`Faithful to the last' Henry Joy
With no rising in sight in Ulster despite the signal coming from
Dublin, one man seized the initiative and assembled the United
Irish forces to assert Ireland's right to independence. That man
was Henry Joy McCracken, a young Belfast industrialist and
radical and founder member of the Society of United Irishmen.
AENGUS O SNODAIGH details his full life and his contribution to
Henry Joy McCracken was the fifth of six child born to Captain
John McCracken, a Belfast industrialist, and his wife Ann Joy, a
daughter of the founder of the Belfast News Letter. Harry (as he
was called by his family) was born on 31 August 1767 and raised
in the Presbyterian faith. The family later moved to Rosemary
Lane (now Street).
Henry took an interest in the cotton and textile business in
which his father was partner and at the age of 22 he was
appointed manager of Joy, McCabe and McCracken. As an employer he
showed himself to be fair and to be concerned about the welfare
of the working poor. It was a concern which he shared with his
favourite sister Mary Ann and they both established the first
Sunday School in Belfast in 1788, to teach reading and writing to
the children of the city's poor. Because it was open to all
denominations it drew the wrath of the sectarian bigots in the
city and the arrival at the school of the Anglican vicar of
Belfast, and later Belfast High Sheriff, William Bristow, along
with several women with ``rods in their hands as badges of
authority'' forced its premature closure.
The family flaunted convention of the time and employed Catholics
in their home. The family was renowned for social occasions and
many of the future members of the United Irishmen were guests at
By 1791 Henry was deeply engaged in the radical politics
prevalent in Belfast at the time and took an active part in
discussions on Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man published that
year. He was a friend and confidant of Thomas Russell, Theobald
Wolfe Tone and Samuel Neilson and was involved in the secret
discussions held prior to his founding along with others of the
Society of United Irishmen on 14 October 1791. He was 24 years
old at the time. His sister and two of his brothers, Francis and
William, shared his political views and are said to have been
members of the Society. He was also an officer of the Green
Company of the Belfast Regiment of Volunteers, a radical military
group set up in 1792 to campaign for the goals which the
Volunteers of 1780s failed to achieve.
McCracken's business, selling cotton, provided good cover for his
political activities, but he soon became known to the authorities
as a dangerous radical.
Henry was involved in the reorganising of the United Irishmen
along more militaristic lines following the Cave Hill declaration
of June 1795. He was also to the fore in the moves to have the
Defenders join with the United Irishmen, which was successfully
achieved by the summer of 1796. Along with Charles Teeling he
employed solicitors to take the cases of Catholics who had
suffered at the hands of the Orangemen and they travelled widely
to take depositions for these cases. Teeling made Henry Joy a
commander in the Defender organisation in recognition of his
work. By the time the government moved against the leadership of
the proscribed United Irishmen Henry was a marked man, and a
warrant for his arrest for treasonous activities was among others
to be served on 16 September 1796.
During the first wave of arrests McCracken was away on business
and he evaded capture for a short time, being arrested only when
he returned home on 10 October. He was sent to Kilmainham Jail in
Dublin, where his brother William later joined him after being
pointed out by the informer Edward Newell.
The prisoners remained until released on bail, without trial, in
December 1797. Kilmainham was a dreary and unhealthy place and
Henry contracted severe rheumatism there, and remained very ill
for a time after his release.
While in prison he continued to try to highlight the Catholics'
plight, writing to his brother John, who remained aloof from all
politics saying: ``I have nothing to tell you except the
barbarities commited on the innocent country people by yeomen and
Orangemen. The practice among them is to hang a man up by the
heels with a rope of full twist, by which means the sufferer
whirls round like a bird roasting at the fire, during which he is
lashed with belts, etc to make him tell where arms are concealed.
``Last week, at a place near Dungannon, a young man being used in
this manner called his father for assistance, who being inflamed
at the sight, struck one of the party a desperate blow with his
turf spade; but alas! his life paid the forfeit of his rashness:
his entrails were torn out and exposed on a thorn bush. This is
but one of the barbarity of the many which are daily practised
about the counties Tyrone and Armagh; however the county Antrim
is not so bad, but I believe not much better.''
When restored to health, and buoyed by reports of an anticipated
French expeditionary force, Henry Joy immersed himself once again
in United Irish activities, becoming a member of the Ulster
Executive. He was appointed one of its delegates to the National
Convention of United Irish Delegates held in the Shakespeare
Gallery, Exchange Street, Dublin, on 26 February 1798. At the
convention, backing a call for an immediate rising, Henry Joy
said that the 7,000 men in Antrim would ``rather be in the field
like men, than hunted like wild beasts, and see their friends
carried off to jail, their houses ransacked and the cowardly
yeomen riding roughshod over them day by day.''
