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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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Death of Isabella Tod, Women’s Rights Activist

Isabella Maria Susan Tod, Irish women’s rights activist, dies at her home at 71 Botanic Avenue in Belfast on December 8, 1896. She is a formidable lady who uses her political skills to great advantage in order to further many causes.

Tod is born on May 18, 1836 in Edinburgh into a well known Irish Presbyterian family, her uncle being the Rev. Hope Masterton Waddell, one of the earliest Irish Presbyterian missionaries who served with the Scottish Missionary Society in Jamaica and whose great grandfather is the Rev. Charles Masterton, one of the most distinguished minsters of the General Synod of Ulster who ministers at Connor and Rosemary Street, Belfast. She is very proud of her Presbyterian heritage and of her Scottish ancestry.

The daughter of James Banks Tod, an Edinburgh merchant, Tod spends her early years in Edinburgh. She is educated at home by her mother, Maria Isabella Waddell, who comes from County Monaghan. The family moves to Belfast in the 1850s following the death of her father. She and her mother join Elmwood Presbyterian Church. Her Presbyterian background no doubt contributes to her radical views on social issues and women’s rights. She earns her living from writing and journalism, contributing, for example, to the Dublin University Magazine, an independent literary, cultural and political magazine, and to the Banner of Ulster, a Presbyterian newspaper.

Tod becomes one of the leading pioneers in the fight to improve the position of women. She is the only woman called to give evidence to a Select Committee of Enquiry on the reform of the married women’s property law in 1868 and serves on the executive of the Married Women’s Property Committee in London from 1873 to 1874. She successfully campaigns for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869 which enacted that a woman suspected of being a prostitute could be arrested and forced to undergo medical examination for venereal disease. She sees this legislation as an infringement of a woman’s civil liberties.

Tod is also a strong supporter of the temperance movement and, along with her friend Margaret Byers, forms the Belfast Women’s Temperance Association in 1874. Perhaps she is best known for her tireless campaign to extend the educational provision for middle-class women. For example, in 1878 she organises a delegation to London to put pressure on the Government to include girls in the Intermediate Education Act of 1878. The Ladies’ Collegiate School in Belfast, Alexandra College in Dublin and the Belfast Ladies Institute owe their existence largely to her. She writes a paper entitled “An Advanced Education for Girls in the Upper and Middle Classes” which is presented in 1867 at a meeting of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, and is among the pamphlets held in the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland library.

Tod is also an active campaigner for women’s right to vote, embarking on her first campaign in 1872 and addressing meetings in Belfast, Carrickfergus, Coleraine and Londonderry. Following a meeting in Dublin a suffrage committee is established that later becomes the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Society and in 1873 she forms the North of Ireland Women’s Suffrage Society. She extends her meetings to London, Glasgow and Edinburgh and is a frequent visitor to London to lobby politicians during the parliamentary session.

Tod is very much a staunch opponent of Home Rule, establishing a branch of the London-based Women’s Liberal Federation in Belfast and the Liberal Women’s Unionist Association. She sees unionism as the way to progress. “I knew that all the social work in which I had taken so prominent a part for 20 years was in danger and most of it could not exist a day under a petty legislature of the character which would be inevitable,” she says. “What we dread is the complete dislocation of all society, especially in regard to commercial affairs and organised freedom of action.”

Tod suffers from ill-health in her later days and dies in Belfast of pulmonary illness on December 8, 1896. She is buried in Balmoral Cemetery in South Belfast.