Mary Anne McCracken lead the anti-slavery movement in Belfast, she founded the women’s abolition committee. During the 19th century the spirit of radicalism had slowly perished in Belfast, Mary Anne stated “I am both ashamed and sorry to think that Belfast has so far degenerated in regard to the Anti-Slavery Cause”. Regardless of the changes which came to Belfast, May Anne stayed true to her beliefs to the day she died. At the age of 89 she was seen handing out anti-slavery leaflets at the docs to immigrants destined for the United States, where slavery was still legal. Mary Anne McCracken died on the 26th of July 1886.

Mary Anne McCracken was a progressive, someone who was well ahead of her time socially and politically. She advocated equal status of men and women, including in the United Irishmen. Mary Anne had a key role in the women’s committee, a group which helped to alleviate the condition of the poor in Belfast. As a result of her efforts, a preschool and primary school were established for the orphans of the city. Mary Anne went to great lengths to find a teacher who was in line with her beliefs and who was capable of a high standard of teaching. Mary Ann worked immensely in Belfast’s poor house (Clifton House), it’s said that at a young age she helped make clothes for the children in Clifton House. She worked in the poor house in later years as the chairperson of the Belfast Charitable Association; this reflects her labour of love of helping improve the conditions of the city’s poorest. As a businesswoman, Mary Ann stood out from the rest, during difficult economic times, she kept workers on in contrast to what every other business was doing at the time, and she said “could not think of dismissing our workers, because nobody would give them employment”.

Mary Ann helped the United Irishmen in many forms, between organising and in practical forms such as when Henry Joy and his men were evading capture in the mountains after the battle of Antrim, it was Mary Ann who brought recourses to them, she also tried to organise ways for them to escape. Mary Ann was raised in High Street, but her and her family moved between Rosemary Street, Donegall Street and Donegall Pass. Mary Ann also raised Mary Bodel, Henry Joy’s illegitimate daughter until her death at 96. Mary Ann remained in an unmarked grave until 1902 when her brother, Henry Joy’s corpse was removed from St. George’s parish grounds and reburied in Clifton Street cemetery; they were both buried in the same plot.


Henry Joy used his profession as a businessman to travel across Ireland and establish branches of the United Irishmen. He was arrested by the authorities and sent to Kilmainham gaol in December 1796. Released on bail, Henry Joy returned north immediately to organise rebellion. After meetings with the leadership in Dublin, and a meeting in Antrim, Henry Joy was elected leader of the Antrim United Irishmen. Henry Joy proclaimed a call for arms, it was answered and on the following day, the 7th of June 1798 the rebels attacked Antrim town. While there were was initial success, the attack failed dafter English reinforcements came.


Henry Joy and other rebels evaded enemy capture and sought refuge in the mountains. Locals and May Anne especially helped feed, clothe and hide the rebels. Mary Anne was able to provide communications and money to the rebels. Henry Joy attempted to flee Ireland on a boat to America when he was recognised by other businessmen. When captured, Henry Joy was given a choice, either give up the names of other rebels or face death, he chose death and on the 17th of July he was hung in Corn Market, a place which was gifted to the city by his grandfather. Henry Joy McCracken was buried initially in St. George’s parish grounds; however in 1902 Francis Joseph Bigger reinterred Henry Joy’s corps and buried him in Clifton Street Cemetery in the same plot as his sister Mary Ann.


Henry Joy McCracken was a central figure in politics in Ireland, especially in the north, it was him and other leaders who swore an oath on Cavehill to ‘…never to desist in our efforts until we had subverted the authority of England over our country, and asserted our independence’.