Thomas McCabe: Horologist, Abolitionist & Radical

St Malachy’s College, Antrim Road, is among the oldest Catholic Diocesan Colleges in Ireland and was first opened to pupils in 1833. The school stands on a plot of land formerly occupied by the ‘Vicinage’. This building ‘consisted of a two-storied, slated house at the gable end of which a stone archway led to a small farm’.[1] A blue plaque affixed to the wall in the grounds of St Malachy’s denotes the importance of this connection. The ‘Vicinage’ was the home of Thomas McCabe, a prominent United Irishman and Belfast business figure, and was likely used as a meeting place for strategizing the 1798 Rebellion.

St. Malachy’s College today.The school stands on a plot of land formerly occupied by the ‘Vicinage’, home of Thomas McCabe, a prominent United Irishman and Belfast business figure.

Thomas McCabe was born in Lurgan, Co. Armagh, around 1739 and trained in the family trade of horology. He moved to Belfast in 1762 and opened a watchmaking shop in the town. McCabe played an active role in civic and mercantile life in eighteenth-century Belfast and, along with Robert Joy, financed the town’s first cotton-spinning machinery. These hand-driven looms (‘Spinning Jennies’) were installed in the Belfast poorhouse where both men were members of the governing Belfast Charitable Society. By early 1780 ‘23 children were being employed’ spinning cotton.[2] Within ten years, some 8,000 individuals were employed as cotton-spinners within a fifteen-mile radius of Belfast.[3] McCabe, along with Joy and John McCracken, later established Belfast’s first powered mill.[4] The fledgling Ulster cotton industry was outpaced by Lancashire by the 1820s and the local mills pivoted towards flax spinning.[5]

In 1786 Waddell Cunningham, chairman of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, proposed the formation of a slave ship company operating out of Belfast. It was envisaged that local vessels would engage in a well-established ‘triangular trade’ – exporting European goods to Africa, where vessels would be filled with captured slaves, who were then shipped to the West Indies. The vessels would then return with luxury commodities such as sugar and rum for local consumers. The proposed Belfast slave ship would be able to convey ‘between 500 and 600 slaves’ and financial backers ‘would be paid in gold dust or elephants’ teeth’ with the twelve-month trip estimated to generate £20,000 – roughly £1,500,000 in today’s money.[6]

Thomas McCabe denouncing Waddell Cunningham’s proposed Belfast slave-ship company in the Old Exchange, 1786. (J.W. Carey from Robert Young’s Old Belfast [1895])

Waddell Cunningham held a meeting in the Exchange and Assembly Rooms, Waring Street, to drum up support and finance for his shipping company. Thomas McCabe, a vigorous opponent of the slave trade, walked the short distance from his shop in North Street to join the meeting.[7] He made an impassioned speech against the plan and uttered a warning to those present: ‘May God wither the hand and consign the name to eternal infamy of the man who subscribes the first guinea’.[8]

McCabe’s intervention crystallised anti-slavery opinion among local financiers and effectively thwarted Cunningham’s venture. Belfast remained one of the few port towns in the British Isles to refrain from heavy involvement in the slave trade. The town’s merchants did, however, play a role in ‘provisioning the Caribbean’ with ‘linen, wheat, flour and salted fish’.[9] Despite the best efforts of local anti-slavery campaigners, including McCabe and Mary Ann McCracken, many Belfast shoemakers were busily engaged in exporting ‘specially broad fitting shoes for slaves’.[10] Perhaps most disturbing was Waddell Cunningham’s decision to name his Dominican plantation ‘Belfast’.[11]

Thomas McCabe and fellow United Irishmen were explicitly anti-slavery and many of them refused to purchase or consume products associated with the slave trade. Curiously, however, Belfast Charitable Society records reveal that ‘two hundred wt. of the Jamaica yellow cotton’ was imported – presumably from slave plantations – for spinning at Clifton House using Joy and McCabe’s looms.[12] The United Irishmen invited the famous freed slave Olaudah Equiano to Belfast in 1791. Equiano wrote a bestselling book about his experiences and found Ireland extremely hospitable ‘particularly in Belfast’.[13] During his stay he lodged with the draper, United Irishman and radical newspaper editor Samuel Neilson.[14] When Equiano left Belfast, Neilson’s Northern Star newspaper continued to give wide coverage to anti-slavery propaganda and warned its readers ‘that anyone who consumes sugar products “becomes accessory to the guilt” of slavery’.[15] The newspaper’s radical commentary and status as the de facto organ of the United Irishmen led to its eventual suppression in 1797 by state militia who ‘gained access to the Star offices, ransacked the building and smashed the printing press’.[16]

Belfast radicals such as Thomas McCabe ‘found anti-slavery an appealing symbol of the age of enlightenment’ and mobilised sufficient opposition to prevent Belfast from developing into a major slaving port.[17] Although heavy involvement was averted, some within the town’s merchant class directly profited from clear-cut economic ties with slaving activity. Against the backdrop of current debates around civic statues and the Black Lives Matter movement it is important to recognise Belfast’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade – and note the efforts of Thomas McCabe (and many other enlightened citizens) in providing robust local opposition.[18]


[1] John McCabe, ‘A United Irish Family: the McCabes of Belfast (Part II)’ in North Irish Roots, vol 9, no. 2 (1998), p. 28.

[2] John Monaghan, ‘The rise and fall of the Belfast cotton industry’ in Irish Historical Studies, vol 3, no. 9 (1943), p. 10.

[3] Monaghan, ‘The rise and fall’, p. 3.


[5] R.W.M. Strain, Belfast and its Charitable Society: a story of urban social development (Oxford, 1961), p. 143.

[6] McCabe, ‘A United Irish family’, p. 27.


[8] Strain, Belfast and its Charitable Society, p. 100.

[9] Bill Rolston, ‘A lying old scoundrel’ in History Ireland, vol 11, no. 1 (2003).

[10] Rodgers, ‘Equiano in Belfast’, p. 83.


[12] Belfast Charitable Society Orderly Book, 5 May 1777 (MS1/2015/002/0009).

[13] Rodgers, ‘Equiano in Belfast’, p. 73.



[16] Gillian O’Brien, ‘Spirit, impartiality and independence: The Northern Star, 1792-1797’ in Eighteenth-Century Ireland / Iris an dá chultúr, vol. 13 (1998), p. 21.

[17] Rodgers, ‘Equiano in Belfast’, p. 79.


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Location: Antrim Road