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18 December 1997 Edition

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Two hundred years of Irish republicanism

1798 - 1998

Two hundred years of Irish republicanism

THE 1798 rebellion was one of the defining moments in modern Irish history.

Its legacy and that of the people who led it in the United Irishmen's movement transformed the political landscape of this country and has informed all political developments since.

Two hundred years later, every nationalist party finds it necessary to at least make reference to the thinking and ideals of those leaders in their party political programmes. Indeed, such was the impact of the United Irishmen that many Unionists even find the need to claim ownership of the Unitedmen.

But despite all the rhetoric, the United Irishmen were inspired by the French Revolution and were fundamentally republican in outlook, seeking to break the connection with England as a means to resolve Ireland's ills.

Though Ireland had its own parliament in Dublin at the time, it was not democratic but was controlled by the landed aristocracy and failed to address underlying sectarian inequalities in society. Its powers were emasculated by London, giving it effectively no control of economic matters.

Believing the resolution of these problems impossible within the context of the link with England, Theobald Wolfe Tone and others resolved to break that connection. Founding the United Irishmen's movement they believed that to establish Irish independence it was essential to unite Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters under the common name of Irishmen. Their efforts culminated in the Rising of 1798.

The bicentenary of the rising will be commemorated next year and the contribution. of these visionaries to Ireland acknowledged. There will be lectures, debates and discussions bringing together academics, observers and political commentators, many of whom will come from the revisionist school of historians who have tried to rewrite history, legitimising England's involvement in Ireland. Many of them will present interpretations of the period which have more to do with attacking present day republicans than with understanding events of the.time.

It is important that modern republicans play a part in the commemorations and take an active role in the debates that will surround them. The legacy of the period is the common heritage of all Irish people regardless of party, but such an important anniversary cannot be allowed to pass without the essential anti-sectarian message of the United Irishmen being remembered.


During 1998 An Phoblacht will carry comprehensive coverage of the many events organised to commemorate the 1798 rebellion together with regular features on its history in different areas.

During the year we will also analyse the political legacy left by the formation of Irish republicanism two hundred years ago and its relevance today for modern Irish politics.

Follow the history, the politics and the debate each week by bookmarking An Phoblacht.


United Irish feminist and social reformer

Ruth Taillon chronicles the life of Mary Ann McCracken whose political commitment began in the early days of the United Irish movement

The life of Mary Ann McCracken, democrat and social reformer, has been overshadowed by the life of her more famous brother, Henry Joy, although she outlived him by 68 years and was politically active until just a few years before her death at the age of 96.

Mary Ann was born in 1770, at a time when Belfast, like the rest of the country, was experiencing enormous industrial disruption and social change. Irish industry was being systematically destroyed by economic policies designed to protect the interests of English and Scottish industrialists. Mary Ann's family, however, were relatively prosperous and by the time of her birth well established and prominent in Belfast social and commercial life. Mary Ann's liberal and far-sighted parents sent her to David Masson's progressive co-educational school, where `young ladies' received the same education as the boys: Mary Ann excelled at mathematics.

As a young woman - in her early twenties - Mary Ann and her sister Margaret started a small muslin business. They employed a number of handloom weavers working at home. Mary Ann applied her arithmetic skills as book-keeper to the business.

The independent parliament in Dublin - dominated by the landed gentry - was a great disappointment to the Belfast mercantile community. The McCrackens were very much involved in the agitation for political reform. In 1791, Mary Ann's brother Henry Joy, with Thomas Russell, Samuel Neilson and Wolfe Tone, established the first Society of United Irishmen. Mary Ann was a confidante of her brother and his comrades, and shared both their ideas and their work. On 10 October, 1796, her brother Henry Joy was arrested.

Mary Ann's political commitment and acumen are demonstrated in her letters to Henry Joy in Kilmainham Jail. They show that she was keenly aware of the contemporary feminist thinkers, had assimilated them into her own views about the democratic movement, and that she had no hesitation about being forthright in those views. She referred in one letter to a mutual friend being sworn into the United Irishmen, and commented, ``I hope his sisters will soon follow so good an example...'' Her letters are full of political commentary, and news of raids, arrests and arms seizures which show that she was very much involved in the events around her. The letters demonstrate an advanced and well developed feminist consciousness. She talks of her ``great curiosity'' to visit some female societies of the United Irish movement, but objects to the fact that they are for women only:

`` there can be no other reason for having them separate but keeping women in the dark and certainly it is equally ungenerous and uncandid to make tools of them without confiding in them. I wish to know if they have any rational ideas of liberty and equality for themselves or whether they are contented with their present abject and dependent situation, degraded by custom and education beneath the rank in society in which they were originally placed; for if we suppose woman was created for a companion in man she must of course be his equal in understanding...

