Why we should aim to follow the example set by social activist Mary Ann McCracken - Anne Hailes

Anne Hailes explains why kindness and acknowledging others is high on the agenda

Anne Hailes

Anne Hailes

Anne is Northern Ireland's first lady of journalism, having worked in the media since she joined Ulster Television when she was 17. Her columns have been entertaining and informing Irish News readers for 25 years.

unveiling of two bronze statues at Belfast City Hall
Carol Moore as Mary Ann McCracken at the unveiling of a statue to the 19th century Belfast trailblazer at the City Hall. A statue of Winifred Carney was also unveiled (Mal McCann)

Well, we seem to have moved on from mindfulness to kindness and what better move could there be? Nothing is new, all these thoughtful fashions we go through are most often based on teachings from thousands of years ago, including the Buddhist philosophy.

This for instance - loving kindness - part of a Buddhist discourse, Metta Sutta: “Let none deceive another nor despise any person whatever in any place; in anger or ill will let them not wish any suffering to each other.

“Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life, even so, let him cultivate a boundless heart towards all beings. Let her thoughts of boundless loving kindness pervade the whole world: above, below and across, without obstruction, without any hatred, without any enmity.”

unveiling of two bronze statues at Belfast City Hall
Charlotte McCurry dressed as suffragist and trade unionist Winifred Carney at the unveiling of two bronze statues at Belfast City Hall (Mal McCann)

If only we could live up to this... I also think the Just For Today programme is a very special challenge to everyday life - it was always in our house when I was growing up and was never far from my father as it helped him through his struggle with alcoholism.

I think of one of the challenges: “Just for today I will do somebody a good turn and not get found out; if anyone knows of it, it will not count.”


I’m going to blow a lady’s cover. In Ballycastle recently she did me a tremendous good turn and didn’t wait for a thank you.

I had a meeting in the hotel on the hill but turned left instead of right and found myself on the way to Bushmills. I stopped beside a lady who was getting into her car loaded down with messages.

I asked the way to the Salthouse Hotel. “Oh you’re going in the wrong direction, turn round and go back. Do you know the tennis courts?”

“No,” I said. “Right,” she said, “You turn round and I’ll turn my car and you follow me.”

I am sure she was not going my direction at all but she led me for two miles and deposited me at the front door of the hotel; she lowered her window and waved and, with a smile, went on her way.

There wasn’t even a chance to say thank you. Now I consider that a real kindness and I suspect she didn’t tell anyone.


There’s another powerful woman being remembered at the moment. A statue to Mary Ann McCracken was unveiled on Friday at Belfast City Hall. She was a woman of stature all right - brave, resourceful and kind.

Health and housing, bringing destitute mothers and their babies to the Charitable Society in Clifton House to give them shelter and education, her mantra was it’s ‘better to wear out than to rust out’ and she didn’t wear out until 1866 when she died aged 96.

It’s interesting that at a time when two women from different walks of life, Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly, stand side by side in Stormont that Mary Ann McCracken is standing side by side with Winifred Carney

Her life story is fascinating, doing good for everyone, kindness was in every bone in her body - a brave campaigner for human rights.

She worked to abolish the use of climbing boys controlled by chimney sweeps, she championed prison reform and was an early and active suffragette. She seemed to have a hand in every walk of life in the city and she was brave.

unveiling of two bronze statues at Belfast City Hall
Bunscoil Mhic Reachtain pupils Ava Harmon, Maci Lavery, Ali Jo Valliday and Chuisle Rose McCormick at the unveiling of statues of two historic women activists, anti-slavery campaigner Mary Ann McCracken and suffragist and trade unionist Winifred Carney (Mal McCann)

Can you imagine this Protestant gentlewoman packing a bag full of literature condemning slavery and marching down to the docks to hand them out on behalf of the Belfast Women’s anti slavery league, ignoring opposition and ridicule to dedicate her life to the campaign?

Even at 90 she walked the docks talking to emigrants embarking for the slave-owning United States. Slavery brought huge wealth to Belfast businessmen from sugar estates in the West Indies and rum from the Caribbean, there was even an attempt to establish a slave trading company in the city by some members of the board of the Charitable Society who were benefitting from the trade. This disgusted Mary Ann to the extent she refused to eat anything containing sugar.

Mary Ann McCracken. Picture by Mal McCann.
Mary Ann McCracken has made a lasting impact on Belfast and beyond

It’s interesting that at a time when two women from different walks of life, Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly, stand side by side in Stormont that Mary Ann is standing side by side with Bangor-born Winifred Carney, a suffragist, trade unionist and Irish independence activist.

Raised on the Falls Road she was in charge of the women’s section of the Irish Textile Workers’ Union before becoming friend and personal secretary to James Connolly, the republican, socialist and trade unionist.

(left – right) Sinn Fein MLA Aisling Reilly, First Minister Michelle O’Neill, deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly and DUP MLA Gordon Lyons speak to the media before the UEFA Women’s Nations League Semi Final 2nd leg match at Windsor Park, Belfast
Will First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly find inspiration in Winifred Carney and Mary Ann McCracken? (Liam McBurney/PA)

She later joined the women’s auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers and stood for parliament as a Sinn Féin candidate for Belfast Victoria in the 1918 general election.

Kindness and acknowledging others is high on the agenda right now and with this new wind of change sweeping through our society, may it sweep away fears and resentment and bring a spring of optimism.