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


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Birth of Margaret (May) Tennant, Promoter of Workers’ Rights & Public Health

Margaret Mary Edith (May) Tennant (née Abraham), promoter of workers’ rights and public health, is born April 5, 1869 at Rathgar, County Dublin, the only daughter of Dr. George Whitley Abraham, a lawyer in the civil service, and his wife, Margaret, daughter of Cornelius Curtain.

Abraham is educated at home by her father. Following his death in 1887, finding herself in financial straits, she moves to London, where she takes lodgings in Bloomsbury and works for Lady Emilia Dilke. Dilke is a social reformer and an advocate of trade unions for women, and as her secretary Margaret gains first-hand experience of the exploitative and unsanitary conditions afflicting women working in industry, a cause that she devotes the next decade to ameliorating. She is treasurer of the Womens’ Trade Union League, where she negotiates with employers on behalf of league members, organises meetings, and sends deputations to the House of Commons. From 1881 she coordinates a successful campaign to render regular government inspections of laundries mandatory (legislation is passed to this effect in 1908).

Abraham’s dedication to her work soon attracts wider recognition, and in 1891 she is appointed an assistant commissioner to undertake field inquiries for the Royal Labour Commission. In this capacity she travels incessantly throughout England and Ireland, gathering information and writing reports on often appalling working conditions. It is mainly because of this work that in 1893 the home secretary appoints her the first female factory inspector in England. Her new position marks a career shift from agitator to skillful and effective administrator. Traveling incessantly, the inspectors target illegal overtime, poor sanitation, and dangerous trades. In her first year alone she brings eighty prosecutions for illegal overtime.

In 1895 Abraham serves on a departmental committee at the Home Office on dangerous trades, where she meets Harold John Tennant, liberal MP for Berwickshire. The couple are married the following year, and have four sons and one daughter.

By 1896 Tennant is the superintending inspector of five more women inspectors, and her extensive experience in workers’ rights and public health is reflected in the book she publishes in that year, The law relating to factories and workshops, which runs to six editions. She finds it increasingly difficult to balance the pressures of her work with the demands of her private life, and she resigns her post soon after her marriage. However, she remains a committed social activist, serving as chairman of the Industrial Law Committee and on the Royal Commission on Divorce (1909). She is also an original member and treasurer of the Central Committee on Women’s Employment (1914–39).

During the World War I Tennant is chief adviser on women’s welfare to the Ministry of Munitions and director of the Women’s Department of the National Service Department. In recognition of her services the British government awards her the Companion of Honour in 1917, the same year that her eldest son, Harry, dies while on active service. Between the wars she turns her attention to women’s health, campaigning to improve maternal mortality and nursing care.

During the World War II, despite her failing health, Tennant works for the RAF Benevolent Fund. She is a member of the Central Consultative Council of Voluntary Organisations and the National Association for Prevention of Tuberculosis, chairman of the maternal health committee, governor of Bedford College, and a JP. She is also a director of the Mysore and Champion Reef Gold Mines, an enterprise of her husband’s family, and in this capacity travels to India and New Zealand in the mid-1920s.

The Tennants have homes in Edinglasserie, Aberdeenshire, and at 12 Victoria Square, London, as well as a restored country house, Great Maytham, at Rolvenden in Kent. She is a noted authority on gardening, and is director of The Gardener’s Chronicle (other interests included fishing, tennis, and gambling). After her husband’s death in 1935 she moves to a smaller house named Cornhill at Great Maytham, where she dies on July 11, 1946. Some of her correspondence is in the British Library, London.

(From: “Tennant (née Abraham), Margaret Mary Edith (May),” contributed by Sinéad Sturgeon and Georgina Clinton, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie)


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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 Margaret Anna Cusack, Founder of Poor Clares Convent

margaret-anne-cusackMargaret Anna Cusack, founder of the first Poor Clares convent in the west of Ireland and a talented writer who publishes on the issues of social injustice, is born to an aristocratic family of English origin in Coolock, County Dublin on May 6, 1829. Her writings and actions focus on advocacy of women’s rights including equal pay, equal opportunity for education, and legal reform to give women control of their own property.

Cusack is raised in the Anglican church tradition until her conversion to Catholicism in 1858. She enters the Irish Poor Clare Sisters and is among the first group of Sisters sent to found the convent at Kenmare, County Kerry.

During the next 21 years, Cusack, now known as Sister Francis Clare, dedicates herself to writing. Her writings include a wide range of concerns including lives of the saints, local histories, biographies, books and pamphlets on social issues and letters to the press. As the “Nun of Kenmare” she writes on behalf of the liberation of women and children who are victims of oppression. Income from her books and from her famine relief fund is distributed throughout Ireland. While doing all she can to feed the hungry, at the same time she campaigns vigorously against the abuse of absentee landlords, lack of education for the poor and against a whole system of laws which degrade and oppress a section of society.

To broaden the scope of her work Cusack moves to Knock, County Mayo in 1881 with the idea of expanding the ministry of the Poor Clares. She starts an industrial school for young women and evening classes for daytime land-workers. Several women are attracted by this work and in 1884 she decides to found her own community, The Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace.

Continued conflict in Knock with Church leaders leads Cusack to seek support in England. Under Cardinal Henry Edward Manning and Bishop Edward Bagshawe, she receives approbation for the new religious order from Pope Leo XIII and the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace is founded in January, 1884, in the Diocese of Nottingham, England.

Later, Cusack travels to the United States to continue her work with immigrant Irish women but is immediately rebuked by Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York. Just at that time, New Jersey stretches out a hand of welcome and encouragement as Bishop Winand Wigger of the Archdiocese of Newark invites her to establish homes for young Irish working women there. Within a few years, however, she claims that because of Archbishop Corrigan’s criticism of her among bishops throughout the United States, the work of her new community can not continue as long as she remains with them.

Physically exhausted, sick and disillusioned with a patriarchal Church, Cusack withdraws from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace and leaves behind the sisters she so dearly loved. She eventually returns to her friends in the Church of England. In later years, she keeps in contact with the Sisters and expresses a loving concern for them. She dies on June 5, 1899 and is buried in the cemetery reserved for the Church of England at Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England.

Cusack passes into obscurity for a long time until, as a result of the Second Vatican Council, religious orders are encouraged to review their roots and the intent of their founders. Since then there have been a number a studies on Cusack, such as Philomena McCarthy’s The Nun of Kenmare: The True Facts. With the rediscovery of the life and times of Cusack, she has been hailed as a feminist and a social reformer ahead of her time.