``Is it not almost time for the clouds of error and prejudice to disperse and that the female part of Creation as well as the male should throw off the fetters with which they have been so long mentally bound and conscious of the dignity and importance of their nature rise to the situation for which they were designed, as great events at least display, if they do not create, great abilities. I hope the present Era will produce some women of sufficient talents to inspire the rest with a genuine love of Liberty and just sense of her value... no argument produced in favour of the slavery of women that has not been used in favour of general slavery and which have been successfully combatted by many able writers. I therefor hope it is reserved for the Irish nation to strike out something new and to show an example of candous generosity and justice superior to any that have gone before them...''

In another letter, Mary Ann sent Henry Joy a book by Mary Wollstoncraft, and shows that she is not embarrassed or reticent about discussing matters of sexuality and personal relations. She discusses Wollstoncraft's views on marriage and Wollstoncraft's having married despite her previous ``contempt for the ceremony''. Mary Ann attributes this to her having earlier been in a relationship with a man who she then discovered to be ``living publicly with an actress''.

Margaret and Mary kept their muslin business going despite all the personal and political upheaval affecting their lives, including the arrest of some of their weavers. Their brother William also depended upon them to oversee his own factory while he was in prison. More and more people were being rounded up, and Mary Ann's letters are full of news as prisoners were being brought in from all over Ireland.

On 23 May, 1798, the signal for the rising was given. Thousands mobilised, but there was chaos in the north. Henry Joy McCracken was commander in chief when the rebels marched on Antrim. They were easily routed. Henry Joy wanted to try to get to Wexford, but was unable to get away safely. Mary Ann arranged for him to be taken on board a boat to America, but on the way to his rendezvous, he was recognised and arrested. It was 8 July, one month after the battle of Antrim and Mary Ann's 28th birthday.

On 16 July, Henry Joy was brought to Belfast; his court martial took place on 17 July. Mary Ann and her father were the only family members there to support him. The prosecutor offered a private deal in which Henry Joy would be given clemency if he would name others; it was refused outright and he was condemned to die.

Mary Ann managed to see Henry Joy in the barracks, and heard him being informed he was to be immediately executed. After his death, and against the family's wishes, Mary Ann fulfilled her unspoken promise to him and brought his four-year old daughter, Maria, to live at the McCracken family home. The child's mother and her family were assisted by Mary to go to America. Maria was to live with Mary Ann until the end of her life.

In the years following the suppression of the rising, Mary Ann continued to follow political developments closely. She was acutely aware of the implications of the defeat of the democratic movement. She was opposed to the Act of Union; she was concerned about the effects it would have on poor people.

She continued also to develop her business. She was a progressive employer. In 1803, she wrote a letter to the Belfast Newsletter about factory hygiene and conditions of employment:

``Workers... ought to be provided with warm coats and cloaths so as to be protected against the evil effects of wet and cold, when going to and returning from their work; sufficient time should be allowed for amusement in the open air... A very serious responsibility attaches to those who employ children.''

The same year, Thomas Russell returned to Belfast. He was in charge of organising in the north for another rising. The northern leadership of the United Irishmen advised the movement against the planned rebellion. Russell realised that a rising in the north was impossible. Before he could return to Dublin, however, Robert Emmet had started to fight in Dublin. Russell was forced to issue a proclamation, but only a handful in the north responded and the rising was crushed. With financial help from Mary Ann, Russell returned to Dublin to try to help Emmet escape. He arrived too late, and was himself arrested. Mary Ann immediately became involved in efforts to get Russell released. Her last letter to him demonstrated once again her refusal to bow to convention in personal matters. With Henry Joy's situation clearly on her mind, Mary Ann went on in her letter to Russell, ``to request if there are any other who have claims on your affection, that you will not through motives of false delicacy scruple to mention them.''

Mary Ann also took an active part in the cultural life of Belfast. In particular, she supported her foster-brother, Edward Bunting's work in collecting Irish music - both financially and by acting as his unofficial secretary. She was also a founding member of the Belfast Harp Society. The Society contributed to the revival of interest in the Irish language, poetry and literature.

