Traditionally philanthropy is associated with the ‘great and the good’ donating money to charitable causes. However, philanthropy past and present takes many forms. Mary Ann McCracken was born on July 8 1770, to Captain John McCracken, a Belfast ship-owner, and Ann Joy, daughter of Francis Joy, who had founded the Belfast News-Letter in 1737. Mary Ann is remembered in folk memory as the sister of Henry Joy McCracken, the executed United Irishman. However but she had a long and fulfilling life, and was the driving force behind many philanthropic projects in Belfast and beyond.
It was said that Mary Ann was making clothes for the children of the Poor House when she was little more than a child herself. Mary Ann’s family had strong connections with the Poor House, her maternal uncles, Robert and Henry Joy, where heavily involved in the running of the House, and her father took an active interest too. During her lifetime she campaigned for numerous causes including prison reform, political equality for women and the abolition of the slave trade; in fact in her 89th year she was still handing out anti-slavery to emigrants leaving Belfast dock to head to the United States.
However, her primary focus was on the Poor House, in particular the welfare of women and children. Mary Ann was responsible for the establishment of an infant school in the Poor House, and ensured the curriculum included subjects like art, technical drawing and geography, which were beyond the reach of most children in the first half of the 19th century. Many children indeed would not have basic reading and writing skills. Mary Ann brought in a probation period for the children leaving the Poor House on apprenticeships. This enabled them to see if the trade they were assigned suited them. Welfare visits took place to the apprenticed children twice a year to ensure conditions met with the Society’s expectations. The Ladies Committee ensured that the Poor House would always provide a safety net for the children who called it home by petitioning the Men’s Committee to allow children to come back from their apprentices during the holiday periods.
Mary Ann McCracken was a unique lady of her time, she did more than just campaign for worthy causes, but went as far as to abstain from sugar as a tangible demonstration of her opposition to slavery. Mary Ann enjoyed a long and productive life, surviving to the grand age of 96. She was buried in Clifton Street Cemetery; in a plot she paid for herself within the shadow of the Poor House to which she had donated so much of her time and energy.