The convention broke up without setting a date for the rising and
asked ``that the counties of Carlow, Meath, Wicklow, Derry, Down
and Antrim deserve well of their country for their manly offer
emancipating her directly; but that they be requested to bear
their shackles of tyranny a little longer''. Fortunately, he and
Neilson (now reconciled after their quarrels in jail) escaped the
arrest the following month of the Leinster leaders at Oliver
Bond's house on 12 March.
They remained at large continuing to make plans with Lord Edward
Fitzgerald and the remaining leaders for an uprising in May,
regardless of an expeditionary force.
In mid-May, McCracken returned to Belfast to find a confused,
unfocused and uncertain Ulster leadership. When the signal for
the north to rise came with the stopping of the Dublin mail coach
at Santry on 23 May, there was a pregnant pause. Wolfe Tone, in
Paris, not hearing anything of an Ulster rising by 8 June
expressed surprise: ``In all this business I do not hear one
syllable about the north, which astonishes me more than I can
express. Are they afraid? Have they changed their opinions? What
can be the cause of their passive submission, at this moment, so
little suited to their former zeal and energy?''
The men tasked with directing the United Irish army in Antrim and
Down, Adjutant-General Robert Simms and Robert Hunter, dithered
for over a week before abdicating, leaving Henry Joy McCracken to
be elected by those assembled at a provincial meeting on 3 June
to step in and organise the rising in counties Antrim and Down.
He in effect became commander-in-chief of all the United Irish
forces in Ulster.
Though on paper formidable, the United Irishmen and their
Defender allies in Ulster had been severely affected, in morale
and military material, by the brutal terror inflicted by General
Lake's troops over the previous 12 months. Of the 26,000 supposed
United Irishmen in County Antrim, only 4,000 had muskets and the
United Irish army possessed virtually no artillery. One cannon
had been secreted since 1793 when the Volunteers were disbanded
and in charge of it in the coming battle would be a deserter from
the Royal Irish Artillery who, unusually for a Presbyterian, was
a sworn member of both the United Irishmen and the Defenders.
Henry Joy's first priority was to formulate a strategy, which he
did along with Jemmy Hope, Henry Monroe and others. He had hours
rather than days to do this as the crown forces were massing
under General Nugent to thwart the United Irish rising. The plan
was to launch simultaneous attacks at Randalstown and Antrim.
Henry was to lead the attack on Antrim, while in County Down,
Ballynahinch, Saintfield, Newtownards and Portaferry were
particular targets. General Nugent in Belfast was soon appraised
of these plans by a number of informers. In preparing a response
he decided to concentrate his forces against the Antrim United
Irishmen firstly and then hopefully to turn on the County Down
division of the United Irish army. It was bold move, which if it
failed would have exposed the whole of Ulster to United Irish
McCracken issued his proclamation: ``Army of Ulster, to-morrow we
march on Antrim - drive the garrison of Randalstown before you,
and haste to form a junction with the Commander-in-Chief''. It was
signed with his name and dated, in French revolutionary style,
``1st year of liberty, 6th day of June, 1798''.
Early on the following morning, McCracken planted a green flag at
Craigavon Fort, a Norman mound between Glengormley and
Templepatrick. As rebel commander, McCracken wore a `coat of
green' as his uniform.
The main assembly point for the rebels in south Antrim was the
hill of Donegore. Some of the 7,000 or 8,000 who made their way
there were extremely reluctant when it came to the point of
risking their lives. When McCracken's force went off to attack
Antrim, most of those who had turned out remained in reserve at
Donegore and later dispersed to their homes without taking part
in the fighting.
The Battle of Antrim took place during the afternoon of 7 June.
To begin with, the forces of the crown consisted of only one
troop of the 22nd Dragoon, a company of the Antrim Yeomanry and
about 40 armed civilians, but General Nugent had despatched help
from Belfast and Lisburn which was soon to increase that number.
At 2.45 p.m. the rebels advanced, `in good order', as James Hope
later reported, `until our front arrived opposite the
Presbyterian meeting house'. The arrival of fresh rebel columns
from Randalstown and elsewhere might have settled the outcome if
they had not mistaken fleeing dragoons just arrived from Lisburn
as an attack on them and instead of completing the rout fled in
In the confused fighting that followed, Lord O'Neill, the
governor of County Antrim, was caught near the market-house and
piked. The advance of the crown forces' main relief force from
Belfast - McCracken in his inexperience had employed no
roadblocks to cover the rear - eventually forced the rebels to
quit the field, James Hope and his `Spartan band' helped to cover
the retreat, which became a rout by the crown forces.
