Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

United Irish rebel hanged

200 YEARS AGO TODAY: Belfast18 July1798

LEADING United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken was hanged yesterday in Belfast, only yards from his family's home in Rosemary Lane.

LEADING United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken was hanged yesterday in Belfast, only yards from his family's home in Rosemary Lane.

As word of the execution spread hundreds of people crowded into Cornmarket, where a scaffold has been erected outside the Market House at the cornerof High Street. McCracken who was found guilty at his trial earlier in the day, was escorted there at 5.00pm by troops and by his sister. Miss Mary Ann McCracken (28), who accompanied him to the steps of the gallows.

SmiledMcCracken, aged 30, appeared calm, but when he attempted to address the crowd his voice was inaudiable above the din. He smiled as the rope was placed round his neck. The execution lasted only a few minutes.

When his lifeless body was cut down it was handed over to Miss McCracken, who had it removed immediately from the scene. It is believed that she had made arrangements to try to have the corpse revived, but attempts at resuscitation ultimately proved unsuccessful.

McCracken is said to have led the United Irishmen in the insurrection against the Crown forces in Antrim Town on June 7. After fierce fighting along the main street in which many of the combatants perished, the insurgents were eventually defeated. McCracken and some of his followers escaped from the town along a side alley; but after hiding out for a month in the Belfast mountains he was arrested outside Carrickfergus by two of the local yeoman and confined with two of his supporters (John Query and Gawen Watt) in Carrick jail.

Two days ago he was brought to Belfast for trial and held first in the Donegall Arms, which is now a prison, and later in the Artillery Barracks in Ann Street. His trial was held yesterday at noon in the Assembly Rooms in Waring Street. He was found guilty of being a leader of the United Irishmen and sentenced to immediate execution.

Miss McCracken said last night that her brother had known in advance that he would be convicted, as these trials were just matters of form and none had yet been acquitted. The verdict was a foregone conclusion _ the two witnesses who gave evidence against her brother contradicted each other several times and one described the other as a man of 'infamous character' but it made no difference. McCracken, however, remained cool and composed throughout the proceedings. Even when the death sentence was passed he retained his cheerful composure.

Miss Mary Ann McCracken said that as she sat by his corpse in the houe many people crowded in to weep over it, showing how much he was loved. Hundreds are now calling for revenge but this would not restore him to life, nor would it please him if he knew of it. She believed that it had been politicially foolish as well as cruel to 'murder' him. His life would have been spared if he has agreed to name the man he succeeded as commander in Antrim, but he refused to inform on his companions.

McCracken's family are well known and respected in Belfast. Ironically, the land at Cornmarket where the gallows stands was presented to the town originally by his great-great-grandfather, the sovereign George Martin. His uncle, Henry Joy, founded the Belfast News Letter, and another uncle, Robert Joy, designed the Poor House (closed last month on orders from the military). The family have a flourishing business producing and marketing cotton, sailcloth and muslin. They are members of the Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street.

McCracken is believed to have joined the Society of United Irishmen early on its existence but became commander in Antrim only a few months ago. In 1796 he was arrested in Dublin and spent fourteen months in Kilmainham Hail.

He was hanged before an unedifying backdrop of four decaying human heads mounted on spikes outside the Market House. They belonged to insurgents who have already been hanged _ James Dickey, an attorney from Crumlin, and Belfast printer John Storey, who was jailed with McCracken in Kilmainham, both of whom fought at Antrim; and Hugh Grimes and Henry Byres, who took part in last month's unsuccessful rising led by Henry Munro at Ballynahinch, County Down.

Last night McCracken's body was laid to rest in St George's Churchyard in High Street. Miss McCracken overcome with grief, collapsed at the graveside and was taken home by another brother, John McCracken.

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