Henry Joy McCracken: Rebel hero, and a man not afraid to murder
The charismatic United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken was hanged in Belfast 217 years ago next week. But papers newly discovered in the Public Record Offices in London, Dublin and Belfast suggest this romantic historical figure was, in fact, implicated in political assassination.
Next week marks the 217th anniversary of the execution of the United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken in Belfast's Cornmarket in 1798.
Celebrated in republican circles, the free-thinking Belfast merchant is also viewed positively by some of his Presbyterian co-religionists, while a plaque in his honour was erected a number of years ago in the porch of the Rosemary Street headquarters of County Antrim Freemasons, on the site of the former Third Presbyterian Church.
McCracken famously led the insurgents at the Battle of Antrim on June 7, 1798, sweeping aside the hesitant adjutant general of the rebels in Co Antrim, Robert Simms, and proclaiming himself commander-in-chief of the United Irishmen in Ulster.
Emerging evidence of McCracken's militancy in the years before the rebellion confirms his prominence in the revolutionary world of late-18th century Belfast politics and implicates him in the murky world of political assassination.
McCracken was a successful Presbyterian textile printer, a member of Belfast's confident merchant class and an advocate of progressive political ideas. He was a leading member of the Society of United Irishmen, established in Belfast in October 1791, which aimed to include members of all religious denominations in the unrepresentative Irish Parliament.
As the decade progressed he sought an alignment between the mainly-Presbyterian United Irishmen and the Catholic Defender movement. He acted as an emissary for the former in outlying parts of Ulster and beyond.
Others involved in fostering this unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter included Thomas Russell from Co Cork (a former Army officer in the 64th Regiment of Foot who had been stationed in the town), Father James Coigley from Co Armagh, and Charles Teeling from the Poleglass district near Lisburn.
The leadership of the United Irishmen in Belfast included Samuel Neilson (right), editor of the organisation's highly successful propagandist newspaper The Northern Star, Russell, William Tennent, Henry Haslett and the brothers Robert and William Simms. Below this was a stratum of militants who were sometimes less careful in their behaviour and whose activities were, therefore, easier for the authorities and informers to penetrate.
The United Irishmen always denied Government accusations that they had a Committee of Assassination. Indeed, McCracken's trusted companion, the Templepatrick weaver James Hope, stressed that the most ardent opponents of such a tactic were Neilson, Russell, and McCracken himself. However, documents in the Public Record Offices of London, Dublin and Belfast suggest a different story.
John and Alexander Gordon (nephews of Neilson), Thomas Potts, Thomas Storey and Joseph Cuthbert (among others) formed part of a group at the centre of an assassination campaign in 1796 and early-1797. McCracken, an attractive and charismatic personality, can be linked to their activities.
In the early 1790s Belfast acquired the reputation of being the "fountainhead of sedition" due to the town's enthusiasm for the French Revolution and its espousal of political change in Ireland. The perceived disloyalty of Belfast became a more urgent priority for the Government after England went to war with revolutionary France in 1793.
The United Irishmen even initiated the bold strategy of converting soldiers (mainly Catholic militia privates recruited in other counties in Ireland) to their cause.
To undermine the United Irishmen, the authorities established an intelligence system to deliver subversives for trial. McCracken and his fellow conspirators soon struck back at this State intelligence apparatus, targeting both informers and their handlers.
The authorities were well aware of McCracken's importance, and he was eventually detained as a prisoner in Kilmainham Gaol in October 1796. He was released in early-1798, having suffered sustained ill-health during his incarceration.
