Ode to Henry Joy – An Irishman’s Diary about the 250th birthday of a revolutionary

Leaving his revolutionary fame aside a moment, Henry Joy McCracken had one of the great Irish names. The “Joy” part came from his mother Ann, who was of French Huguenot stock. The “McCracken” bit was Ulster-Scots. But combined, they were a euphonious match made in heaven. With the addition of a sturdy two-syllable prefix, it was a name designed to resonate.

Born 250 years ago today in Belfast, however, its owner was not the first of his family to make a mark on history.

Thirty years earlier, in 1737, his maternal grandfather Francis Joy had established what remains the world's oldest English-language daily newspaper, the Belfast Newsletter. And his grandfather on the other side had been a substantial enough businessman to gift the city an area known as the Cornmarket, where in a bitter irony, Henry Joy McCracken's life would be ended on a scaffold in 1798.

But in the meantime, the child born on August 31st, 1767, grew up to be part of one of the most enlightened generations ever to have lived in Ireland, certainly in its northeastern part. Had their versions of the French and American revolutions, filtered through the Scottish enlightenment, succeeded peacefully, maybe many subsequent tragedies on the island might have been avoided.


The attempt had a promising start, at least. It was under the deliberately innocuous cover name of "The Muddlers Club" that McCracken and others, including Thomas Russell – "The Man from God Knows Where" (but actually Cork) – founded the United Irishmen in 1791. The mostly-Presbyterian group held their meetings in a pub, Peggy Barclay's Tavern, on a Belfast alleyway called Sugarhouse Entry. And at first their plans were indeed peaceful, until hopes of a self-governing, multidenominational Ireland disappeared under repressive government policies in 1795. Thereafter, the Muddlers were on a path to violent confrontation with the law.

McCracken spent most of 1797 in Kilmainham Gaol, until released in bad health. Like most of his comrades, he then waited in vain from the French.

But after commanding his men at the doomed Battle of Antrim, he fled to the mountains, until arrested again.

He could have saved his neck by implicating others, but refused and was hanged on July 17th, 1798. His adoring younger sister Mary-Ann McCracken had arranged to have a doctor present lest there be a chance of resuscitation, and the body was brought back to Peggy Barclay’s with that aim. But the hangman had done his job. Henry was dead, aged 30.

Mary Ann, who spent the rest of her long life looking after his “illegitimate” daughter Maria, was a remarkable figure in her own right.

Among many acts of philanthropy, she ran a school for Belfast’s orphaned poor, operating on such advanced principles as a belief that children should be amused while learning.

She was also a big part of the Presbyterian campaign to revive Irish traditional music.   And she was a lifelong campaigner against slavery, underwriting her commitment by abstention from one its main products, sugar.

Late in life, 60 years after Henry’s death, she lamented that the once-idealistic Belfast was “now so sunk in the love of filthy lucre there are but 16 or 17 female anti-slavery advocates [left]”, and none of these were active in disseminating propaganda except “an old woman within 17 days of 89”.

The old woman was herself. But she would yet see out the American civil war. And in forgoing sugar, she had been ahead of her time in more ways than one. As we know now, it’s very bad for your health too.

Mary Ann must have benefitted from abstention – she lived to be 96.

Besides all that, she was also an ardent defender of her bother’s reputation, although even without her long advocacy, his place in the pantheon was secure.

The United Irishmen’s birthplace, Sugarhouse Entry, was destroyed by German bombs in 1941. But in more recent times, the name of the Muddlers Club has reappeared in Belfast, this time on an upmarket restaurant in the Cathedral Quarter.

Thanks to the relative enlightenment that has returned to the city since 1998, the same quarter now hosts a number of public art works on the events of 200 years earlier, including a portrait of Henry and Mary Ann being parted at the gallows. But on his 250th birthday, the former is also remembered in a city where he was only briefly resident. His home for 13 months, Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol, will this evening host the unveiling of a sculpture in his honour, accompanied by songs and poems of 1798.