Mary Ann McCracken




The following sketch is a feeble attempt to recall some reminiscences of a life well worthy of a fuller record, whether on account of the excellence of her of whom it treats, who was truly a woman of whom it might be said “she bath done what she could,” or because of the stirring events with which she came into close contact. Miss Mary Ann MCracken was born in Belfast, 8th July, 1770. Her childhood was spent in a house in High Street nearly opposite Bridge Street. Her father, John MCracken, was captain and part owner of a vessel trading between Belfast and the West Indies, and belonged to a Scotch family which had settled in Ireland. His mother was a strict Presbyterian, stern and uncompromising. On Christmas Day she would sit conspicuously at her spinning-wheel as a protest against the keeping holy of such a time. Her granddaughter, Mary Ann MCracken, was wont to say she inspired more fear than love, and was enabled to exercise considerable influence, from the firm conviction, entertained by her children and dependants, that any threats she might utter would surely come to pass. Several illustrations were given of this supposed power of invoking judgment, one of which, as it concerns the family, may be related. In the year 1763 Captain MCracken had occasion to spend some months in Liverpool to superintend the building of a new vessel. He proposed to take his wife to reside with him during that time, and to leave their children, two in number, under their grandmothers care. The old lady, not relishing the charge, told her daughter-in-law “she wished she might get a scare before coming back.” And truly she did ; for her husband, not wishing her to return in the new and untried vessel, sent her home before him. The ship in which she was encountered rough weather, and was wrecked on the South Rock near Ballywalter. All on board were saved by getting into the boat, but somehow they were unable to bring the boat quite to dry land, and had to wade a long distance in shallow water. To add to Mrs. MCrackens fatigue, she carried in her pockets 200 guineas, which had been entrusted to her to bring over, so inconvenient at that time were the arrangements for transmitting money. - Mrs. MCrackens maiden name was Ann Joy. She was daughter of Francis Joy, who established the News-Letter 1st Sept., 1737 (the third newspaper published in Ireland). The Joys claimed to be of Huguenot descent, three named Joy or Joyeuse having come from France, one of whom settled in the North of Ireland. Mary M Cracken used to. remark that she could trace different nationalities among her ancestry. Her mothers grandfather was Mr. George Martin. “My grandmother Joy was daughter to George Martin. who was Sovereign of Belfast, and a Presbyterian. It was at that time the custom for the Sovereign and burgesses to march in procession to church, and for the Sovereign to hand Lady Donegall into her seat, from whence she had a view of the burgesses seat. Not -seeing the Sovereign there, and, on- inquiring as to the cause, finding that he was a Presbyterian, and that when he had, performed his official duty he went to his own place of worship, she gave -orders that in future none but members of the Established Church should be appointed burgesses; and at that time there were but eleven who could write their own names. This my mother had heard from her mother, and wished very much to see the book in which their names were recorded, and being acquainted with the Town Clerk, she asked him to get her a sight of the book, which he did, and I looked over her shoulder and saw it writtenHugh (his X mark) Doak, bricklayer, but neglected to ascertain the date. My grandmother Joys Christian name was Margaret; she was the youngest daughter of Mr. Martin, and was born in the year 1690. forty years before my mother. George Martin made a present to the town of a piece of ground on which the old Market House was built. He advanced £2,000 to pay the Kings troops (he was Sovereign when King William came to the throne), which was never repaid to him or any of his family.” Such was the story related by Mary MCracken as a family tradition, but there seems to be some confusion of dates and persons. According to Benns History of Belfast, the only Geo. Martin whose name appears in the list of Sovereigns held that post in 1649. He did not complete his year of office, as his house and goods were seized by the Parliamentary troops under Venables, and he himself forced to fly to Scotland, because he did not provide accommodation for the soldiers. This Geo. Martin was great-great-grandfather to Henry Joy, and would bear the same relationship to Mary MCracken He had eight sons. Hugh Doak was Sovereign in 1647. His signature was appended to various public documents, always in initials in printed character (the mode of making a mark frequently practised in those times), the fill name having been written by someone else, not always in the same handwriting. His will was signed in the same manner, and shows that he was possessed of considerable property, and that his daughter had been married to a member of one of the best families in the town. Such an incident as that concerning Lady Donegall and the Sovereign is by no means incredible, as both before and after the Revolution there were laws on the statute book which prohibited dissenters from holding any public offices except the most menial. These laws were not always enforced, but they might be if it suited any ones interest or humour to demand that they should. There might be reasons why, in Belfast, they should sometimes be allowed to fall into abeyance. Not only were the Presbyterians the most numerous and influential, but the office of Sovereign was one not always coveted in those unsettled times.
That there was mock uncertainty in the enforcement of Acts of Conformity would appear from a petition presented to the House of Commons, in 1707, against the return of an M.P. for Belfast. At his election only six burgesses could vote, the others not having received the Sacrament according to the Episcopal form. The six who voted were equally divided; the Sovereign, therefore, claimed to have the casting vote, which he gave in favour of his man. On the petition being presented, one of the opposers of the returned member failed to prove that he had taken the Sacramental test. The M.P. therefore retained his seat, having been returned by three out of twelve burgesses.. Mary M
Cracken was the youngest but one of a large family, of whom four sons and two daughters lived to grow up, and several attained to an advanced age. She was a delicate child, and thought to be ia consumption. Contrary to the modern practice, she was kept on low diet for the benefit of her health. However, the treatment does not appear to have been unsuccessful, for, as she said herself, “I have been a long time consuming away.” She must have been an active child, since she accomplished the feat of hopping three times across High Street without stopping. She was very fond of animalsa liking she retained to the end of her days.
