Life

Lynette Fay: How would Mary Ann McCracken react to plans for a statue of her?

Mary Ann McCracken might respond to the proposal to erect a statue of her in Belfast just as Dolly Parton responded to the idea of being immortalised in bronze in Nashville and suggest that the money be spent in a way that would benefit the less fortunate

Lynette Fay – Mary Ann McCracken Square, Street or Bridge – all sound good to me. Picture by Press Eye/Darren Kidd
Lynette Fay

WHAT would Mary Ann McCracken make of all this fuss? I would hazard a guess that she might feel embarrassed to be the subject of much debate, and disappointed that some of the causes she fought so hard to eradicate from society still have as prominent a place in our everyday lives as they did when she was alive, 200 years ago.

She was a trailblazing woman in many ways – well educated and ahead of her time in terms of her business acumen. While successful in business, and from a privileged background, she constantly gave back to society and strove to help the impoverished and disenfranchised.

She was also an abolitionist. I think the image of Mary Ann as an octogenarian handing out anti-slavery leaflets at Belfast port to a generation of Irish emigrants was a selfless act which captures the spirit and the essence of the incredible woman she was.

I sense that it has taken the international interest in Frederick Douglass and his trip to Ireland in 1845 for Mary Ann's contribution to history to be truly valued and celebrated. Whatever the reason for the latest interest in her life, it is very positive that Belfast City Council is seriously considering how Mary Ann McCracken and her achievements should be honoured.

How comfortable would Mary Ann herself be with the idea of a substantial amount of money being spent on a statue in her honour? I think that if she were alive, she might respond to this proposal just as Dolly Parton responded to the idea of being immortalised in bronze in her native Nashville. She might decline the very flattering offer and suggest that the money be spent in a way that would benefit the less fortunate – especially in a city experiencing child poverty, increased dependency on food banks and a housing crisis during a global pandemic.

While statues certainly give historical figures prominence and recognise their achievements (although in the case of some, the achievements are questionable), how many of us can name the statues of Belfast, of any town? One or two names, perhaps.

We would struggle beyond that – unless the statues were erected within living memory.

Mary Ann McCracken Square, Street or Bridge – all sound good to me. I like the idea of naming a place after Mary Ann, placing her in the daily city commute.

Writing women into history and remembering the often subtle, impressive role played by women in society will take more than the erection of a couple of statues. We need to talk about them, understand what they did. If their achievements aren't being discussed in classrooms from an early age, we need to ask why not?

The likes of feminist Dr Elizabeth Bell, Irish traditional music collector Honoria Galwey, early 20th century boxing promoter Clara ‘Ma' Copely, pilot Lady Mary Heath from Limerick, the first person to fly the length of Africa, Margaret Elizabeth Noble, known as Sister Nevidita who travelled from Tyrone to India in the early 20th century and dedicated her life to educating girls who were deprived of basic education. Women from all walks of life, breeds and creeds have done remarkable things, made significant achievements, contributed to the lives we lead today, yet their stories and their names are not in the mainstream.

HerStory.ie is a wonderful idea. The website provides a biography of more than a thousand Irish women who have led remarkable lives. As part of this work, for the past few years, each St Brigid's Day, images of some of these women have adorned the exterior of well-known buildings the length and breadth of Ireland in celebration of their lives and their stories.

This amnesia regarding the contribution of women to history is not just an Irish or British problem, it is a global problem, and it is a problem that we can all address.

We don't have to look too far to seek out the phenomenal women in life. Very often the most remarkable are in our everyday lives, walking among us, who would never dream of talking about their lives, never mind their accomplishments.

Talk to your granny, your mother, your aunt, your neighbour this week. Ask them about their lives. Ordinary conversation might just reveal something quite extraordinary.

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