MARY ANN MCCRACKEN / Philanthropist, social activist & abolitionist


Philanthropist, social activist and radical, abolitionist, proto-feminist & businesswoman

1770 – 1866


Born in Belfast on 8th July 1770 to Captain John McCracken and his wife Ann, Mary Ann McCracken was the fifth of six surviving children. The McCracken brood were educated at David Manson’s co-educational school on Donegall Street, where corporal punishment was unheard of, boys and girls were taught as equals and learning was facilitated through play.

From childhood, Mary visited and assisted at the first Public Charitable Institution in Belfast, established by her uncles, Robert and Henry Joy. She later became Secretary of the Ladies Committee within the organisation. Alongside her elder brother, Henry Joy McCracken, she ran a non-denominational Sunday School for Belfast’s poor children (despite being a Presbyterian). It was through Henry that Mary was first introduced to the Society of United Irishmen, in which she became heavily involved. During Henry’s imprisonment in Dublin’s Kilmainham Jail, Mary regularly wrote to him about the developing situation in Belfast and on at least one occasion argued for equality of the sexes.

In R.M. Young’s, “Historical Notices of Old Belfast and its Vicinity,” Mary’s first biographer, Anna McCleery, wrote that “she was long a member of an anti-slavery society. She abstained from sugar for many years, which must have been a great privation, as she was fond of it.” Her name is listed among the committee members on the 1846 ‘Address from the Committee of the Belfast ladies' Anti-Slavery Association to the ladies of Ulster,” and her letters to Dublin-based historian R.R. Madden often voice abolitionist sentiments. Through this correspondence, Mary also assisted Madden in writing the seven volume corpus, ‘The United Irishmen: Their Life and Times’.

Despite speculation about Mary’s relationship with United Irishman Thomas Russell, who was hung in 1803 for his part in Emmet’s failed rebellion, Mary never married. She did however, raise a child. In the aftermath of Henry’s execution, a little girl named Maria was revealed as his illegitimate daughter. Mary was quick to take the girl into the family despite the reservations of her brother John. Mary and Maria were not to be parted until Mary’s death in 1866.

A busy social activist, Mary began a muslin business with her sister Margaret, where the rights of workers were given upmost priority. She was involved in the Society for the Relief of the Destitute Sick and a member of the Belfast Ladies Clothing Society which provided blankets and clothes during the Famine. She was on a committee to prevent the employment of climbing-boys and she was a member of the Belfast Workhouse committee. The Ladies Industrial School considered Mary a ‘beloved friend’ who never missed a weekly meeting as long as she was able to attend. In the school’s 1866 report, a short obituary fondly described Mary’s “ardent charity, her large and tender sympathy, her sweet humility and self-forgetfulness.”

Our thanks to Cathryn Bronwyn McWilliams for this contribution to our celebration of Irish women through the ages.