Northern Ireland

John Gray: In our own era of a grotesque gap between rich and poor Mary Ann and Winifred should still lend inspiration

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. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

March 8 March was a red letter day for Belfast’s City Hall.

Now after more than 100 years the statues of two formidable women, Mary Ann McCracken and Winifred Carney have been unveiled in front of the City Hall and on the eve of International Women’s Day.

Finally a breach has been made in the male panoply of forgotten industrialists and empire builders which have so long dominated that important space.

Both Mary Ann and Winifred ask important contemporary questions of us.

Winifred is the less well known of the two and comes with impeccable republican credentials.

After all she was at James Connolly’s side in the GPO during the 1916 rising.

What we too easily forget was her role working for the Irish Textile Workers Union and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in the struggle to improve the conditions of Belfast’s underclass or that she later rebelled against the social conservatism of republicanism in the inter war years.

She along with her husband, George, a former UVF member and Orangeman, espoused Labour and then socialist politics in the continued struggle to improve conditions for the poor at the height of the depression.

unveiling of two bronze statues at Belfast City Hall
Carol Moore as Mary Ann McCracken at the unveiling of two bronze statues at Belfast City Hall. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

Mary Ann is on the face of it an easier case. Everybody’s beloved reformer. Yes, she was the sister of Henry Joy McCracken, executed for his role as the leader of the United Irish rebellion in Co Antrim in 1798. Surely she cannot be blamed for that.

What that convenient narrative ignores is that she was a determined revolutionary.

That was very evident when she wrote to her brother then in Kilmainham Jail in March 1797 urging that ‘patriots’ such as he must be ready to ‘meet their fate equally unappalled, whether it be on the scaffold or in the field…’

If anything she thought the United Irishmen were too conservative in not allowing women to join the main societies. That was a pioneering stance.

John Gray
John Gray

The comforting narrative continues up to 1803 and Robert Emmett’s disastrous attempt at a rebellion. How do you explain Mary Ann’s continued involvement and notably in her desperate efforts to save Thomas Russell, the northern general in the enterprise? Simple, she was in love with Russell and indeed hankered after marriage.

It’s a case made in defiance of the facts. In 1799 Mary Ann wrote to a Dublin cousin; ‘There has always been an union between England and this country, as there is between husband and wife by which the former has the right to oppress the latter.’ Evidently she opposed the Act of Union and had no desire to get married.

What is important, and a potent message for some today, is that Mary Ann finally realised after 1803 that the time for armed struggle was over.

What then to do? Push the cause of reform to its limits. It was no easy task in an increasingly conservative town. She is perhaps best remembered for her opposition to slavery. As late as 1859 on the eve of her 89th birthday she was handing out leaflets to emigrants leaving for the United States and reflected ruefully that ‘Belfast, once so celebrated for its love of liberty, is now so sunk in the love of filthy lucre that there are but 16 or 17 female anti-slavery advocates.’

Much earlier she had served as secretary to the Women’s Committee at the Poor House. There in defiance of the all male senior committee she established the provision of nursery education – what we would call Sure Start today.

Her long standing commitment to education for the poorest was best reflected in her role in the establishment of the Ragged School in 1847.

This catered for destitute children on a non-sectarian basis. Children were given breakfast and lunch on the basis that they could not learn while starving. It was a very different enterprise to that promoted by the main Protestant churches who fed school children with a view to conversion.

With the onset of the Irish famine in 1846 the same determinedly non-sectarian approach was involved in the Belfast Ladies Association for the Relief of Irish Destitution.

In our own era of a grotesque gap between rich and poor and of proliferating food banks Mary Ann and Winifred should still lend inspiration. In our time when immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers face threats on the ground here and from the government we should remember Mary Ann’s guiding principle – the humanity of all. Both should lend strength to new generations willing to fight for a better society however daunting the task.

:: John Gray is chair of Reclaim the Enlightenment and author of Mary Ann McCracken 1770-1866 Feminist, Revolutionary and Reformer (Reclaim the Enlightenment, 2020).