McCracken, Henry Joy (1767–98), United Irishman, was born 31 August 1767 at 39 High St., Belfast, fifth among six surviving children (four sons and two daughters) of John McCracken and his second wife, Ann (née Joy). Both parents were devout presbyterians, and belonged to two of Belfast's most respectable families. John McCracken (c.1721–1803) was a ship's captain and entrepreneur: he founded one of Belfast's largest rope works in 1758, was a leading sailcloth merchant, and with partners set up the town's first cotton mill in Francis St.; he also established the Marine Charitable Society to care for sick and aged sailors. Ann Joy (1731?–1814) of Killead, Co. Antrim, was the daughter of Francis Joy (qv), founder of the Belfast News-Letter.
Henry was educated at the school of the educational pioneer David Manson (qv) in Donegall St., and at the local grammar school. From his youth he was interested in mechanics, and displayed a talent for copying and improving machinery. Intended for the textile trade, he was taught weaving, bookkeeping, and merchandising. Aged 22, he was appointed manager of his father's cotton mill at Francis St. Henry shared his parents' Christian values and philanthropic concerns. Around 1788 he and his sister Mary Ann (qv), to whom he was particularly close, opened a Sunday school to teach poor children reading and writing as well as Christian instruction; he later also opened a circulating library for Belfast's working classes. His religious outlook strongly influenced his political views: he believed that the corruption of true Christianity had led to injustices such as slavery and oppressive laws, and he particularly condemned the payment of tithe by poor catholics and presbyterians to support anglican clergy.
Almost 6 ft tall, fair-haired and handsome, he had an attractive, engaging personality. He regularly attended the third presbyterian church in Rosemary St., ministered by the liberal and tolerant Sinclair Kelburn (qv). Here McCracken met other like-minded men such as Samuel Neilson (qv), William Simms (qv), and Robert Simms (qv). In late 1790 he also became friends with Thomas Russell (qv), a liberal army officer, who proved an important influence. In mid 1791 Neilson, Russell, McCracken, and others discussed creating a society to pursue parliamentary reform and catholic relief, which led to the founding of the United Irishmen in Belfast in October 1791. McCracken also took part in the revival of Volunteering, and with his brothers Francis and William marched in the great Volunteer review in Belfast in July 1792 to commemorate the fall of the Bastille. After the outbreak of war in February 1793, tensions in Belfast increased as the army attempted to intimidate radicals. McCracken stood up to this and in April 1793 intervened in a brawl between drunken soldiers and Belfast youths and almost fought a duel with a young officer.
Perhaps because of his business commitments, he did not play a prominent role in the early United Irishmen, but when the society became a secret oath-bound organisation he was sworn in on 24 March 1795 and became one of its leading members. With Russell and Neilson, he was a key figure in transforming the society into a popular revolutionary organisation. When Tone visited Belfast in June 1795, prior to leaving for America, all four climbed to the top of MacArt's fort overlooking Belfast and made a solemn promise: ‘never to desist in our efforts until we had subverted the authority of England over our country, and asserted our independence’ (Tone, ii, 333). During 1795 McCracken left Belfast to reside at Holywood, Co. Down, where he and Russell worked together regularly on United matters. As the United Irishmen began to expand their popular base, McCracken's rapport with working people proved useful, particularly in recruiting catholic Defenders. Free from anti-catholic prejudice and sympathetic to the poor, McCracken became highly influential with the Defenders, and assumed a position of command in their organisation. He regularly travelled to Armagh to help catholics who had been the victims of sectarian outrages to seek legal redress, sometimes using his own funds to pay the legal expenses, which further consolidated his standing with the Defenders.
After leaving Holywood he started a calico printing business at Glenevey, but he devoted so much of his time to political matters that within a year it failed. He then returned to the family business, using the occupation of travelling textile merchant as cover for his United Irish activities. Arrested in Belfast on a charge of treason (10 October 1796), he was imprisoned in Kilmainham jail, Dublin. His brother William joined him in April 1797, and from July they were allowed to share a cell. During his imprisonment he quarrelled bitterly with Henry Haslett (qv) and Neilson over attempts by Neilson's friends to negotiate individually for his release, contrary to an agreement made earlier by the prisoners; they were reconciled after some months. McCracken developed serious rheumatism in the damp cells of Kilmainham, which at times left him almost crippled. His family applied for his release, claiming that another winter in prison would kill him, and he and William were released on bail on 8 December 1797.
