Henry Joy McCracken

McCracken, Henry Joy, a distinguished United Irishman, was born in Belfast, 31st August 1767. His ancestors on both sides, Calvinist and Huguenot, sought refuge in Ireland from religious persecution.

Brought up to the linen business, when but twenty-two he was entrusted with the management of a cotton factory.

In 1791 he co-operated with Thomas Russell in the formation of the first society of United Irishmen in Belfast, and soon gave himself up entirely to politics.

When the society in 1795 assumed its secret and military organization, he became one of the most trusted members of the council in the north.

He was arrested with his brother William, in October 1796, and sent to Dublin under military escort. There they endured an incarceration of thirteen months, being ultimately liberated on the recognizances of their cousin, Counsellor Joy, afterwards Chief Baron of the Exchequer, and another gentleman.

Henry returned immediately to Belfast, and entered with increased ardour into the plans for insurrection.

In the spring of 1798 he had frequent interviews with the leaders in Dublin, and was appointed to the supreme command in Antrim.

On 6th June he issued a short proclamation, calling the United Irishmen to arms, and of 21,000 on the rolls in his district, some 9,000 responded to the summons.

Having made arrangements for simultaneous risings in different parts of the country, on 7th June he led one of the columns that attacked the town of Antrim. In the first onset they were successful, putting to flight a body of the 22nd Dragoons, with a loss of 5 officers, 47 men, and 40 horses.

The troops were, however, reorganized, and, supported by a brigade of light infantry, re-entered the town, and drove out the insurgents.

Maxwell says:

“That the rebels fought with great determination at Antrim is not to be denied; and that they were not successful, from their overwhelming numbers and very superior material to the insurgents of the south, is in a great degree attributable to the imbecility or cowardice of their leaders. Some there were, undoubtedly, whose personal intrepidity was unquestionable; but while many betrayed want of judgment and a total absence of military talent, others, when called into action, evinced weakness and indecision bordering on fatuity. If one leader led his followers with spirit and determination, another paralyzed the effort by leaving him unsupported. At Antrim this was fatally experienced, and the bravery McCracken displayed was neutralized by the pusillanimous conduct of his second in command.”

The defeat of the insurgents was decisive—besides 150 killed and wounded in the town, it was computed that 200 fell in the rout that followed.

For some weeks McCracken and his gradually diminishing force were fugitives in the neighbourhood of Slemish mountain. A well bearing their leader’s name, dug by them on the southern brow of the mountain, was shown for many years. They were treated with great kindness by the country people, who made every effort to conceal them.

His sister, Miss McCracken, who at times visited the little party, afterwards told how one young man was concealed by a respectable family, disguised as their daughter, in a bed in the family room, with two of their younger children.

On the eve of making his escape to America, McCracken was recognized and arrested. His trial and conviction by court-martial followed.

The authorities offered to spare his life on condition of his giving information concerning other leaders. His aged father encouraged him to spurn the proposition, and he was hanged in Belfast on the evening of the day of his trial, 17th July 1798, in the 31st year of his age.

His sister accompanied him almost to the last, and wrote:

“At five p.m. he was ordered to the place of execution—the old market-house, the ground of which had been given to the town by his great-great-grandfather. I took his arm, and we walked together to the place of execution, where I was told it was the general’s orders I should leave him, which I peremptorily refused. Harry begged I would go. Clasping my hands round him (I did not weep till then) I said I could bear anything but leaving him. Three times he kissed me, and entreated I would go. … I suffered myself to be led away. … I was told afterwards that poor Harry stood where I left him at the place of execution, and watched me until I was out of sight; that he then attempted to speak to the people, but that the noise of the trampling of the horses was so great that it was impossible he should be heard; that he then resigned himself to his fate, and the multitude who were present at that moment uttered cries which seemed more like one loud and long-continued shriek than the expression of grief or terror on similar occasions. He was buried in the old churchyard where St. George’s church now stands, and close to the corner of the school-house, where the door is.”[329]

More than forty years afterwards she wrote:

“Notwithstanding the grief that overcame every feeling for a time, and still lingers in my breast, connecting every passing event with the remembrance of former circumstances which recall some act or thought of his, I never once wished that my beloved brother had taken any other part than that which he did take.”

She took home his illegitimate girl.

“Good indeed came to us out of evil. That child became to us a treasure. My brother Frank and I would now be a desolate old couple without her. She is to us as an only and affectionate daughter.”

Much of Miss McCracken’s life was devoted to acts of charity and unselfish devotion to others. She never married, and lived until after 1852, greatly esteemed, in Belfast.

Note from Addenda:

McCracken, Henry Joy—His sister, Mary McCracken, died in Belfast, 26th July 1866, aged 96.[233]


233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.

237. Maxwell, William H., Rebellion of 1798. London, 1845.

249. Musgrave, Sir Richard: Memoirs of the Different Rebellions in Ireland. Dublin, 1801.

308. Speeches from the Dock: Alexander M. Sullivan. Dublin, 1868.

329. United Irishmen, their Lives and Times: Second Series: Robert R. Madden, M.D. 2 vols. London, 1843.