Written by Mel Wiggins
A few years ago, I was doing a little research into the history of slavery in Northern Ireland and found some amazing gems and stories of wild inspiration. It was significant for me to dig into the roots of the abolitionist movement here because a new wave of the same guts was rising up.
It was mostly the men who stood out as front runners - Thomas McCabe was a big player in the late 1700’s at a time when the wealthiest of men in the country were proposing to bring a slave ship company into the docks of Belfast. He stood outside the Old Exchange at the foot of Donegall Street and tore up the prospectus for the proposed company calling out: ‘MAY GOD WITHER THE HAND OF ANY MAN WHO WILL SIGN THAT DOCUMENT!’ The ship never did make its way into the docks of Belfast.
Below all the fuss about McCabe and a little further into the history of the movers and shakers of this time, I had my mind blown by some of the parallels between then and now and our rich activism history.
Enter Mary Ann McCracken.
She looks sweet doesn’t she? Look at her there, little head-kerchief all tucked up, sitting politely, hands folded neatly.
Don’t be fooled.
She was a warrior; a pioneer of social reform in Belfast in the late 17, early 1800’s. She fought for workers’ rights in local factories and started committees to stop the use of young boys for climbing chimneys to clean. She petitioned for female equality; had a keen interest in seeing young women and girls educated and employed, and was very active in the Poorhouses. I kind of love her.
‘Mary Ann held radical beliefs and these extended not just to the politics of the time, but to many social issues, such as poverty and slavery. Mary Ann led the Women’s Abolitionary committee in Belfast during the height of the anti slavery movement, wearing the famous Wedgewood brooches adorned with slave and slogan “Am I not a man and brother”, and continued to promote the cause long after the spiritof radicalism had died in Belfast. At the age of 88 she was to be seen in Belfast Docks, handing out anti-slavery leaflets to those boarding ships bound for the United States, where slavery was still practiced.’
When I read this quote again, my heart beats really fast at the image of her, a withered and worn old lady in her last years, wedgewood brooch securely pinned to her coat, still active to the end, holding onto the hope that things could change, that she could still have an impact. What a legacy. It seems incredible that today we continue to look at the same issues – workers rights, child labour, gender equality, the vulnerability of the poor. I hope Mary Ann would be proud of the continuation of her good work, of the path she paved for us.
Mary Ann is laid to rest in Clifton Street Cemetery and there is a plaque in her honour at 62 Donegall Pass, where she lived for much of her later life.
In her later days, she expressed her frustration in a letter to a friend:
‘Belfast, once so celebrated for its love of liberty, is now so sunk in the love of filthy lucre that there are but 16 or 17 female anti-slavery advocates and not one man though several Quakers … and none to distribute papers to American emigrants but an old woman within 17 days of 89…’
Even 300 years ago there was a cry for more men to advocate on this issue here in Northern Ireland. I could have cried when I first read this, hearing the echo’s of my own feelings, and in turn feeling less alone in my own frustration that men are often reluctant to join us in the journey, that working towards a traffik-free society is still often seen as a ‘woman’s cause’ yet somehow I am more inspired to keep going - to help continue the work that Mary Ann and her hard-core freedom-fighting girlfriends were pursuing.
Our past and present are connected and rooted in deep and powerful ways as we stand on the shoulders of these giant women-on-a-mission and this gives me MASSIVE hope.
Now I’m off to find me one of those wedgewood brooches.
Mel is the Coordinator of Freedom Acts, a project in Northern Ireland looking at local & global issues of trafficking & exploitation. She also writes on parenting, creativity and activism issues on her blog: melwiggins.com. Mel has a weakness for a good box set marathon and can be found on twitter & instagram @melwiggins.