Mary Ann McCracken is a name that is synonymous with Belfast, but her biographer, Mary McNeill, was an equally remarkable woman who shared many traits with her subject. Mary (Molly) Alice McNeill was born in Belfast on 21 August 1897. The eldest child of George Martin McNeill, a Presbyterian merchant, and Annie Mary McNeill née Cuthbert, Molly was educated at Richmond Lodge before entering St Hugh’s College, Oxford, in 1916. A portion of her letters home during this period is contained in the college’s archive.
Both Molly McNeill and Mary Ann McCracken lost brothers in tragic circumstances. One of Molly’s brothers was killed in the Great War, following which Molly returned to Ireland to work at the Sandes Home for Soldiers in Cahir, Co Tipperary. By September 1921, she had enrolled in the Secretarial Department of Alexandra College, Dublin, from which she received an excellent reference. Molly took on the role of assistant editor of a 1923 collection of essays entitled The Voice of Ireland, to which the revolutionary leader Michael Collins was a contributor.
Shortly after its publication, Molly returned to Belfast, where she became a member of the Arellian Association (comprised of former Richmond Lodge pupils). The aim of the Association was to open a nursery school for the city’s poor children. The Arellian Nursery, the first of its kind in Ireland, was established in 1928, nearly 100 years after Mary Ann McCracken had set up an infant school for the children of the Poor House.
Molly’s public role in Belfast continued to grow as she undertook numerous voluntary projects. She acted as Secretary for the Irish Christian Fellowship, which in 1937 produced ‘Good Neighbours: a syllabus for teachers of religious studies in Northern Irish schools’. From 1938 until 1953 she was Honorary Secretary for the Northern Committee of the Irish Association for Cultural, Economic and Social Relations. During the Second World War, Molly was invited by the Women’s Voluntary Services to become the District Organiser for the County Borough of Belfast, a post she took up in June 1941. By the end of the year, she had advanced to Second Vice Chairman of the Northern Ireland Branch.
As Secretary to the Committee for the Nursery School Association of Ireland, Molly was successfully nominated as a Children’s Guardian in 1943. In this capacity, she attended the Juvenile Court and later became one of the first members of the Child Welfare Council. An article in the Irish Independent of December 1960 highlights both Molly’s role as a member of the Board of Management of the Eastern Special Care Service and as a member of the committee of the Ulster Folk Life Society, which worked to provide Belfast with an open-air folk museum (now the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra).
Following in the footsteps of her father, Molly served on the Board of the Belfast Charitable Society between 1945 and 1964. Her father had served on the Society’s Board from 1910 until his death in 1945, holding the position of Treasurer from 1922 to 1938. Working as an independent scholar, she published her first historical biography The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken: A Belfast Panorama. The book was launched at a sherry party held in the Society’s Boardroom in Clifton House on 10 October 1960. Having declined an MBE in 1953, Molly went on to accept an Honorary MA (awarded in recognition of her research) from Queen’s University Belfast in 1961. On receiving the congratulations of the Society, she presented a photograph of Mary Ann to Clifton House, which remains on display today. Molly’s resignation from the Board was received in October 1964. The minutes refer to her departure as “a real blow to the Society, in the work of which and its history, Ms McNeill had taken an intense interest”.
In 2019, ahead of the 250th anniversary of Mary Ann McCracken’s birth, Belfast Charitable Society, through the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation, republished Mary Ann’s biography. In a fitting tribute to Molly, the new edition was launched with a sherry reception in the Boardroom of Clifton House.