Henry Joy McCracken was born in High Street, Belfast on 31st August 1767, he was the son of Captain John McCracken and Ann Joy, a daughter of Francis Joy who founded the Belfast News-Letter. He was very proud of his Huguenot descent on his mother’s side, hence the Joy in his name. The family were libertarian in their views, his father in particular was involved in many of the leading philanthropic projects in Belfast at the time, a characteristic which was inherited by his six children, Henry Joy, Margaret, Mary Ann, William, Francis and John. His father was a partner in Joy, McCabe and McCracken which was a textile business and it was here that Henry Joy worked as a manager when he was 22 years old.
Belfast society at the time was awash with radical views inspired by what was happening in Europe and America through revolution, Henry Joy was naturally attracted to these and he became deeply involved with a small circle of friends who would discuss political thinking and ideas of the time such as Thomas Paines ‘ The Rights of Man’. After reading a pamphlet published by Theobold Wolf Tone in Dublin, the group invited Wolf Tone to a meeting in Belfast. It was at this meeting on October 14th, 1791 that the Society of United Irishmen was formed.
Henry Joy McCracken, Thomas Russell, Theobald Wolfe Tone and Samuel Neilson have been cited as the core of that movement but there were many more who shared the same political idealism including his brother Francis and sister Mary Ann. His business took him all over the country and through this he was able to propagate the ideology of the Untied Irishmen developing members and supporters. Although the government were aware of the society and its views they did nothing draconian until the French declaration of war in 1793, they then banned the organization and made membership and the swearing of anyone into it, a capital offense. The society went underground and became a secret society.
The numbers continued to grow as did the satellite membership groups throughout the country, the society also developed its network and relationships with France. The government became nervous about the objectives of the society and the perceived threat of an uprising and carried out a series of arrests. Henry Joy was arrested on October 10th,1796 and jailed in Dublin where he stayed until December 1797 when he was released without trail. A letter written to him by his brother John sums up the situation in the country with those suspected of being a member of the United Irishmen:- ‘I have nothing to tell you except the barbarities committed on the innocent country people by yeomen and Orangemen. The practice among them is to hang a man up by the heels with a rope of full twist, by which means the sufferer whirls round like a bird roasting at the fire, during which he is lashed with belts, etc to make him tell where arms are concealed.
``Last week, at a place near Dungannon, a young man being used in this manner called his father for assistance, who being inflamed at the sight, struck one of the party a desperate blow with his turf spade; but alas! his life paid the forfeit of his rashness: his entrails were torn out and exposed on a thorn bush. This is but one of the barbarity of the many which are daily practiced about the counties Tyrone and Armagh; however the county Antrim is not so bad, but I believe not much better.''
After release from prison he went straight back into the leadership of the United Irishmen becoming a member of the Ulster Executive and attending the United Irish Delegates Convention on February 26th,1798 where the over riding call was for an immediate uprising against the government. He is quoted as saying ‘ 7,000 men in Antrim would rise….`rather be in the field like men, than hunted like wild beasts, and see their friends carried off to jail, their houses ransacked and the cowardly yeomen riding roughshod over them day by day.''
In the background but vital to all this was the commitment of France to an expeditionary force of troops and arms to support the uprising which had already had one failed attempt. Wolf Tone had gone to France to negotiate this. The uprising was set for 23rd May, when the signal went out the north did not act immediately, there was hesitation by those commanding the forces in Down and Antrim, they eventually abdicated their positions and Henry Joy was elected as commander in chief of the Ulster United Irishmen.
With the British onslaught of members in the previous year and the large army under General Nugent, the United Irishmen were in a weak position. They were poorly armed, out of 25,000 only 4,000 had guns, the rest relied on pikes and whatever would serve as a weapon. The timing of the French landings had been totally out of sync with what was happening on the ground.
With this background Henry Joy forged a strategy to attack Antrim and Randalstown simultaneously. While the Down division would attack Ballynahinch, Saintfield, Newtownards and Portaferry. General Nugent found out about these plans within days through informers within the United Irishmen and decided to concentrate his full force on Antrim. From the cottage Henry Joy headed to Greencastle and another safe house, from there he set of with two comrades towards Carrickfergus, on the road they were stopped, arrested and taken to Carrickfergus Castle. Henry Joy was tried by court martial and sentenced to death. He was offered clemency if he would give information on others involved in the uprising which he refused to do.
On July 17th, 1798 he was hanged at the old Market House, unlike many others before him who were hanged and had their heads cut off and placed on spikes around the Market area, his body was handed over to his sister Mary Ann who had it interred in St Georges Churchyard, his remains were later moved to Clifton Street. After his death his family moved from High Street to Castle Street. Mary Ann became a leading social reformer in Belfast and died in 1866 aged 96. There is a plaque beside the door of 37, High Street which marks the proximity of his home. Another plaque is beside the door of the Masonic Hall, Rosemary Street. Further down Rosemary Street beside the 2nd Presbyterian Church is a plaque to William Drennan who was born in the Manse of the Church where the society used to meet in the attic.