Mary Ann McCracken Foundation highlights the plight of women living in Afghanistan


Mary Ann McCracken Foundation
highlights the plight of women living in Afghanistan

On Thursday 18th November, the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation hosted its inaugural annual lecture, focusing on the challenges facing Afghan women.

Many of us have watched in horror as events in Afghanistan have unfolded. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee, fearing for their lives and escaping conflict. Speaking at the event was Dr Sima Nazari, a successful Afghan doctor who was forced to leave her home country following death threats from the Taliban. Sima shared the heart-breaking story of having to leave a job she loved, a job which she worked so hard to get, having put herself through medical school, all because she was a woman.

Also speaking at the event was Bilal, an Afghan national who served as Cultural Advisor and Interpreter for British Forces in Afghanistan from 2009 until 2014. Bilal’s intricate knowledge of Afghanistan enabled him to secure safe passage for many vulnerable Afghans this August, including Dr Sima Nazari. Bilal is worried about the impact of women like Sima disappearing from public and civic life.

Dr Sima Nazari’s patients do not now have a doctor. Women, many-many thousands of women, will give birth without any medical help. This is replicated across all areas of society.

According to WHO, Afghan mothers already have the highest mortality rate, at one in eleven women dying in child birth. This figure, and that of infant mortality, will undoubtably sour with the disappearance of doctors and nurses from hospitals across the country.

Bilal also worries about the long-term impact of young women growing up without an education, about the pressure on families who now are reduced to one income and the lost opportunities of women being a role model for the next generation.

Attendees also heard from Sara. Sara came to the UK as a refugee at the age of six.  She successfully graduated from University this year, something women in Afghanistan are denied. She now helps other Afghans who have arrived in the UK to navigate the housing system, access to schools and translation services. Language is not the only barrier for people arriving into the UK. With more and more services moved online because of Covid, access to digital devices is also now becoming an issue.

The final contributor at this significant event was Liz Griffith from The Law Centre NI. Liz spoke passionately about the proposed changes to legislation within the Nationalities and Borders Bill, changes which would result in division and segregation of those refugees which make their way into the UK ‘on their own steam’. The future of these people would be very uncertain, they would be striped of their refugee status, and ultimately left in limbo. Something which goes against human rights law. Liz called on everyone at the event to do what they could to raise these issues with their local MPs

To close, Bilal painted a very dark picture of what the future holds for many millions of Afghans who haven’t been lucky enough to escape. Women and children will die of starvation this winter. More women will die in childbirth this year than last year. This situation is even worse for widows, like my mother. They will have no means to provide for their children. The lights have been turned off in Afghanistan by the Taliban but I’m asking everyone here not to forget the Afghans who have been left behind.”

Due to ongoing conflict and drought, many women and children face malnutrition and starvation. With winter temperatures falling rapidly, people are also in a race to find proper shelter and firewood.  Bilal closed the event by urging people in the audience to do what they can to support charities who are working on the ground in Afghanistan to help alleviate this crisis.

To find out more about the work of the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation, visit here.

Black History Month 2021: Equiano and Belfast Charitable Society

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News

Each week as part of Black History Month Belfast Charitable Society will be exploring the multifaceted history of the charity from its connections with black abolitionists and enslaved people to the abolitionist and pro-slavery movements in Belfast. The second  in this series looks at Olaudah Equiano, one of the first black abolitionists to visit Ireland.

Equiano himself had been born in Africa and kidnapped into slavery at the age of ten or eleven and was forced to become a sailor. It was said that an Irish man encouraged him to learn to read and write and ultimately he managed to save enough money to purchase his freedom. As a first generation enslaved person, Equiano knew of traditional customs in his homeland and could speak to the cruelty of the passage from Africa to the Americas. After purchasing his freedom, he settled in London and visited the House of Commons to listen to debates around slavery. In 1789, he published his Interesting Narrative, which helped to propel him to the forefront of the abolitionist movement.

