/opinion/columnists/arid-40088387.html)

[6] A.T.Q. Stewart, ‘Mary Ann McCracken (1770-1866)’ (https://www-oxforddnb-com.queens.ezp1.qub.ac.uk/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-47301?rskey=kcCC0n&result=2)

[7] McNeill, The life and times of Mary Ann McCracken, pp 183-4.

[8] McNeill, The life and times of Mary Ann McCracken, p. 44.

[9] Pamela Sharpe, ‘Gender in the economy: female merchants and family businesses in the British Isles, 1600-1850’ in Histoire sociale/Social history, xxxiv, no. 68 (2001), p. 304.

[10] McNeill, The life and times of Mary Ann McCracken, p. 195.

[11] https://www.lennonwylie.co.uk/1808.htm; McNeill, The life and times of Mary Ann McCracken, p. 44.

[12] McNeill, The life and times of Mary Ann McCracken, pp 233.

[13] Ladies’ committee of the Belfast charitable society minute book, 1827-1837 (Clifton House, MS1/2015/020/0039).

[14] McNeill, The life and times of Mary Ann McCracken, pp 254-72.

[15] Ibid., p. 252.

[16] Ibid., p. 273.

[17] McNeill, The life and times of Mary Ann McCracken, pp 280-1.

[18] http://belfastcharitablesociety.com/mary-ann-mccracken-1770-1866-at-250-activist-abolitionist-reformer/

[19] Ibid.

[20] http://www.belfasthistoryproject.com/cliftonstreetcemetery/

Members Involved

YEAR: 1774

Location: Clifton Street

YEAR: 1797

Location: Clifton Street

YEAR: 1830

Location: Frederick Street