Heroes of Ulster

There once was a brother and sister who lived in Belfast at the end of the eighteenth centry– Henry Joy and Mary Anne McCracken. They were members of an entrepreneurial family; their grandfather Francis Joy had founded the Belfast News-Letter still published to this day. They were both involved in the textile industry that brought Belfast its wealth. Henry had a cotton mill and Mary Anne employed a number of handloom weavers working at home.

They were also both involved in the political radicalism of their day. Henry was one of the founders of the United Irishmen, a group that brought together Catholics and Protestants in common cause against the English. Of the mainly Presbyterian founders, only McCracken had friends among the Irish working class.

When the British declared war on France, they clamped down on the radical Irish dissent. In 1798, the Irish rose in rebellion. Among the Presbyterian elite of Ulster, Henry Joy MacCracken alone took up arms and led an army against the British. Doomed to failure, he was arrested, tried for treason and sentenced to be hanged.

His sister Mary Anne stood by him. She brought a doctor to his public hanging in the hope he might be revived, but it was not to be. After his death, she raised his illegitimate daughter.

Mary Anne lived to the age of 94. She remained a staunch activist to the end of her days. Just weeks before she died in 1866, she was seen at the docks in Belfast passing out anti-slavery tracts.

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