After several weeks convalescing in Belfast, he threw himself again into United Irish activity, and in late February 1798 the Ulster executive sent him to contact the national executive in Dublin. He was in Dublin when the Leinster directory was arrested on 12 March, and decided with other United leaders that they must act soon. He returned to Belfast in mid May and reported that Leinster would rise on 23 May. Despite urgings from McCracken and other militants, the Belfast leadership hesitated. On 1 June the United Irish general for Antrim, Robert Simms, resigned his position, and several United colonels also refused to fight without French assistance. McCracken, though, believed that they should rely on their own efforts, and on 4 June he was elected general of Antrim and commander-in-chief of the United Irish army of the north. He was chosen for his courage and vigour, and for his ability to bring thousands of Defenders into the United ranks. He immediately began planning for a rising, notifying local commanders that they should seize their own towns and then converge on Antrim town, the county's strategic centre. On 7 June he raised a green flag at Roughfort, near Templepatrick, and marched towards Antrim with United Irish units joining him along the way. Assisted by James Hope (qv), his trusted lieutenant, he led the main United force of about 2,000 men in the attack on Antrim town. At first McCracken's pikemen pushed the garrison before them, but the United Irish reinforcements that had been expected failed to arrive, and the attack lost momentum. When some of his untrained men began to panic under fire and flee, McCracken did his best to rally the faint-hearted but was knocked to the ground by fleeing insurgents. His failure to block the approaches to Antrim meant that military reinforcements from Belfast arrived unhindered and attacked the insurgents in the rear, causing most of them to scatter.
After the defeat McCracken and about 100 men took refuge at Slemish mountain. On 14 June he marched south to link up with the United Irish army in Co. Down, but on reaching Ballyclare he heard of their defeat at Ballynahinch the day before and had to go into hiding in the hills around Belfast with a handful of his men. Brooding on the defeat, he blamed the United leadership for their timidity and treachery.
Planning to escape to America, he disguised himself as a carpenter and set out to sail from Carrickfergus on 7 July, but was recognised by a yeoman and arrested and imprisoned. Brought to Belfast on 16 July, he was court-martialled at the Exchange building the next day, found guilty, and sentenced to death. He showed great fortitude; in the past he had said that he did not expect nor want to die a natural death. The authorities offered to spare his life if he would name the leader he had replaced, but he refused. In his last hours he was attended by William Steele Dickson (qv) and Kelburn, and asked Mary Ann to inform Russell that he had done his duty. On 17 July he was hanged at the Market House in High St., and buried in St George's churchyard. What were believed to be his remains were dug up in 1902 and later interred in Clifton St. cemetery in 1909, where a memorial was erected.
He never married but had a daughter Maria (1794–1878), probably with Mary Bodle, daughter of a gamekeeper who lived near Cave Hill. His portrait from a miniature was painted by his great-grand-niece Sarah Cecilia Harrison (qv) in 1926, and is held in the Ulster Museum. As a doomed romantic hero he has featured prominently in ballads and literary portrayals of 1798. Because of his sympathy for working people and his observation that ‘the rich always betray the poor’ (Madden, 69), he has often been cited as a leading United Irish social radical, but he did not formulate any detailed social theories; his most significant contributions to the United movement were as a dedicated activist and an inspiring leader.
His brother Francis McCracken (1762–1842) was a member of the original Belfast Company of Volunteers. He was also a United Irishman and, although he does not appear to have fought in the rebellion, he came under suspicion and in July 1798 emigrated to America, where he associated with United Irish exiles. He returned to Ireland around October 1800 and in July 1803 attempted to dissuade Thomas Russell from mounting an insurrection in Antrim and Down. From 1803 he took over the management of his family's rope works and sailcloth factory, with premises at 38 Waring St. and 1 James St. He and Mary Ann shared a house at 79 Donegall St., where they reared Henry's daughter Maria; he died 22 December 1842.
The rest of the family were prominently involved in the Belfast textile trade: Henry's sisters Margaret (1760–1829) and Mary Ann ran a muslin manufacturing business at 39 Waring St.; William (1765–1814), a cotton manufacturer with premises at 35 Castle St., was a United man and took part in the attack on Antrim in 1798; the youngest brother, John (1772–1835), owned a prosperous cotton spinning factory in Donegall St. and had no interest in politics.