She went through the usual school routine of the time. The division of subjects would seem strange to the scholar of the present day. There was a school for English, and another for writing. Girls were sent for a time to a sewing and again to a knitting school. In all branches of sewing she was proficient. There was no French teacher in Belfast in her school days, but her father, who had been in France as a prisoner of war, wished his children to learn the language, and engaged an old French weaver, who lived in the town, to come in the evenings to teach them. His English translations were somewhat peculiar,
fault was always “it be to be.” Mary would generally endeavour to get her lesson said first, that she might get a sleep with her head on the table.
After leaving school she had no idle time. Besides other household work, her share of shirt-making, stocking-darning (her mother knit the stockings), for four brothers, gave plenty of occupation.
When she was past her childhood, the family left High Street, and went to Rosemary Street. Two of the young men married, but remained for a time beneath the parental roof. Their house was known by some as Noah
s Ark, and numerous were the inmates, the inferior animals being largely represented.
In course of time Mary M
Cracken, always energetic, proposed to her sister that they should go into business. The project was carried out, and they commenced the business of muslin manufacturers. Mary was the moving spirit, and worked early and late. She has said that so closely confined was she at times, that, when going to the post office before breakfast, she has felt inclined to leap and dance with delight in the fresh morning air. Her chief object in trying to make money was that she might have some of her own to give away as she wished. She was of a very sanguine temperament and did not spare herself, and to some extent she succeeded in her object ; butperhaps the times were against hershe had much struggling and anxiety, and the ultimate result was disappointing.Before proceeding further, it may be well to take a glance at the state of the country and the condition of the people. Anarchy had reigned in Ireland for centuries, and even when the times became more settled, the poverty in the rural districts was extreme. Still the mass of the people, ignorant of modern improvements, and prejudiced against innovations, were content to rub along in the old way, particularly those of them who happened to live on the estate of a free-handed resident landlord, who would keep about hint an unlimited number of hangers-on, paying little money (for of that he had small share himself), but easygoing in his exactions of service, and dispensing hospitality as lavishly in the kitchen as in the dining-room. But a very little disturbance of the regular order of thingssuch as a less abundant harvest, a bad potato crop, or anything which reduced ever so slightly the scanty supply of necessariesbrought them to actual want, and anyone who demanded money by legal right, be he tithe collector, agent of non-resident landlord, excise or custom-house officerany messenger of the lawwas regarded as a natural enemy to be thwarted and resisted. The religious element mingled largely with all agrarian troubles, for it so happened that those who were opposed in interests were usually of different creeds. It has ever been the case that religious wars have produced an intensity of bitterness, estrangement, and distrust beyond any others, and Ireland has been no exception to this rule. It would be tedious even to name the various parties ; who banded themselves together to resist the law or oppose each other. Their numbers were drawn from the peasantry, or the smaller farmers, who were very little better. Let it suffice to mention a few of the Northern societies—”Oak-Boys” and “Hearts of Steel” between 1762 and 1770; then there were the “Peep-of-Day Boys,” from whom were developed the modern Orangemen; and the “Defenders,” who were Catholics. The “Hearts of Steel” came into connection with Belfast on the occasion of a riot in 1770, under the following circumstances Some of Lord Donegalls leases having fallen simultaneously, he asked an increased rent on renewing them. This was by no means unreasonable, because the land had been originally let at a very low rate in the beginning of the century, just after a long period of troubled times; however, he also desired renewal fines. Some of the prosperous merchants of Belfast were ready to pay larger fines than the tenants had ready cash for, and took some of the farms over the tenants heads. This was done simply as a speculation for the purpose of sub-letting them, and aroused great indignation in the country. Greatly exaggerated reports were circulated as to the sums Lord Donegall had obtained. Some cattle belonging to a Belfast merchant who had taken land at Ballyclare were maimed, and a farmer from Templepatrick was arrested as a participator in the outrage, and taken to Belfast barracks for security. The “Hearts of Steel” in the neighbourhood, having assembled, called on the people to release the prisoner, and a crowd marched to Belfast. Being unable to attain their object, they proceeded to the house of another offender, a leading merchant, which they set on fire. They returned to the barracks, but the soldiers fired, and three men were killed. The inhabitants feared the destruction of the town. Negotiations were opened, and eventually the prisoner was released. While a sort of listless discontent, which on provocation was ever ready to break out into a flame, pervaded the agrarian population, the mercantile portion of the community had likewise their grievances some of the more important may he noticed.
Previous to the Revolution there had been considerable exportation of wool and woollen manufactures, but in the reign of William III. a law was passed which altogether destroyed the trade. The exportation of woollen goods was prohibited altogether, and only wool might be sent to- England. Thus a poor country was further impoverished, and a stimulus given to smuggling
a form of lawlessness already too much practised. In many parts of the island there were facilities for carrying on a contraband tradea rugged coast, bad roads, and a scanty population, who sympathised with the evasion of laws which were imposed by the stronger country for their own interest with high-handed power. In return for Irish goods, wine and brandy were brought from the Continent. Gentlemen on whose property the landing was effected had their cellars filled at a trifling expense. This ministered to the habits of lavish hospitality which helped to ruin so many families, while it gained for them popularity among their own class, and the devotion of their numerous dependants. But smuggling was looked upon as a very venial offence indeed, and was commonly practised. Mary MCracken related, as a proof of her fathers strict integrity, that he would not smuggle, nor allow his sailors to do so on his behalf, as he considered a custom-house


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