The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken, 1770–1866 ~ A Belfast Panorama


Mary McNeill

Substantially revised new edition of the classic biography of Belfast abolitionist and social reformer, Mary Ann McCracken.


February 2023


Mary Ann McCracken was an abolitionist, a social reformer and an activist who fought for the rights of women and championed Belfast’s poor throughout a long life that encompassed the most turbulent years of Irish history. Her legacy, however, is overshadowed by that of her brother, the executed United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken, despite outliving him by sixty-eight years.

Through the Poor House Ladies Committee, she helped to educate children, allowing them to secure apprenticeships that would provide them with livelihoods. She was President of the Ladies Industrial School, and she campaigned to abolish the use of climbing boys in chimney sweeping. Mary Ann was deeply involved in early women’s suffrage campaigns and prison reform schemes, and she was a life-long abolitionist. In her late eighties, McCracken could still be found on the docks, handing out anti-slavery leaflets to emigrants embarking for the United States.

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

Both Mary Ann McCracken and her biographer, Mary McNeill, were tireless activists for children and the disadvantaged throughout their respective lives.

Table of Contents

New Foreword
New Introduction
Original Foreword
Original Introduction

  1. Francis Joy, 1697–1790
  2. Henry and Robert Joy, 1720–1785
  3. Captain and Mrs McCracken, 1745–1770
  4. Childhood and Adolescence, 1770–1790
  5. The United Irishmen, 1783–1791
  6. The Revival of Irish Music, 1792
  7. Reform or Revolution, 1791–1795
  8. Kilmainham. Part I, 1795–
  9. Kilmainham. Part II, –1797
  10. Antrim, 1798
  11. Thomas Russell, 1798–1803
  12. Interlude, 1803–1810
  13. The Turning Point, 1810–1827
  14. The Ladies Committee, 1827–1851
  15. The Last Years, 1851–1866

Family Tree of the Joy and McCracken Families

About the Author

Mary Alice McNeill (1897-1984) was born in Belfast and educated in Oxford and Dublin. Returning to Belfast in the mid-1920s, she became a member of the Arellian Association, which established a nursery school for the city’s poor children in 1928 – nearly 100 years after Mary Ann McCracken established a nursery school in the Poor House. McNeill dedicated her life to voluntary projects and served on the Board of the Belfast Charitable Society from 1945 to 1964. She published her first historical biography, The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken, in 1960. Having declined an M.B.E. in 1953, McNeill went on to accept an Honorary M.A. from Queen’s University Belfast in 1961. She published two further biographies: Little Tom Drennan (1962) and Vere Foster (1971).

Praise for The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken

‘The beauty of Mary McNeill’s treatment of this extraordinary woman is that she allows her to speak for herself through her extensive correspondence.’
Brian Maye, The Irish Times

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