Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Two Fearless Belfast Women; Remembering Rab McCullough; Féile na gCloigíní Gorma.

Winifred Carney

Two fearless Belfast Women

Two Belfast women, Mary Ann McCracken and Winifred Carney, will soon have statues commemorating their heroism, leadership and commitment to social justice and freedom erected in the grounds of Belfast City Hall. It was agreed at the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee last week that the Council will now begin the process of costing and designing the statues.

In 2012 an Equality Impact Assessment confirmed what anyone with eyes already knew – that the grounds of Belfast City Hall were overwhelmingly dominated by white, male, upper class and unionist images. The City Hall did not reflect the reality of life in Belfast and especially of a changing Belfast.

To address this imbalance Sinn Féin brought forward proposals four years ago to transform the City Hall and grounds. The process has been slow as some within the Council have sought to frustrate this new direction. However, last Friday’s Council meeting has now moved the proposal around the two Belfast women a decisive step forward.

Winifred Carney was born in Bangor but was reared at 5 Falls Road. She attended the Christian Brother’s School in Donegall Street where she worked for a time as a junior teacher. She qualified as one of the first lady secretaries and short hand typists in Belfast from Hughes Commercial Academy. Subsequently she worked for a time in a solicitor’s office in Dungannon.

Winifred had a keen interest in the Irish language and culture and joined the Gaelic League. She was a strong advocate for the rights of women and was a committed socialist. She was very close to Marie Johnson who worked as secretary for the Irish Textile Workers’ Union. The union had been established by James Connolly in 1911.

When Marie became ill she asked Winifred to take over the responsibility. Two years later Connolly, along with Winifred Carney, published the Manifesto of Irish Textile Workers’ Union – To the Linen Slaves of Belfast.

Carney was also a member of the Cumann na mBan which she joined with Connolly’s two daughters Nora and Ina Connolly. She was also in the Irish Citizen Army. In 1916 she was the first women to enter the GPO during the Rising. She worked closely with Connolly in preparing dispatches. 

When the GPO was evacuated after five days of fierce fighting Carney was with the wounded Connolly as he was carried to number 16 Moore Street. There five of the signatories to the Proclamation held their last meeting as the Provisional Government. Julia Grenan, Winifred Carney and Elizabeth O’Farrell were present and when Tom Clarke broke down at the prospect of surrender Last Words tell us; “Miss Grenan and Miss Carney went across to him to try and consol him but instead they themselves dissolved into tears and Clarke comforted them.”

Following the surrender Winifred Carney was imprisoned in England. She stood unsuccessfully for East Belfast in the 1918 election and continued to work for the Transport Union. In 1920-22 she was secretary of the Irish Republican Prisoners’ Dependents Fund 1920-22. In 1922 she was imprisoned in Armagh jail.

In 1928 she married George McBride. He had fought in the First World War and was from the Shankill Road. They were both committed socialists although differed on the national issue and the Rising. Winifred Carney died on 21 November 1943 and was buried in Milltown Cemetery, Belfast. Belfast Graves erected a headstone on her grave in 1985.

Mary Ann McCracken was the sister of Henry Joy McCracken, executed for his part in the 1798 Rebellion. She was a radical thinker, social reformer, who was implacably opposed to slavery and poverty, was a friend of the disadvantaged, and an advocate for the rights of women.

She was born in Belfast in July 1870 to a wealthy Presbyterian family. Her Uncle Henry Joy raised the funding for the construction of the Poor House by the Belfast Charitable Society – now Clifton House – in 1774. Mary Ann McCracken was a member of the Board of the Society and retained a close personal and working relationship with it until her death in 1866.

In July 1798 her brother Henry Joy McCracken was sentenced to be hanged for his part in the United Irish Rising. In a letter she later described the events:

“I took his arm, and we walked together to the place of execution where I was told it was the General’s orders that I should leave him, which I peremptorily refused. Harry begged I would go. Clasping my hands around him, (I did not weep til then) I said I could bear anything but leaving him. Three times he kissed me and entreated I would go; and, looking round to recognise some friend to put me in charge of he beckoned to a Mr. Boyd, and said ‘He will take charge of you.’ ... and fearing that any further refusal would disturbed the last moments of my dearest brother, I suffered myself to be led away.”

After the failure of the rebellion Mary Ann dedicated her life to many causes. The breadth of her interests and activism is remarkable. She helped provide education and apprenticeships for children through the Poor House Ladies Committee. In 1847 at the age of 77 she was one of those who established the “Ladies Industrial School for the Relief of Destitution” with the aim of helping those suffering as a result of An Gorta Mór.

Mary Ann was one of the first to support the “Belfast Ladies Clothing Society” and raised money for the “Society for the Relief of the Destitute Sick”. She was a member of the committee that lobbied for a change in the law to end the practice of ‘climbing boys.’ Their work involved scrambling up the chimney’s of the wealthy to clean them. The risk of falling and the impact on the health of the boys as they cleared away soot was significant.

Her opposition to slavery was relentless and total. When Waddell Cunningham, a merchant, proposed in 1786 that the Belfast Slave Ship Company be established the scheme was vehemently opposed by those who later established the United Irish Society. This and the publication of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and the French and American revolutions hugely influenced Mary Ann her brother Henry Joy and all of those who came to found the United Irish Society in Belfast in October 1791.