In May 1791 Olaudah Equiano journeyed to Dublin to organise the fourth printing of his Interesting Narrative which detailed his experiences and the reality of slavery. He spent the next eight months in Ireland touring and promoting the sale of his book.

Equiano said that he was ‘exceedingly well treated, by persons of all ranks’ in Ireland, and found the people of Belfast to be particularly hospitable. During his time in Belfast Equiano lodged with Samuel Neilson who lived at what is now the site of the Northern Whig building. Neilson was a leading radical and in the same year as Equiano landed in Ireland, Neilson was involved in the establishment of the United Irishmen. The Neilson home was a hub of political activity and it is likely that Equiano met many of the key personalities involved with the early United Irishmen movement. Equiano was still a guest with Samuel when the Northern Star, the newspaper of the United Irishmen, first appeared in January 1792. The paper was abolitionist in outlook and condemned those who supported the slave trade through the purchase of sugar, rum and molasses.

During the time of Equiano’s visit, Samuel Neilson was treasurer of Belfast Charitable Society and on 17 December 1791, Equiano attended a committee in the Boardroom of the Poor House, now Clifton House. Equiano returned to England, but appears to have disappeared from public life, due to his connections with radical and revolutionary groups on both sides of the Irish Sea, around 1794. He died in London aged 52 in 1797. Sadly, his place of burial has never been identified.

Black History Month 2021: William John Brown and his escape from slavery

Black History Month 2021: William John Brown and his escape from slavery

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News Uncategorized University News

In August 1830 William John Brown appeared before the magistrate at the Belfast Police Court. Mr Brown, an enslaved man from America, entered the courtroom accompanied by members of the Society of Friends.

Newspaper reports describe him as looking crestfallen and physically frail- the fifty-year-old slowly took the stand and was said to have recounted his story in a feeble voice. William was enslaved as a young man in Virginia, but had worked his way out of bondage and received his papers of freedom. Now a free man he got married and had five children and settled in Baltimore, Maryland. However, in 1826 a band of slave speculators, commonly known as ‘slavers’, arrived at his family home where they manhandled him, placed a blindfold over his eyes, bundling him into a waiting cart and drove off. During the course of the attack, they also took possession of his cherished papers. Arriving soon after at a nearby port the slavers forced him to board a slave ship which set sail from Maryland and arrived in New Orleans. While in New Orleans he was sold numerous times and ultimately he was forced to load bales of cotton onto trading vessels, many of which were bound for Europe. One such vessel was the copper-bottomed brig the Planter owned by John Vance, a cotton and cloth merchant based in Donegall Place, Belfast.

Brown managed to secure the trust of one the Planter’s crew. Buying a dollars’ worth of biscuits from him. Brown told his sympathetic confidante that, once the cargo was loaded, he was going to escape from his captors. Once the last bale was in the ship, Brown made his way into the brig’s hold and hid inside a bale of cotton as the Planter set sail for Belfast. During the voyage, he kept himself alive on his dollars’ worth of biscuits and only ventured out at night for water. As the brig was being unloaded in Belfast, Brown made good his escape but was spotted by a crewmember who informed the police. While in custody, the police contacted the philanthropic Quakers who appeared in court to lend their support to Brown’s testimony and to vouch for his character. Having listened intently to his story the Magistrate felt proud to announce that the man who stood before him was no longer a slave and that he would leave his court room a free man.

William John Brown went on to find employment as a labourer in Belfast, living near Smithfield Market. However, the trials and traumas of his life finally exacted their toll. He died in November 1831 and was buried  in an unmarked grave in Clifton Street Cemetery run by Belfast Charitable Society. A tragic note beside his entry in the burial records that his wife and children were still enslaved in America.


Mr Girmondi, Dancing Dogs & the Belfast Poor House

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News Uncategorized

There have been some unusual donations to Belfast Charitable Society over the years, many of them recorded on huge wooden boards with the details of donors stencilled on. On this day (30 September) 1818 Mr Girmondi, who was in Belfast entertaining the citizens of the town, became one of these donors. Girmondi was the proprietor of a troop of ‘Dancing Dogs’ and he donated a days takings from his exhibition to the Poor House in order to support its work.