The McCracken sisters struggled to keep their business open throughout the economic depression of the early 19th century. Mary Ann wrote that she could not think of dismissing the workers because no one else would employ them. In 1815, however, the sisters decided that the failing business must close. When their debts were paid, there was very little left. In a letter to a friend, Mary Ann remarked on how difficult life could be: ``...the sphere of a woman's industry is so confined and so few roads lie open to her, and those so thorny...''

Mary Ann's connection with the British Poorhouse had started when she was just a child, and she maintained her family's philantrophic links with the Poorhouse into her 81st year. In 1827, inspired by a visit to Belfast by prisons reformer Elizabeth Fry, a group of local women came together to work on behalf of the women and children in the case of the Belfast Charitable Society. Mary Ann was treasurer of the group for some years and in 1832 was elected secretary. They organised training in embroidery and other skills for girls, including apprenticeships with local businesses and also did after-care visits for the girl apprentices. Education, generally geared towards employment, was provided for older girls and they set up an infant school in the Poorhouse.

Mary Ann's interest in young people, and in particular the education and employment of girls and women, was pursued through other channels as well. She helped to establish the Ladies Industrial School in 1847, which was set up by the Belfast Ladies Association for the Relief of Irish Destitution. The association was a response to the Irish Famine; Mary Ann was President of the association when she died. Her philanthrophic work included membership of the Belfast Ladies Clothing Society and the Society for the Relief of the Destitute Sick. She was also on a committee to abolish the use of climbing boys in chimney sweeping. At the age of 88, she was still collecting for a number of charities.

Her political commitment likewise did not falter. She had been a supporter of the anti-slavery movement from its early days, when the United Irishmen had called for a boycott of sugar products from the West Indies. The 89 year old Mary Ann herself stood leafleting emigrants departing for America, and she deplored the lack of anti-slavery activists in Belfast where there had once been such strong support. In the last 20 years of her life, she maintained a correspondence with Dr Madden, and made a major contribution to his definitive history of the United Irishmen. On 26 July, 1866, just a few weeks after her 96th birthday, Mary Ann McCracken died.


This article is based on the book by Mary O'Neill, Mary Ann McCracken, Her Life & Times, published by Blackstaff Press, 1960, reprinted 1997.

Ruth Taillon is a founder member of the Mary Ann McCracken Historical Society.


98 books (at least) for `98

Aengus O Snodaigh suggests something to read from the library of books commemorating 1798

My wife frowns when she hears that I am reviewing books, researching historical articles for An Phoblacht or preparing for that long-dreamed of bestseller. ``Not more bloody books,'' she says, which is why I have now taken to storing them in the office until that day when some genie gives me enough time to build new shelves, convert the attic or buys me a mansion.

Having welcomed the new library of books (reprints included) on the Famine, I take pleasure in announcing the beginnings of another library, that commemorating the United Irishmen and the events of 1798.

Again it is good to see that historians, rather than `revisionists', are to the fore in presenting the findings of new historical research. In line with most recent writings in Irish history, the majority of the texts are written in an easily understood and accessible manner and many are wonderfully illustrated with contemporary drawings, paintings, cartoons and maps. Some though are penned in that mysterious style which complicates history with academic jargon.

Michael Kenny's The 1798 Rebellion (National Museum of Ireland £4.99) is still the best short history of the period and coupled with John Killen's The Decade of the United Irishmen: contemporary accounts 1791-1801 (Blackstaff £12.99) will go a long way to enlightening the uninitiated. Dóchas Aduaidh le Proinsias Mac an Bheatha (Coiscéim £3) and Michael O'Flanagan's When they followed Henry Joy are also well written general texts.

Fiction and faction such as Eoghan O Tuaraisc's classic L'Attaque (Mercier) will also make appearances. In the style of the Anvil Books of the Tan War (Dan Breen, Tom Barry, and so on) is Fr John Murphy of Boolavogue, 1753-1798 by Nicholas Furlong (Geography Publications £10). The Year of the French by Thomas Flanagan and Thomas Pakenham's The Year of Liberty (Weidenfeld & Nicholson £20) are a must for those who wish to relive the excitement and the fear of the revolutionary days in Ireland 200 years ago.

