Who Was Mary Ann McCracken?

Mary Ann McCracken was born in Belfast on 8 July 1770. She was an abolitionist, social reformer and activist. She championed Belfast’s poor and fought for the rights of many, including women and children, throughout a long life that encompassed the most turbulent years of Irish history. Her legacy, however, is overshadowed by her brother, Henry Joy McCracken – the executed United Irishman – despite outliving him by 68 years.

Mary Ann was born into a prominent middle class Presbyterian family. Both sides of her family contributed to the construction and governance of the ‘Poor House’/Belfast Charitable Society, which is still in operation today. Belfast Charitable Society was founded in 1752 to meet the needs of Belfast’s growing – and largely impoverished — population. It also served as a means for an upwardly mobile, but politically disenfranchised, Presbyterian merchant class to assert its influence. It was against this backdrop that the United Irishmen emerged.

Educated alongside her brothers at David Manson’s progressive and co-educational school, Mary Ann was an avid reader who supported the United Irishmen both ideationally and materially. If Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man was the United Irishmen’s ‘Koran’[1], then Mary Ann’s was Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She not only wrote about Wollstonecraft’s ideas; she practiced them throughout her life.

A visitor to the Poor House from age six, Mary Ann served on its Ladies Committee from 1827-51. During that time, she adopted a holistic ‘public health’ approach to poverty, where children in particular were given nutrition, a broad education, fair apprenticeships and a proper childhood with leisure and time to develop their interests and character. She understood the differential impact that poverty had on women, and worked to get them out of the servant classes as President of the Ladies Industrial School.

Mary Ann was also a life-long abolitionist, and an original member of the Belfast Ladies Anti-Slavery Association. In her late eighties, she could still be found handing out anti-slavery leaflets to emigrants bound for the United States.

Mary Ann died in 1866, but her grave remained unmarked until 1909, when her name and the inscription ‘Díleas go h-éag /Faithful Until Death’ were added. While this inscription relates to her fidelity to her brother Henry Joy, it can also be considered as faithful to her ideals, and to the people of Belfast, until the end.

The motto of this remarkable woman, which accurately sums up her character, was that it is ‘better to wear out than to rust out’. Her radical, humanitarian zeal and generous strength of character were indefatigable, and her contribution to Belfast life is still felt and celebrated today.


[1] The United Irishman Theobald Wolfe Tone referred to Paine’s Rights of Man as the ‘Koran of Blefuscu (Belfast)’