With the Derry Club Championship well underway, great excitement and competitiveness surrounds the county.
The GAA plays a pivotal role in Irish identity. Therefore it is unsurprising that many clubs have named themselves in honour of Irish martyrs.
In this series the Republican Youth explores the Republican names behind some of Derry’s GAA clubs and lifes of these Martyrs.
We start in Moneymore, the most southern club in County Derry. This club was reformed in 1976 and is named after Irish martyr Henry Joy McCracken.
McCracken himself hailed from Belfast and was a leading light in the United Ireland movement. Born into a Presbyterian Family, he began working in the textile industry, however it was his fascination with radical politics that occupied most of his life.
McCrakens’ desire for Irish freedom led him to join the United Ireland Movement in 1795.
Like many leaders of the United Irishmen, McCracken was a visionary and a man who was ahead of his time. Despite being born into wealth, he endorsed working class rights. He was sympathetic to the working class and readily admitted that the “rich always betrayed the poor”.
He was from a Presbyterian background, however like many Republicans he envisioned a secular society which would be free of British rule and which would allow people of all faiths and none to be elected. This was a direct challenge to the British Policy of time, which held that elected representatives and even voters themselves had to be Land Owners and also members of the Church of England.
Following his enrollment with the United Irelanders’, McCracken worked tirelessly recruiting volunteers throughout the country, he wanted to create a force which could remove the unfair British political system in Ireland.
McCracken’ s political activities and radical ideas soon alarmed the authorities. After initially failing to arrest him, Crown forces imprisoned McCracken in Kilmainhaim Gaol in 1797.
Following his release in December 1797 he made provisions for a rebellion in County Antrim. However he ran into difficulties as there were reservations amongst Antrim based republicans such as Robert Simms. Simms’ argued that no rebellion should go ahead until the volunteers received aid from French forces.
Nevertheless McCracken was stubborn and ambitious and pressed ahead with his plan for rebellion. McCrackens’ followers respected his commitment to the cause with one troop stating:
“When all our leaders deserted us, Henry Joy McCracken stood alone, faithful to the last. He led on the forlorn hope of the cause …”
McCracken’s strategy was to lead local Antrim based volunteers in taking British Garrison posts throughout the county. He hoped to create a domino effect which would remove British forces bit by bit throughout the county and eventually Ireland itself.
On the 6th of June 1798, McCracken issued the order: “Army of Ulster, tomorrow we march on Antrim; drive the garrison of Randalstown before you and haste to form a junction with your Commander-in-Chief. 1st year of liberty, 6th day of June 1798”.
McCracken was optimistic of success telling his sister prior to the rebellion, “on Friday the 8th June all the county was in the hands of the people, Antrim, Belfast and Carrickfergus excepted”. However McCracken failed to appreciate the critical importance of taking such areas.
At Craigarogan rath, near Roughfort, McCracken assembled his forces. Despite his bravery few United Irishmen had come to his aid and many had sided with Simms. Regardless of their small numbers, McCrackens’ forces marched towards Antrim town, passing through Templepatrick, Dunadry and Muckamore on the way.
The Volunteers were initially successful at the battle in Antrim town. However, military mismanagement their small numbers led to their eventual defeat. Reluctantly they fled the battle and took refuge in the Slemish Mountains.
During this time McCrackens’ sister Mary Ann plotted Henry Joys escape to America, however this was foiled by Crown Forces and he was arrested in Carrickfergus on the 7th July 1798.
On the 17th of July McCracken was transferred to Belfast prison and he was Court Martialled. During his trial the prosecutor John Pollock promised to spare McCrackens’ life in exchange for the names of other volunteers.
However McCracken remained loyal to his comrades in his final hours and refused this offer. As a result McCracken was hanged at 5:00 pm that evening, outside the old market house in Belfast. Strangely his place of execution was built on ground which his great-great-grandfather had given to the town, in Cornmarket.
McCracken died at the age of 30. He is buried in the Clifton Street burying ground in Belfast.
Despite his short life it is clear that McCracken was a remarkable man who left a lasting legacy.
McCracken was born into a Rich Ship Owning family but unlike many others at the time, he devoted his life to fighting for the working classes and those who had nothing.
His political vision of a secular society with equal rights for citizens and freedom for the Irish Nation, is a vision which is still pursued to this very day. McCracken will be remembered for his courage in trying to fulfill these dreams.
Therefore he remains a source of inspiration for anyone crossing the white line on GAA Championship day or in daily life itself……