My new hero: Mary Ann McCracken

I was doing a little research into the history of slavery in Northern Ireland and have found some amazing gems and stories of wild inspiration.

As you may have read here before, Thomas McCabe was a big player in the anti-slavery movement in Belfast in the late 1700’s at a time when the wealthiest of men in the country were proposing to bring a slave ship company into the docks of Belfast.  He stood outside the Old Exchange at the foot of Donegall Street and tore up the prospectus for the proposed company calling out: “MAY GOD WITHER THE HAND OF ANY MAN WHO WILL SIGN THAT DOCUMENT’”..What a legend.

Reading on into the history of the movers and shakers of this time, I have had my mind blown by some of the parallels between then and now and am totally inspired by our rich abolitionist history.

Meet Mary Ann McCracken.

She’s well sweet isn’t she?  Look at her there, little head-kerchief all tucked up, sitting politely, hands folded neatly. 

Don’t be fooled people. 

She was a warrior.  A pioneer of social reform in Belfast in the late 17, early 1800’s. She fought for workers rights in local factories, started committees to stop the use of young boys for climbing chimneys to clean.  She petitioned for female equality; had a keen interest in seeing young women and girls educated and employed, and was very active in the Poorhouses.  I kinda love her.

‘Mary Ann held radical beliefs and these extended not just to the politics of the time, but to many social issues, such as poverty and slavery. Mary Ann led the Women’s Abolitionary committee in Belfast during the height of the anti slavery movement, wearing the famous Wedgewood brooches adorned with slave and slogan “Am I not a man and brother”, and continued to promote the cause long after the spirit of radicalism had died in Belfast. At the age of 88 she was to be seen in Belfast Docks, handing out anti-slavery leaflets to those boarding ships bound for the United States, where slavery was still practiced.’ (Read more on Wikipedia)

When I read this this morning, my heart beat really fast at the image of her, a withered and worn old lady in her last years, wedgewood brooch securely pinned to her coat, still active in to the end, holding onto the hope that things could change, that she could still have an impact. 

Mary Ann is laid to rest in Clifton Street Cemetery and there is a plaque in her honour at 62 Donegall Pass, where she lived for much of her later life. 

In her later days, she expressed her frustration in a letter to a friend:  “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 and not one man though several Quakers … and none to distribute papers to American emigrants but an old woman within 17 days of 89…”

Even 300 years ago there was a cry for more men to advocate on this issue here in Northern Ireland.  I could have cried reading this, hearing the echos of my own feelings, and in turn feeling less alone in my own frustration at not having more men involved with us in the journey, yet somehow also more inspired to keep going, to help continue the work that Mary Ann and her hardcore freedom-fighting girlfriends were pursuing. 

It made me even more excited of the thought that just yesterday, I sat in a cafe in the docks of Belfast with 8 other abolitionist women, plotting a trafficking awareness event to be hosted there for the ‘No More Traffik’ festival next month.  The very docks where Mary Ann once walked, hoping to make some difference. 

Our past and present are connected in deep and powerful ways and this gives me MASSIVE hope.  Amazing.

Now I’m off to find me one of those wedgewood brooches.


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