Victims of the United Irishmen's counter-intelligence campaign in Belfast before 1798 included the following:
l Friar Michael Philips: Friar Philips was one of several Catholic clergy who undertook the role of Government spy. His instructions were to infiltrate the Defenders, which he did successfully, and he soon recognised McCracken's key role in uniting Defenders and United Irishmen. In January 1796 his body was found submerged near the paper works in Cromac Dock, weighed down with a heavy stone inserted in the pocket of his greatcoat. In a move possibly designed to mask Government involvement in the recruitment of spies, the inquest recorded an improbable verdict of accidental death. Philips was buried in Shankill graveyard.
l William McBride, Belfast: In September 1796 the cotton spinner and alleged informer, was stabbed to death in North Street.
l John Kingsbury, Drumbridge: In November 1796 (again after McCracken's arrest and detention in Kilmainham) Kingsbury, a Belfast butcher, was assassinated near Drumbridge, a waypoint on the busy Lagan Canal. Cuthbert, Potts, Storey, John Gordon and Charles O'Donnell were subsequently arrested and confined in Carrickfergus Gaol in connection with this murder.
l Rev John Cleland: This clergyman, the vicar of Dundonald, was the controller of the north's pre-eminent informer, Nicholas Mageean, a Catholic small farmer from Lessans near Saintfield. In late October, a fortnight after McCracken's arrest, a gang shot at Cleland in Newtownards, but missed.
As far as Henry Joy McCracken is concerned, recently uncovered evidence from more than one source in Belfast and Dublin points at his connection with assassinations.
Sergeant John Lee was a Government agent whose controller was Captain Andrew MacNevin of the Royal Irish Invalids, stationed in Carrickfergus. On August 19, 1796, Lee was shot and seriously wounded after his cover was blown. Cuthbert, McCracken and a number of others were closely implicated in a statement given to Dean Dobbs at Carrickfergus by the informer Belle Martin.
Martin, a native of Portaferry, was a barmaid in Belfast and sometime prostitute. Leading United Irishmen were regular drinkers at the Franklin Tavern in Sugarhouse Entry, where she worked.
She swore that, on the evening in question, Cuthbert, McCracken and a number of others were preparing pistols for use in the home of her lover. She was sent to the inn of her employer for a "bunch of berries" wrapped in a handkerchief. These turned out to be pistol balls. At dawn a number of tired men returned to her lover's house for breakfast, carrying Lee's military greatcoat as a trophy. Martin's character was such that her evidence should be regarded with caution.
Her ultimate refusal to testify in court meant that a number of detained men would not be committed for trial.
In late-1796, Government agents received intelligence of McCracken's alleged involvement in the assassination of another informer.
A disaffected corporal named Smith in the Limerick City Militia had written to McCracken to warn him "if a private of the Limerick City Regt. was not put out of the way, that everything would be blown".
This unnamed soldier had been dispatched to Belfast after saying that he could infiltrate the United Irishmen.
Within days of the soldier's arrival in the town he was found murdered; his body was recovered from the River Lagan at the end of September.
In a separate account, one of Lord Downshire's correspondents, Reverend George Lambart, who was rector in Edenderry, King's County (Co Offaly), implicated McCracken in this murder, claiming to have received evidence of his guilt.
In early October McCracken and another prominent United Irishman called Thomas Richardson were warned by one of their colleagues to go on the run, as two deserters had sworn statements "of a very dangerous nature" against them.
On October 8, 1796 an attempt was made on the life of the Anglican minister at Derriaghy, Rev Philip Johnston, a leading Orangeman and determined opponent of the United Irishmen. He recovered to continue his harassment of the United Irishmen.
McCracken had actually been detained on the day of the attack on Johnston (for which a man named William Grimes was later arrested) and would not therefore have actually pulled the trigger. However, Rev Lambart was convinced that McCracken was responsible for the assassination attempt and made his suspicions known to Lord Downshire, the most powerful landowner in Ulster.
McCracken was not involved in all of these incidents, but there is evidence that he was associated with an active programme of removing those engaged in intelligence operations against the United Irishmen.
During his long confinement in Kilmainham Gaol he corresponded with his sister Mary Ann. One of her smuggled letters, dated March 16, 1797, reads: "A certain article which was the only cause of uneasiness to you at the time you were taken up, was concealed in the house till the late strict search which has been made about town, and not daring to keep it any longer, we gave it in charge to a man in whom we had confidence, who buried it in the country so that its being found can't injure any person."
Long before the days of 21st century forensics, the McCrackens were well aware of the need to dispose of the evidence.
- Ken Dawson was a joint editor of 1798 Rebellion In County Down (Colourpoint, 1998) and is researching the life and times of the United Irishman Samuel Neilson