You too can support the work of Belfast’s oldest charity! Our weekend tours offer something for everyone- from our Friday afternoon Mary Ann McCracken Walking Tours, to our Saturday and Sunday  tours of Clifton House and Clifton Street Cemetery.

Come along and discover the stories for yourself!

For more information and to book click here

Hello Autumn!

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News Uncategorized

Hello Autumn!

Where did the summer go! At Clifton House it went in a blink of an eye as we prepared ourselves for re-opening. Our new immersive house tours have been running for four weeks now, and we have settled into our stride. More importantly you have told us you love them!

You love the history and the stories that surround this beautiful Georgian building, and you especially love our new augmented reality app, which, for the first time, lets our visitors see what life was like in Clifton House in the late 18th century when it operated as the city’s Poor House.

We have availability throughout September, so if you haven’t been yet, now is the time! Check availability and book online here

#OnThisDay 1752 Belfast Charitable Society was founded

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News Uncategorized

At the George, 28th August 1752

The evening of Friday 28th August 1752 was cool in Belfast. After closing up their businesses and homes, a group of nineteen merchants, burgesses [councillors] and the local vicar, made their way to the George Inn at the corner of North Street and John Street (now Royal Avenue). It was there in the George Inn that these gentlemen formed the Belfast Charitable Society, to address poverty and help the poor. The names of the founders were recorded in the first minute book of the new society, which is now held in the Clifton House archives:

Margetson Saunders Esqr. Sovrn [Mayor] in the Chair

Revd. Mr. Saurin Valentine Jones William Stewart
Mr Jas. Adair Geo: Black Thomas Bateson
James Getty Samuel Smith John Hyde
Geo: Ferguson James Hamilton Saml. Hyde
Chas Hamilton George Macartney
Willm. Wilson James Ross
Robt. Wilson Thomas Gregg

At this time the population of Belfast was expanding at a great pace due to the growth of its port and the textile industry. The poor lived in ‘ill-ventilated hovels’ with little or no sanitation, and the town’s inhabitants had a limited diet. There was very little provision or support for the poor and so the Belfast Charitable Society set about providing assistance to alleviate the worst of the poverty prevalent in Belfast, mainly through the construction of a Poor House and Infirmary.  It raised the money through a lottery scheme and donations, with the Poor House and Infirmary opening its doors in 1774.

Two hundred and sixty nine years later, we remember these philanthropic individuals for planting the seed of what would ultimately become a Belfast institution. Many of these men did not live to see the project completed. However, their drive and enthusiasm led to the construction of a home for the poor and sick, which would provide relief for thousands of men, women and children through the years.


The Founding Members Biographical Notes

Prior to the construction of the Poor House, members of the Belfast Charitable Society were officially appointed as ‘Overseers of the Poor’ in December 1757. Those appointed included the Rev James Saurin, James Getty, Samuel Smith, Valentine Jones, James Adair, John Hyde, and George Ferguson.

Margetson Saunders was the first chair of the Belfast Charitable Society. Margetson was Sovereign (Mayor) in 1752, but he had previously held the position three times in the 1730s, and then again in 1754.

Rev James Saurin was the grandson of the French Huguenot Jean Saurin. James’s grandfather fled France due to religious persecution. James Saurin was born in London in 1719 and married Jane Duff. He became Vicar of Belfast in 1747, a position he held for 26 years. The Rev Saurin used his position to lobby Lord Donegall for the land required for the Poor House. He lived to see the laying of the foundation stone of the Poor House, but passed away two years before the building opened in 1774.

James Adair was a partner in the first private bank in Belfast with Daniel Mussenden and Thomas Bateson, a fellow founding member of the Belfast Charitable Society. Their bank opened in 1752, but was dissolved by 1757. This bank was involved in the second unsuccessful lottery scheme run by the Belfast Charitable Society.

