Henry Joy and Mary Ann McCracken

Brother and sister heavily involved in the United Irishmen

Henry Joy McCracken was born on August 31, 1767, and his sister Mary Ann on July 8, 1770. Their mother, Ann Joy, was a member of one of Belfast's notable entrepreneurial families who owned the News Letter, a paper mill and a cotton-spinning factory. Their father was Captain John McCracken.

Apprenticed to the linen trade, Henry Joy was in charge of a cotton factory by the age of 22. However, he was more interested in politics than in business and helped to establish the first Society of the United Irishmen in Belfast in 1791. He took part in the Cave Hill Compact in 1795, and recruited United Irishmen amongst the Defenders. He remained a leading member even after the societies were suppressed in 1794.

Mary Ann established a muslin business with her sister Margaret. A firm believer in women’s equality, she was interested in mathematics, literature and politics, and was also involved in the United Irishmen.

In 1796, Henry Joy was arrested and imprisoned in Kilmainham jail for 13 months without trial. Released on bail, Henry Joy attended the meeting of the United Irish executive in Dublin that decided upon the rising. He took over the command of the Antrim and led the Battle of Antrim. As his fellow United Irishman Jemmy Hope later claimed, ‘when all leaders deserted us, Henry Joy McCracken stood alone, faithful to the last.’

After the United Irish defeat in Antrim, Henry Joy hid in the Cave Hill and Bowhill mountains, while Mary Ann arranged his escape to America. However, he was seized on the way to the ship, tried by court martial, and hanged at Belfast market house, High Street, on July 17, 1798.

Following her brother's demise, Mary Ann brought up Henry Joy's illegitimate daughter, Maria Bodel. After the failed rebellion of 1803, she tried to help Thomas Russell escape, but like her brother before, Russell was executed. Mary Ann then dedicated herself to charitable work.

She was a member of the ladies’ committee of the poorhouse, secretary of the Belfast Charitable Society between 1832 and 1851, and president of the Committee of the Ladies’ Industrial School for the Relief of Irish Destitution, which assisted famine victims. She was also an outspoken opponent of slavery and campaigned to abolish the employment of small boys as chimney sweeps.

In the 1840s, Mary Ann helped Richard Robert Madden compile a history of the United Irishmen. Mary Ann McCracken died on July 26, 1866 and is buried alongside her brother in Clifton cemetery.

Further Reading:
The Memoirs of Jemmy Hope: An Autobiography of a Working-Class United Irishman (1972) edited by Richard R Madden; Antrim and Down in '98: The Lives of Henry Joy McCracken, James Hope, William Putnam McCabe, Rev James Porter, Henry Munro (1846) by Richard R Madden.