The Monaghan Militia went through the houses and gardens making
little distinction between friend and foe. Some of the houses
were burned and all were thoroughly sacked. Their commanding
officer, Colonel Durham, later wrote: ``When out of my sight they
killed every man they could get at. My order of cease firing was
not obeyed, nor could I carry it into effect although riding
among them and with my sword throwing up their firelocks.''
McCracken, along with Hope and others, retreated northwards
towards Ballymena, where the United Irishmen had taken over the
town and ran it through a short-lived Committee of Public Safety
on the French model. McCracken found temporary safety for himself
and about 100 followers on Slemish Mountain. Dislodged from there
by approaching troops, some moved north, but McCracken and a
dwindling band made their way across country towards County Down,
where he still hoped for news of other United Irish columns with
which they could join.
Near Derriaghy he heard the bad news from Ballynahinch and turned
back to hide in the mountains above Belfast. He was concealed in
the cottage of a poor labourer David Bodle (Boal) on Cave Hill.
(David's daughter, Mary, had a child by Henry four years
previously.) There his sister, Mary, made contact with him and
arranged for him to have money, a change of clothing, a forged
pass and passage on a foreign vessel from a secluded spot on the
In a letter to her during this period he ascribed his failure to
treachery ``the rich always betray the poor''. He continued,
stating that in Antrim ``little or nothing was lost by the people
until the brave men who fought had retreated.... but after the
villains who were entrusted with the direction of the lower part
of the county gave up, hostages and all, without any cause,
private emolument excepted, murder then began and cruelties have
continued ever since.
``It is unfortunate that a few wicked men could destroy a county
after having been purchased with blood, for it was a fact which I
am sure you never knew that on Friday the 8th June all the county
was in the hands of the people, Antrim, Belfast and Carrickfergus
Having spent the night of 7 July in a safe house at Greencastle
on the lough shore, McCracken - disguised as a workman and
carrying a bag of tools - set out to walk towards Carrickfergus
with two companions, Gavin Watt and John Queeny. They had the bad
luck to meet a party of yeomen, one of whom, Niblock recognised
McCracken from business dealings with him. Arresting the trio,
they set of for Carrickfergus.
From conversation McCracken found that the yeomen were not
altogether hostile and they agreed to stall a while in a public
house on the roadside. Having almost managed to get the yeomen to
accept a bribe of £30 to give them their freedom, disaster
struck. One of the yeomen was reluctant and slipped away,
returning with an officer. McCracken was lodged in Carrickfergus
Castle and on 16 July was tried by court martial the following
The Crown case faltered when one witness refused to testify,
William Thompson, an English calico printer, received 200 lashes
for his refusal. Samuel Orr also refused to testify against a
former comrade, before two men who McCracken had never seen were
brought forward by the prosecutor John Pollock. The evidence of
James Beck and the other, Minniss, similar to that of most United
Irish trial witnesses, was perjured. He was sentenced to death by
Colonel Montgomery who presided at the trial. In the condemned
cell McCracken told his sister to inform Thomas Russell ``of my
death, and tell him I have done my duty''.
Several approaches were made to him during and after the trial
suggesting that he would receive clemency in exchange for
information. All such approaches were swiftly rebuffed. That
evening he was hanged outside the market house in High Street,
having his attempt to make a final statement drowned out by the
deliberate racket created by the mounted soldiers gathered.
General Nugent allowed the body to be handed over to his sister
Mary on condition that it was buried before dark. The body was
buried in St George's Churchyard. Some years later, when part of
the ground was sold off, some of the graves were disturbed.
McCracken's remains were reburied in the cemetery at Clifton
Street, where a memorial was erected.
Following his death the family moved to Castle Street, with his
father and mother dying within a fortnight of each other in 1814.
Though his family knew nothing of Henry Joy's four-year-old
daughter, Maria, before his death they adopted her. She was to be
a constant companion of Mary Ann McCracken until her death at the
age of 96 in 1866.
Henry Joy McCracken aged 31 was hanged at the old Market House in
Belfast on July 17 200 years ago this month. His comrade in arms
James Hope said of him ``when all our leaders deserted us, Henry
Joy McCracken stood alone, faithful to the last. He led on the
forlorn hope of the cause of Antrim, and brought the government
to terms with all but the leaders. He died rather than prove a
traitor to the cause.''