James Getty was the son of the Rev James Getty of Inveraray, Scotland. James Getty Jnr was a Belfast merchant and his signature appears on a number of petitions to notable figures in relation to Irish free trade and the impact of the American War on the merchants of Belfast. Many other founding members also signed these petitions including Thomas Greg, George Ferguson, William Wilson, Robert Wilson and Valentine Jones.

William Wilson was a merchant with interests including coal, tobacco and textiles imported from Glasgow. He was also amongst the signatories of a minority report on financing Belfast’s first police force.

Robert Wilson is believed to be the same Robert Wilson who sold carpets and fabrics in Belfast and who also owned a bleach green at Castlereagh during this period.

Charles Hamilton was a Scottish merchant who came to Ireland to expand his business ventures. Unfortunately, he was not successful and his businesses failed. When he died of typhus in 1759 he left his widow and three children with a large amount of debt. His widow sent one of her daughters, Elizabeth, to live with a prosperous Scottish aunt and uncle. Elizabeth Hamilton would grow up to become a well-known novelist, satirist, educationalist and essayist.

Valentine Jones was a merchant with West Indian interests. The Valentine Jones dynasty, which had premises at Winecellar Entry off High Street, Belfast, were wine merchants and rum and sugar importers. They had established a thriving agency in Barbados where they bought goods from the planters and also sold goods to them. Thomas Bateson, another founding member, was Valentine’s partner. Valentine was involved in a number of public projects in Belfast including the Lagan Navigation proposal, the Brown Linen Hall and of course, the Belfast Charitable Society. The money from his West Indies trade provided substantial finance for these projects.

George Black held the position of Sovereign on five occasions (1775, 1776, 1782, 1783 and 1785) and was later appointed Vice-President of the Belfast Charitable Society. George was the brother of Dr Joseph Black, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, who was famous for his work on carbon dioxide and latent heat.

Samuel Smith, born 1693, was a leading Presbyterian in Belfast and a member of the First Congregation in Rosemary Street. He resided in High Street with gardens extending to Ann Street. He passed away in 1760 aged 67 years.

James Hamilton was appointed as an ‘Overseer of the Poor’ in 1757 and went on to serve at least two terms as Sovereign of Belfast in 1761 and 1769.

George Macartney served as a Sovereign of Belfast. His family line had a proud tradition of serving as burgesses and as Sovereigns. It is likely that the George Macartney who was present at the first meeting of the Belfast Charitable Society was the Sovereign of the same name who donated the ‘Poores Money’ to the Society in 1768.

James Ross was a merchant who owned a number of vessels in Belfast including the brig Koulikan and Ross. The ship registers show the Ross travelling between Belfast, the West Indies and New York. He is a kinsman of Waddell Cunningham, another merchant, who was involved in the Belfast Charitable Society.

Thomas Greg set up a shop in North Street in the 1740s selling provisions including French wine, Spanish fruit, London porter, coal and blue powder for bleaching linen.
Thomas bought a small ship and renamed her The Greg which he used to trade with the West Indies. Through his American trade he acquired a merchant partner in the United States, Waddell Cunningham. Thomas invested in Plantations in the West Indies, and his brother John purchased slaves for the Greg and Cunningham ‘Belfast’ Sugar Plantation in Dominica. He spent much money searching for coal and mineral deposits in the northern counties of Ireland. Thomas invested in the Lagan Navigation; glass manufacturing in Belfast; and founded the Downshire Pottery. When Waddell Cunningham returned to Ireland, the two partnered again to establish a vitriol works for bleaching linen at Lisburn in 1766. In 1783 Thomas was a founding member of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce and in the same year, for reasons unknown, he refused a Baronetcy.

William Stewart built his family seat at Wilmont (now Sir Thomas & Lady Dixon Park), about 1765, which included an extensive farm, with a sizeable bleach green. William was a merchant with numerous interests including a partnership in the Newry Flour Mill Company and shares in the Belfast Discount Company. The Belfast News-Letter of 4 March 1766 records him selling Bristol Crown glass, Welsh slates, lignum-vitae and various kinds of forest trees from premises at Drumbridge. He also donated £300 to the building of the Linen Hall in Belfast in 1782. William Stewart is commemorated by a tablet in the porch of Drumbeg Parish Church.

