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Groundbreakers: Rebel Heart – The Life of Mary Ann McCracken

Date Posted: May 19, 2016

New Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund documentary presented by Game of Thrones star Michelle Fairley, Groundbreakers: Rebel Heart – The Life of Mary Ann McCracken, shines a spotlight on the remarkable life and work of a woman ahead of her time. The show airs Sunday 22nd May at 9:30pm on BBC Two Northern Ireland.

Born in 1770 into a middle-class Presbyterian family, Mary Ann was the fifth of seven children born to Ann Joy and prominent ship owner Captain John McCracken. Her grandfather, paper manufacturing pioneer Francis Joy, was founder of the Belfast News Letter which is now the oldest newspaper in the English-speaking world.

Despite her comfortable upbringing, Mary Ann was a tireless campaigner for the rights of those less fortunate than herself – especially girls and young women. She was also a fervent supporter of the United Irishmen and a devoted sister.

After her brother, the famous United Irishman Henry Joy McCraken, was sent to the gallows in 1798, it was discovered that he had fathered an illegitimate daughter, Maria Bodel. Mary Ann defied the convention of the time as well, as her family’s wishes, to take in and raise the child as her own.

At the turn of the century, along with her sister Margaret, she started a successful muslin business, and was as equally concerned with the welfare of her workers as she was with company turnover.
Mary Ann, like her brother, held radical political and social beliefs. She dedicated her life to helping the poor and as a member of the Ladies Committee of the Belfast Charitable Society, played a leading role in the day-to-day running of the poor house on the city’s Clifton Street.

Due to her hard work, an infirmary, nursery and school were set up ensuring all children received a basic education and were taught skills that would help them get a job.

She was also a vigorous campaigner for the abolition of slavery and at 88 years of age could be found at Belfast docks handing out anti-slavery leaflets to those boarding ships bound for the United States.

Director Brendan J Byrne said: “To find out how seminal Mary Ann was to Henry’s thinking and discover how, for more than over 50 years she championed issues such as women’s rights and slavery, it quickly dawned on me that Mary Ann is quite simply a female giant in Ireland’s 19th century history.”

Michelle Fairley said: “Through the making of this documentary I literally had the privilege of walking in Mary Ann McCracken’s footsteps to revisit the key locations and moments in her life story. This was truly revealing and inspirational for me. Such was Mary’s Ann’s strength of character and her list of remarkable achievements, I couldn’t quite believe that she had not been more widely celebrated before now. I’m glad to be part of trying to do just that, and to acknowledge the legacy of a woman who was, quite simply, extraordinary.”

Groundbreakers: Rebel Heart – The Life of Mary Ann McCracken
is a Below the Radar production for BBC Northern Ireland in conjunction with Northern Ireland Screen’s Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund.

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