Meeting report by Sandra Millsopp
Bangor Historical Society’s opening meeting of the 2022-23 season was held on 8th September. The meeting took place in a new venue – the Fountain Centre on Queen’s Parade. The President Bob McKinley introduced the meeting in the absence of the chairman Ian Wilson, due to illness. As Queen Elizabeth II had died that afternoon, he asked members to stand for a moment of reflection.
Bob then welcomed everyone and commented on the society’s 45 years of promoting local history in the town. He thanked Norma who had arranged our new meeting place in the premises of the Methodist Church.
Our guest speaker was Ken Dawson, the Vice Principal of Down High. His talk was on Henry Joy McCracken and the 1798 rebellion, led by the United Irishmen. He has carried out a great deal of research on late eighteenth century Ireland and has written a biography of Samuel Neilson, the Belfast radical. He began by mentioning that people are still fascinated by the summer of 1798. It was a time of rebellion which saw over 20,000 deaths in Ireland and the heightening of sectarian tension, ironically when the United Irishmen had sought to erase these divisions.
Locally folk memory retains the names of Archibald Wilson of Conlig, James Scott of Ballymaconnell, the Presbyterian minister James Hull, Joseph Cromie, James Dunlop, Thomas McKnight and Robert Robinson, all of Bangor. Hugh McCullough was hanged from the sails of the windmill at Ballynahinch. These were just some of those Presbyterians who came from eastern Co. Down to take part in the battles at Saintfield and Ballynahinch.
One of the leaders of the United Irishmen was Henry Joy McCracken. He came from two prominent Belfast families. His grandfather Francis Joy founded the Belfast News-Letter.
Francis’s daughter Ann married Captain John McCracken. The family attended the Third Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Lane. John and Ann had seven children, including Henry Joy who was born on 31 August 1767 and Mary Ann born in 1770. She was a political pioneer who opposed child labour as well as slavery.
Mr Dawson then talked about the state of Ireland in the late eighteenth century when it was affected by events such as the American and French Revolutions. The Society of United Irishmen was formed in Belfast in October 1791. It aimed to reform the Irish parliament and unite the various religious groupings. Henry Joy McCracken was not a founding member, but he knew those involved. He had spent time in Scotland learning the cotton trade. On his return in 1789 he worked in the family business.
Gradually McCracken emerged as a political figure of note. In 1795 he was among those who climbed Cave Hill and pledged never to desist in their efforts until they had subverted English influence over Ireland. The United Irishmen were becoming more radical, seeking French support for an uprising. In March 1795 McCracken was sworn in as a member. Evidence was emerging that he and some other Belfast radicals were suspected of being part of a group of United Irishmen who assassinated enemies of the society, especially suspected informers. He was arrested in October 1796 and sent to Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. His sister Mary Ann condemned the drinking parties in the goal and introduced an unofficial library. She also reconciled McCracken and Neilson after they fell out, with the aid of the latter’s wife. McCracken was released in December 1797. He stayed in Dublin and acted as an emissary between the United Irish organization there and Ulster.
The United Irishmen now faced difficulties. There were divisions in the Dublin leadership and much of the Leinster Directory was arrested in March 1798 on the information of the informer Thomas Reynolds. Government Military policy had weakened the organization in Ulster. Rebellion broke out in the Dublin area in late May 1798. Meanwhile Ulster was quiet for several weeks. Then the arrest of Rev Steele Dickson left McCracken as de facto Commander-in-chief for Ulster. McCracken planned to attack Antrim on 7 June. He raised the standard of rebellion at Roughfort. The government moved troops to Blaris. The insurgents had little chance and fled. McCracken hid out in the Belfast Hills. Plans were afoot to procure a passage to America, but he was arrested on 7 July near Carrickfergus and brought to Belfast. He refused offers of clemency in return for information. After a trial he was executed on 17 July 1798. His family interred his body in the municipal graveyard in High Street. In 1902 work was being carried out on the site and two coffins were found. It was believed that the remains of McCracken had been found. They were interred in 1909 in Clifton Street Cemetery in the grave of his sister Mary Ann.
The long-lasting legacy of the rebellion has been problematic: the disremembering of 1798 among northern Presbyterians in particular, according to the Israeli historian Guy Beiner. Mr Dawson ended by saying that the legacy of the United Irishmen could be understood better through objective historical walking tours and the proper curation of landmarks associated with this remarkable period of Belfast history.
At the end of the meeting presentations were made to Linda and Don Patterson for their help over many years with the provision of tea, the sound system and publicity.