seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Mary Ann McCracken, Humanitarian & Social Reformer

Mary Ann McCracken, Irish businesswoman, radical humanitarian, supporter of the Society of United Irishmen and a noted social reformer, is born in Belfast on July 8, 1770.

McCracken’s father is Captain John McCracken, a Presbyterian of Scottish descent and a prominent shipowner. Her mother, Ann Joy, comes from a French Protestant Huguenot family, which made its money in the linen trade and founded the Belfast News Letter. Her liberal and far-sighted parents send her to David Manson‘s progressive co-educational school, where ‘young ladies’ received the same education as the boys. She excels at mathematics.

As an adult, McCracken manages a successful muslin business in Belfast, which pioneers the production of patterned and checked muslin. She runs the business together with her sister, and has at least one agent in Dublin.

McCracken is the sister of Henry Joy McCracken, one of the founding members of the Society of United Irishmen. In the aftermath of her brother’s defeat at the Battle of Antrim on June 7, 1798 she helps Henry Joy and some colleagues hide in the hills of south Antrim, bringing them clothes and money. She is arranging for a ship to take him to the United States when he is recognised by three Carrickfergus soldiers and arrested there on July 7, 1798.

McCracken shares her brother’s interest in reviving the oral-music tradition of Ireland, and is a founding member of the Belfast Harp Society (1808–1813). She supports Edward Bunting in his collecting of traditional music, introducing him to people who can help, acting as his unofficial secretary and contributes anonymously to the second volume of his work The Ancient Music of Ireland in 1809. Bunting lives with the McCrackens for thirty-five years, before moving to Dublin 1819 and thereafter corresponds regularly with McCracken.

McCracken, like her brother, holds radical beliefs and these extend not just to the politics of the time, but to many social issues, such as poverty and slavery. She is dedicated to the poor of Belfast and from her earliest childhood she works to raise funds and provide clothes for the children of the Belfast Poorhouse, now known as Clifton House, Belfast. Following a visit from Elizabeth Fry she forms the Ladies Committee of the Belfast Charitable Society and is chair from 1832–1855. Thanks to the efforts of the committee a school, and later a nursery, is set up to educate the orphans of Belfast. She takes particular pains to find a suitable teacher, displaying a high level of dedication and compassion for her cause. The committee also inspects the homes where children of the poorhouse are apprenticed out.

McCracken leads the Women’s Abolitionary Ccmmittee in Belfast during the height of the anti-slavery movement and continues to promote the cause long after the spirit of radicalism had died in Belfast. By the 1850s, the liberality of the 1790s had largely evaporated in the aftermath of the failure of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and the subsequent executions or exile of the leading protagonists.

At the age of 88, McCracken is to be seen at the Belfast docks, handing out anti-slavery leaflets to those boarding ships bound for the United States, where slavery is still practised. Her continued campaign long after the deaths of her counterparts serves to demonstrate the strength of radicalism that exists in certain circles of Belfast society at the close of the eighteenth century.

After her brother’s execution in Belfast, McCracken takes over the care of his illegitimate daughter, Maria, which is not universally accepted in her wider family. She lives with Maria and her family until her death at the age of 96 on July 26, 1866. She is buried in grave number 35 at Clifton Street Cemetery.

A blue plaque has been placed by the Ulster History Circle on the house at 62 Donegall Pass, Belfast, where McCracken lived for much of her later life.


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Birth of Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu, Journalist & Novelist

joseph-sheridan-le-fanuJoseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu, journalist, novelist, and short story writer, often called the father of the modern ghost story, is born in Dublin on August 28, 1814. He is the leading ghost story writer of the nineteenth century and is central to the development of the genre in the Victorian era. His best known works include Uncle Silas (1864), a suspense story, and The House by the Churchyard (1863), a murder mystery. His vampire story Carmilla, which influences Bram Stoker’s Dracula, has been filmed several times.

Le Fanu is born at 45 Lower Dominick Street in Dublin to Thomas Philip Le Fanu and Emma Lucretia Dobbin, a literary family of Huguenot, Irish, and English descent. Within a year of his birth the family moves to the Royal Hibernian Military School in Phoenix Park where his father, a Church of Ireland clergyman, is appointed to the chaplaincy of the establishment.

In 1826, the family moves to Abington, County Limerick, where Le Fanu’s father takes up his second rectorship. Le Fanu uses his father’s library to educate himself and by the age of fifteen he was writing poetry.

The disorders of the Tithe War (1831–1836) affect the region in 1832 and the following year the family temporarily moves back to Dublin, where Le Fanu works on a Government commission. Although Thomas Le Fanu tries to live as though he is well-off, the family is in constant financial difficulty. At his death, Thomas has almost nothing to leave to his sons and the family has to sell his library to pay off some of his debts.

Le Fanu studies law at Trinity College, Dublin, where he is elected Auditor of the College Historical Society. He is called to the bar in 1839, but never practices and soon abandons law for journalism. In 1838 he begins contributing stories to the Dublin University Magazine, including his first ghost story, The Ghost and the Bone-Setter (1838). He becomes owner of several newspapers from 1840, including the Dublin Evening Mail and the Warder.

In 1847, Le Fanu supports John Mitchel and Thomas Francis Meagher in their campaign against the indifference of the government to the Irish Famine. Others involved in the campaign include Samuel Ferguson and Isaac Butt. Butt writes a forty-page analysis of the national disaster for the Dublin University Magazine in 1847. Le Fanu’s support costs him the nomination as Tory Member of Parliament (MP) for County Carlow in 1852.

In 1856 the family moves from Warrington Place to the house of his wife Susanna’s parents at 18 Merrion Square. His personal life becomes difficult at this time, as his wife suffers from increasing neurotic symptoms. She suffers from anxiety after the deaths of several close relatives, including her father two years previous. In April 1858, Susanna suffers a “hysterical attack” and dies the following day. She is buried in the Bennett family vault in Mount Jerome Cemetery beside her father and brothers. He does not write any fiction from this point until the death of his mother in 1861.

He becomes the editor and proprietor of the Dublin University Magazine in 1861 and begins to take advantage of double publication, first serializing in the Dublin University Magazine, then revising for the English market. He publishes both The House by the Churchyard and Wylder’s Hand in this manner. After lukewarm reviews of The House by the Churchyard, which is set in the Phoenix Park area of Dublin, Le Fanu signs a contract with Richard Bentley, his London publisher, which specifies that future novels be stories “of an English subject and of modern times,” a step Bentley thinks necessary for Le Fanu to satisfy the English audience. Le Fanu succeeds in this aim in 1864, with the publication of Uncle Silas, which is set in Derbyshire. In his very last short stories, however, Le Fanu returns to Irish folklore as an inspiration and encourages his friend Patrick Kennedy to contribute folklore to the Dublin University Magazine.

Le Fanu dies in his native Dublin on February 7, 1873, at the age of 58. Today there is a road and a park in Ballyfermot, near his childhood home in south-west Dublin, named after him.