Thomas Bateson was a business partner of Valentine Jones and his name frequently appeared in advertisements offering for sale large quantities of West Indian produce. Thomas was also a partner in the firm Mussenden, Bateson and Co, wine merchants, in Winecellar Entry, Belfast. Bateson and Mussenden also collaborated with James Adair to open Belfast’s first bank. Thomas resided at Orangefield House, Knockbreda and Thomas’s grandson Robert resided at Belvoir Estate. Robert continued his grandfather’s philanthropy during his time as landlord giving each of the poor in Knockbreda a bed to help alleviate their poor living conditions.

John Hyde was active in all manners of public life in 18th century Belfast. His main business venture was in partnership with Mr Legg in the Rosemary Street Sugar House.

Samuel Hyde, of Hydepark, was the second name on a list of subscribers in 1740 to a petition from the merchants of Belfast to the Government respecting the conditions of the town’s docks.  Samuel was a founding member not only of the Belfast Charitable Society, but also the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, He died at his house in Castle Place, Belfast. His daughter Elizabeth Hyde married another founding member Thomas Greg.

Belfast Charitable Society Today

269 years after its foundation Belfast Charitable Society continues to benefit the people of Belfast by supporting various charities and philanthropic causes. For more information on its philanthropic projects please click here

On This Day 1818: An Unusual Visitor to the Belfast Poor House

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News Uncategorized

On Saturday 22 August 1818 the Belfast Poor House had a rather unusual visitor. Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich of Russia dismounted his carriage at the stone steps in front of the building and was given a tour of the institution by members of Belfast Charitable Society.

The Grand Duke must have been impressed by what he saw as he was shown through the corridors of the Poor House, as he made a substantial donation of £54 to support its work- the equivalent of over £5,000 today. His name was subsequently added to one of our donation boards which originally hung in the main entrance hall.

Clifton House celebrates 250th anniversary

Clifton House celebrates 250th anniversary


Today (August 4, 2021) Belfast Charitable Society celebrated the 250th anniversary of the laying of the Poor House foundation stone – now Clifton House. Established by local merchants to help the poor of the city, the building works took another three years to complete, finally opening its doors to the destitute in 1774.

The foundation stone was laid by Stewart Banks, Sovereign (Mayor) of Belfast, who lived close by, and watched with interest as the building emerged. News of the laying of the foundation stone spread across the city, with the Belfast Newsletter reporting: Yesterday; a large Body of the principal Inhabitants of this Town assembled at the Market-House, from whence they proceeded to the Ground allotted for the Poor-House and Infirmary; where Stewart Banks, Esq,; Sovereign of Belfast, laid the first stone of the Ediface.

On this occasion every demonstration of Joy was express. And in the evening there was a numerous Meeting of Gentlemen at the Market-House, to celebrate the memorable first of August.”

Two hundred and fifty years later, the occasion was celebrated today by a small gathering of key stakeholders and staff.  As in 1771, the Lord Mayor of Belfast was part of the proceedings. Councillor Kate Nicholl joined President of the Belfast Charitable Society, Sir Ronnie Weatherup and Chair, David Watters.

Belfast Lord Mayor, Councillor Kate Nicholl commented: “This is an historic event for Belfast, celebrating 250 years of the laying of the foundation stone for Clifton House. One of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in Belfast, it’s a significant heritage site and one that’s very close to my heart, as it was established to address disadvantage and continues to do so to this day.”

Sir Ronnie Weatherup explained: “This anniversary is significant, as it reminds us of the great philanthropic effort that must have preceded the laying of the first foundation stone for the Poor House by members of the Belfast Charitable Society. It also symbolises the ethos of the Society, reflecting its ongoing work. Work based on ‘Empowerment’, ‘Influence’, ‘Innovation’ and ‘Education’ – addressing disadvantage since 1752.  This beautiful building, set in the heart of the city, is a fantastic reminder to the outside world of this ongoing philanthropic work.