The abridged and colourfully illustrated edition of Thomas Pakenham's The Year of Liberty: the Great Irish Rebellion of 1798 (Weidenfeld & Nicholson £14.99stg) would make a delightful Christmas present if you can get your hands on it.

The Life and Times: Theobald Wolfe Tone by Thomas Bartlett (Historical Association of Ireland, £6); Life of Wolfe Tone edited by Thomas Bartlett; and Wolfe Tone by Henry Boylan (£6.99, Gill & Macmillan) will join the many other biographies of the Father of Irish Republicanism including Marianne Elliot's large tome Wolfe Tone: prophet of Irish independence (Yale).

Other biographies such as Citizen Lord: Edward Fitzgerald 1763-1798 by Stella Tillyard; Mícheál Og O Longáin le Rónán O Donnchadha (Coiscéim £5) faoi file mór an ama; Thomas Russell, the man from God knows where by Denis Carroll; C.J. Woods excellent deciphering work Journals and memories of Thomas Russell (Irish Academic Press) and Rupert Coughlin's 1977 publication Napper Tandy will ensure that the other leaders are not forgotten or overshadowed by Tone.

Some of the work of United Irish emissaries and exiles in Europe in trying to promote the cause and organise expeditions is covered in On the Road to Rebellion; the United Irishmen and Hamburg 1796-1803 by Paul Weber (Four Courts £30). This would compliment Marianne Elliot's Partners in Revolution: the United Irishmen and France (Yale) published a few years ago. I await Fr Raymond Murray's book on the life of Fr James Coigley for a full account of the connections made by Irish radicals with those in England and in France.

The Women of 1798 by Dáire Keogh and Nicholas Furlong (Four Courts £12.50): Mná Calma 1798 le Séamus O Síocháin (reissue next year) and The life and times of Mary Ann McCracken by Mary O'Neill (Blackstaff) will ensure that the role of women is not ignored. Nor will the role of priests and ministers in the rising be forgotten with Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter: the clergy and 1798 edited by Liam Swords (Columba £12.99).

The Tellicherry Five by Kieran Sheedy (Woodfield £9.99) compliments his other work on United Irish leader Michael Dwyer.

Rebels and Informers: stirrings of Irish independence by Robert Knox (John Murray £20stg) begins to tackle the vital role played by the most obnoxious of characters in Britain's war in Ireland, the informer. The intelligence bureaucracy became so bogged down with informants' material that they failed on occasions to heed their warnings. Knox is a former member of a Thatcher think-tank and his findings should be interesting.

There are many new and not so new books of essay compilations, including:

The People's Rising: the 1798 rebellion in Wexford by Daniel Gahan (Gill & Macmillan £12.99); The Tree of Liberty: radicalism, Catholicism and the construction of Irish identity 1760-1830 - four essays from the Field Day lectures by Kevin Whelan (Cork University Press £14.95); The Mighty Wave: the 1798 rebellion in Wexford edited by Dáire Keogh and Nicholas Furlong (Four Courts Press, £9.95); The French are in the Bay edited by John A. Murphy (Mercier £7.99); The United Irishmen: republicanism, radicalism and rebellion edited by David Dickson, Dáire Keogh and Kevin Whelan (Lilliput £15); and Rebellion: Ireland in 1798 by Daniel Gahan (O'Brien, £14.99)a vivid account of the rebellions and a commemorative yearbook which has Comóradh `98's stamp of approval.

While many of the books recommended are old favourites reappearing for the commemorative year there are other forthcoming titles. Pádraic O'Farrell's miscellany A Handbook of `98 (Lilliput £7.99); Wolfe Tone's Belmont Castle or suffering sensibility (Lilliput £7.99); and The Irish Yeomanry, 1796-1843 by Alan Blackstock (Four Courts £30).

Next year will see many more, with most historical societies and 1798 commemorative committees publishing local histories or guides similar to The sites of the 1798 Rising in Antrim and Down by Bill Wilsdon (Blackstaff £7.99); The Battle sites of 1798 series by Art Kavanagh (Irish Family Names); Dublin in 1798: three illustrated walks by Denis Carroll (South Hill Communication £3); and Ceatharlach i 1798 le Pádraig O Snodaigh (Coiscéim £3).

I can hear my non-existing shelves groaning under the weight already and the commemorative year is only about to begin. What of the 150th anniversary of the Young Irelanders, the 75th anniversary of the Civil War? Oh no!


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