In a letter written in 1859 Mary Ann recalls how deeply Thomas Russell despised slavery. He was one of those: “ ... who in the days of Wilberforce (campaigned against Slavery in England) abstained from the use of slave labour produce until slavery in the west Indies was abolished, and at the dinner parties to which he was so often invited and when confectionary was so much used he would not taste anything with sugar in it ...”

Her opposition was such that as a small frail woman she would hand out leaflets opposing slavery to those boarding vessels to sail to the USA. In a letter written in 1859 – a year before the American Civil War began, she describes America: “...considered the land of the great. The brave, may more properly be styled the land of the tyrant and the Slave ... Belfast, once so celebrated for its love of liberty is now so sunk in the love of filthy lucre (money earned dishonourably) that there are but 16 or 17 female anti-slavery advocates, for the good cause paying 2/6 yearly – not one man, tho’ several Quakers in Belfast and none to distribute papers to American Emigrants but an old woman within 17 days of 89.”

Frail in body she might have been but strong in heart and spirit she remained all of her days. Mary Ann McCracken died on the 26 July 1866 aged 96.


Rab McCullough.

My condolences to Marian and the family of Rab McCullough. Rab died suddenly last week. He was one of Irelands leading blues musicans. He played with AC/DC, Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher, Jimmy Hendrix and other global rock stars. He alsotaught Bobby Sands to play the guitar when they were imprisoned in the 1970s.

I wrote a little piece about this recentlyafter Danny Devenney published his iconic print - The Session- featuring Bobby, John Lennon, Che, Woody Gutherie and others having a music session. Rab gave me some details of Bobbys early efforts to learn how to play the guitar and of his musical influences. He, Tomboy Loudan and Bobby used to jam together faoi glas na gallaimh.

Recently I asked Rab if he would join Tomboy, BikMcFarlane and other exprisoner musicans, post the covid restrictions, in a session of music from the 60s and 70s that they played together with Bobby in the Crum and Long Kesh. Rab was delighted to be asked. He rhymed of a list of potential numbers from Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan,John Lennon and others. Tomboy also signed up. Bik agreed to ramrod that gig and we spoke about it only last week. Unfortunately it wont happen now. Not with Rab  anyway. But his music will live on. Belfast Blues is a classic.

Go deanfaidh Dia trocairear Rab. Mo comhbhrón le Marian agus a chlann.


Féile na gCloigíní Gorma.

Last week it was an honour for me to be on a panel discussion about the Belfast Hills. This discussion- on zoom- was part of Féile na gCloigíní and included Lynda Sullivan, Friends of the Earth, Jim Bradley, Belfast Hills Partnership, Maria Morgan, Ligoneil Improvement Association, and Melina Quinn, National Trust.

I recalled the role the local community played in getting quarrying on the mountain stopped and how the campaign for the conservation of the Bog Meadows and Divis and Black Mountain developed. I made the point that none of this would have happened witout local activism and the efforts of Terry Enwrigh Snr, Adrian Crean, Terry Goldsmith and others. Colin Glen has a similar history. Empowered communities can make a differance.

Getting my notes together for this event started me thinking of the time when my family got a house in the late 1950s in Ballymurphy. At that time the Murph was surrounded by green fields. A river, now mostly underground, ran parralell with Ballymurphy. That was one of our favourite places to play when we werent on the mountain.  Springhill was yet to be built. It was a great green space - Husky’s Field- with a big red bricked house used as a clinic, at its centre. We went there for codliver oil and orangejuice. What is now Springhill Avenue was a long tree lined avenue. The powers that be destroyed all that. They eradicated every blade of grass and built Springhill, a grey brick and black taramacked estate with all greenery erased.

Thankfully that too now is gone, following sustained housing campaigns, from Divis to Moyard, Turf Lodge, the Shankill and other remenants of disasterous housing developments from the 1960s.

There were very old houses - The Yellow Houses- at the corner of what is now Springfield Park. They were a reminder that this was a rural area. There were a number of working farms. One opposite Springhill.  Another beside  Corrigan Park. Yet another at the Top of the Rock at the left hand junction of the Whiterock and Springfield Roads. We usually  went up the mountain via the mountain loney.

Therewas an old tin church enroute, opposite Dermot Hill,smaller but not dissimiliar to Saint Matthias’on the Glen Road. Above and behind that there were two flax dams with swans and an epidemic of frogspawn in the earlyspring. At the top of the loney there was a spring of fresh mountainwater, now piped off.  Behind it was a track – now blocked- up to the Hatchet Field. We spent childhood summers on the mountain.That track to the Hatchet Field was our main route upwards towards the acres of buebells which give Féile na gCloigíní Gorma its name.

We also used to walk up to Torneroy - close to Lamh Dearg and listen to the Corncrakes above Turf Lodge.

It is good that Féile celebrates all this. But more importantly it also looks with hope to the future. A future in which humans can live in harmony with nature. In our case as Belfast people in harmony with our Belfast Hills. My thanks to everyone who has made this possible. Many thanks also to all who organise the many events of Féile na gCloigíní Gorma. It is based on the princilples of Community, Solidarity and Wellbeing. Great work and very enjoyable also.

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