David Watters, Chair of the Belfast Charitable Society expanded: “Our purpose and ongoing mission, vision and values of the Society are rooted in the past, from the first laying of the foundation stone, which was inscribed with This Foundation-Stone of a Poor-House and Infirmary for the Town and Parish of Belfast was laid on the first Day of August A.D. Today we continue to evolve and innovate, using technology to bring the stories and history of the Poor House to life. Our new immersive tours, using augmented reality, are a perfect example of that, allowing us to show what life was like in the Poor House in the late 18th century.”

Like most venues, Clifton House closed during the pandemic. But thanks to funding from the National Lottery Heritage Emergency Fund, this downtime was used to carry out major refurbishment and to introduce state of the art immersive technology to enhance its visitor experience – normally the preserve of major heritage sites across the globe.  Clifton House is open for tours every Saturday and Sunday at 11am and 1.30pm.

Mary Ann McCracken (1770-1866): Faithful Until Death

Mary Ann McCracken (1770-1866): Faithful Until Death


On 26th July 1866 the people of Belfast learnt of the death of Mary Ann McCracken. She had lived through some of the most turbulent years of Irish history including the 1798 rebellion, the Great Famine and the Industrial Revolution. Passing away aged 96, Mary Ann lived into a period where photography was becoming popular. We have one photograph of her but this image of an older lady masks the strong willed and determined character that she possessed throughout her life.

Mary Ann never married, or had any children of her own. However, after the execution of her brother Henry Joy McCracken for his role in the 1798 rebellion, Mary Ann took in his illegitimate daughter Maria. Not all members of the McCracken and Joy families were supportive of Mary Ann’s actions. Her brother John McCracken wrote to his sibling Frank, “We have got an addition to the family since you were here, it is a little Girl said to be a daughter of poor Harry’s, it was bro’[ught], against my inclinations.” However, over time the family appear to have accepted Henry Joy McCracken’s daughter; and Mary Ann and Maria lived together for the rest of Mary Ann’s life.

Mary Ann in letters

Through her long life, Mary Ann remained committed to the same principles that had driven Harry, as she called him, to the scaffold. It was the drive for social justice that motivated the McCracken siblings, not nationalism as we know it today. Daniel O’Connell’s campaign to Repeal the Union was, in her eyes, misjudged. In a letter, reflecting on these events she believed his focus should have been on the abolition of tithes, a fee paid by people to the Church of Ireland as an early form of income tax. This once again illustrates her predominant interest in the welfare of the poor.

Mary Ann and her sister Margaret were strong characters and set up their own muslin business. The sister’s enterprise appears in the 1809 Holden’s Directory as Margaret McCracken & Co. Muslin Manufacturers, 37 Waring Street. During times of hardship and economic instability the sisters continued to employ their staff, whilst other companies were letting people go to cut costs. The sisters took the burden of losses themselves, as Mary Ann “…could not think of dismissing our workers, because nobody would give them employment.”

Mary Ann McCracken was 57 years old when the Ladies’ Committee was formed in 1827. The first matter they considered was a method to instruct the girls of the Poor House in crafts that would provide a livelihood for them. The Gentleman provided a grant of 30 shillings which Mary Ann was to use to purchase tambour frames, piercers and muslin so they could do white embroidery work. Nothing escaped the attention of Ladies Committee and their projects included getting blinds fitted in the hospital, straw mats to protect the mattresses from wearing on the iron bedframes and fireguards in the children’s rooms. Mary Ann served as Treasurer, Secretary and Chair of the Ladies’ Committee at various points.

As well as her interest in the Poor House, Mary Ann was also intimately connected with the Ladies Industrial School from its inception in 1847. Mary Ann’s name is recorded as a committee member in each of the school’s annual reports from its foundation. She was given the position of President of the school which she held until her death. No correspondence survived from her during the Great Famine, but it is clear that she would have felt heartbroken at the destitution, death and famine during the period, and would have witnessed the poor from rural areas flooding into Belfast seeking some form of relief. She was also a member of the committee set up in Belfast to abolish the use of climbing boys in chimney sweeping and was involved in early women suffrage campaigns and prison reform schemes.

Mary Ann McCracken was not parochial in her social reform activities. She was very active in anti-slavery circles in Belfast and practised what she preached in abstaining from eating sugar, a product of the slave trade and the West Indies plantations. In her 89th year she was still standing by the gangway of ships in Belfast harbour, bound for America, handing out abolitionist leaflets to Irish emigrants.

Mary Ann McCracken was buried in the McCracken family plot in Clifton Street Cemetery. When her friend, Thomas Russell, a United Irishman was executed for his role in the 1803 rebellion, her last act of service to him was to cover his grave with a plain tombstone engraved with his name in the Parish Graveyard in Downpatrick. She did the same of her friend, Jemmy Hope another United Irishmen who fell into poverty after the rebellion. Sadly, the same service was not provided for Mary Ann upon her death. Mary Ann outlived her generation and her grave remained unmarked for 43 years until Francis Joseph Bigger erected a headstone to commemorate her in May 1909. The inscription ‘wept by her brother’s scaffold’ frames the narrative of this remarkable woman in terms of her brother’s role in 1798.

Mary Ann lived for another 68 years after the execution of her brother, involving herself in many worthy causes. Here at Clifton House we are trying to reclaim her place in Belfast and Irish history. The Gaelic inscription on her headstone reads ‘Dileas go h-Eag’ (Loyal/Faithful until Death), and we like to think of those words as a reference to her loyalty and faithfulness to social reform and the poor of Belfast and further afield. The motto of this remarkable woman, which accurately sums up her character, was that it is better ‘to wear out than to rust out’.
Today Clifton House are fortunate to retain the Ladies Committee Books as part of our extensive archive which gives us a tremendous insight into this stalwart of Belfast Society.

The execution of Henry Joy McCracken through the eyes of his sister, Mary Ann

The execution of Henry Joy McCracken through the eyes of his sister, Mary Ann

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On the 17th July 1798 Henry Joy McCracken was executed for his role as commander of the County Antrim forces of the United Irishmen. After the United Irish defeat in Antrim in June of 1798, Henry Joy fled to the Belfast Hills, whilst Mary Ann arranged his escape to America. However, he was seized on the way to the ship and tried by court martial. During his trial Harry, as he was affectionately known by his family, was given the option to save his life and go into exile if he informed on the other leaders. He refused and was subsequently hanged at the Market House on High Street. The land on which it was built had been donated by an ancestor of Henry Joy McCracken to the people of Belfast.

In her letters to Madden, the United Irishmen historian, in the 1840s Mary Ann McCracken, Harry’s younger sister, described that fateful afternoon in her own words:

I took his arm, and we walked together to the place of
execution, where I was told it was the General’s orders that I should
leave him, which I peremptorily refused. Harry begged I would go.
Clasping my hands around him, (I did not weep till then) I said I
could bear anything but leaving him. Three times he kissed me and
entreated I would go; and, looking round to recognise some friend
to put me in charge of he beckoned to a Mr. Boyd, and said ‘He will
take charge of you.’ … and fearing any further refusal would disturb
the last moments of my dearest brother, I suffered myself to be led

Mary Ann, reflecting all those years later on Harry and his role in 1798, informed Madden:

Notwithstanding the grief that overcame every feeling for a time,
and still lingers in my breast, connecting every passing event with
the remembrance of former circumstances which recall some act or
thought of his, I never once wished that my beloved brother had
taken any other part than that which he did take.

Want to read more about Mary Ann and Henry Joy McCracken’s lives? Why not order a copy of our revised edition of The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken: A Belfast Panorama from Irish Academic Press