James Orr  (1770 - 1816)

Bard of Ballycarry, United Irishman, 1798 Rising participant

James Orr, an only child, was born to James Orr and his wife in the village of Ballycarry between Larne and Carrickfergus in Co. Antrim in 1770.  James’s father was a weaver by trade who also cultivated a small tract of land on the outskirts of the village to supplement the family’s larder.

The village of Ballycarry was established by a Scottish personage, William Edmonstone of Duntreagh, during the Plantation of Ulster in the early decades of the 17th century.  The Orr’s were one of the settler families brought to Ballycarry by Edmonstone to maintain and defend his considerable estate of 3,000 acres of arable land confiscated from native landowners.  The settlers included clerics, farmers, craftsmen and overseers possessing the necessary skills to establish, maintain and secure a plantation settlement on confiscated land. 

Many of those settlers, including the Orr family were members of the Auld Licht (Old Light) faction of the Presbyterian Kirk (Church) who subscribed to a very conservative interpretation of Presbyterianism. As a consequence, James was not allowed to attend the local Presbyterian school because his parents believed that the teacher, who was a New Licht (New Light) Presbyterian, would expose James to a more liberal interpretation of Presbyterianism: an anathema to members of the conservative faction.

Orr’s education, a product of his parents’ austere beliefs, was limited to reading, writing and the intricacies of the weaving trade.  His exposure to rhyming, a basic component of poetry, was at Sunday school where it was the preferred way of learning and singing the Psalms at Sunday service.  Another source of his learning was through his association with a local book club where he had access to books, newspapers and other reading materials that afforded him a window to the outside world. .

Orr made a living as a weaver.  As weaving was a tedious and repetitive task he bided his time at the loom pondering and contemplating on many temporal subjects including the unequal state of affairs that subjugated so many poor souls to the whims of the chosen elite.  Many of the subjects he pondered found expression in his poems using words, expressions and subjects that could be easily understood by members of the local community who supported and subscribed to his poetic endeavors.   

Despite his lack of a formal education, Orr was not deterred in his pursuit of knowledge, particularly with regard to the forces that held sway over his time, life and fortune. He was an avid reader who, in his lifetime, penned hundreds of poems. His poems told stories of his surroundings, local events, battles of the 1798 Rising, exile, nationalism and many other subjects from the mundane to the radical.  He was regarded as one of the best of Ulster Weaver poets who, together with other poets and writers, spearheaded the literary revival and cultural nationalism of the late 18th century. His body of work penned in both the Ulster-Scots vernacular and English has been compared favorably with that of Robert Burns the Scottish poet of “Auld Lang Syne” fame.

He was familiar with and influenced by Americas fight for independence and the forces and ideals that spearheaded that quest. He was also aware that many of its leaders were of the same Scotch-Irish heritage as he was. He was not alone in that regard as many of his Presbyterian contemporaries who were also victims of the same despotic colonial usurpation that the American patriots so ably dispatched.

Orr came of age during the Europe’s “Age of Enlightenment” alternatively referred to as “Age of Reason”.  The “Age of Enlightenment” was an 18th century philosophical movement that challenged the validity of traditional authority including that of entrenched monarchies and ecclesiastical authorities.  The core of “Enlightenment” thinking was that ideas born of rational thought and subjected to critical thinking and logical discourse, particularly as related to the prevailing social order, would best serve the collective interests of the people. Such ideas, radical for that time, included personal freedom, property rights, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.

The progression of that philosophy over a century or so, culminated in the American Revolution, the convulsive French Revolution of 1789 and the subsequent publication of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen”.  The first of these events, the successful American Revolution with its attendant high ideals of tolerance, liberty and democracy was the catalyst that spawned populist movements throughout the world right up to the present time. 

Ireland was one of the first oppressed nations to follow the American example. Irish patriots who believed that the English government should cede control of Irish affairs to an Irish parliament and that the draconian Penal Laws(1) should be repealed as a matter of basic justice. In furtherance of those modest demands Theobald Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell, Henry Joy McCracken and William Drennan and other patriots founded the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast in October 1791. Orr may have joined the Society at the inaugural meeting or, if not, did so shortly thereafter. 

In 1792 when the Society published a politically radical newspaper titled the “Northern Star” Orr was one of its first contributors. The newspaper, which was edited by Samuel Neilson, was described by Walter Cox a United Irishman, journalist and publisher of another radical newspaper the 'Union Star', as follows:

"a planet of light and heat; its influences were commensurate with its circulation and its circulation was only restricted by the ocean. It warmed the cold; it animated the feeble; it cheered the afflicted; it stimulated the intrepid and instructed all. Pernicious dogmas, false reasoning’s, slavish superstitions and gothic prejudices, which broke the people into different sects and marshalled them against each other, disappeared before it".

When the French declared war on Britain in February of 1793 the British government outlawed the Society fearing an alliance between the Society and the French.  After been outlawed the Society went underground and adopted a new policy anchored in Irish Republicanism; a  policy that was radical, strident and uncompromising in its intent. The policy statement coined by Wolfe Tone reads as follows;

"To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country, these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman, in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, these were my means".

Orr was not deterred in his commitment to the Society as a result of the new militant policy that amounted to an unabashed an act of defiance directed at the British government. From that time on insurrection was not a question of ‘if’' but when. The first attempt was in December of 1796 when a French fleet of 41 ships carrying an invasion force of 14,000 men, under the command of General Hoche, failed to land at Bantry Bay in Co. Cork due to winter storms. The fleet returned to France. Wolfe Tone was aboard the flag ship with General Hoche.

Eighteen months later on May 24th the first battles of the Rising of 1798 started at various locations throughout Leinster.  On June 6th Henry Joy McCraken’s United Army of Ulster, made up mostly of Presbyterian, assembled for battle. On the morning of June 7th Orr led a contingent of Broadisland men to meet up with McCracken at Donegore Hill on outside of Antrim town.  Although as many as 10,000 men assembled there less than 4,000 thousand marched towards Antrim town to do battle.  The ensuing Battle of Antrim which met with some initial success by McCraken’s forces was halted when British reinforcements arrived from Belfast and began shelling rebel positions with artillery. McCraken’s forces retreated towards Ballynahinch where they set-up camp. On June 12th pursuing British forces bombarded the town in a day-long barrage to dislodge and destroy McCracken’s army. Those who survived the bombardment dispersed into the surrounding area thus ending the Rising in Ulster. Orr described the Battle of Antrim in one of his poem ‘Donegore Hill’.

Orr was amongst a small band of fighters that included McCraken, James Hope and James Dickey who went into hiding around Slemish mountain and the hills of south Antrim.  As the hunt intensified the group were forced to split into two groups to reduce their chances of detection.  Orr and James Hope managed to avoid capture and, eventually, made good their escape by boarding a ship bound for America.  McCraken was not so lucky. He was captured on July 7th on his way to board a ship, also bound for America. He was subsequently tried for treason and executed on July 17th 1798. 

The journey across the Atlantic was anything but routine. Apart from cramped quarter and rough seas the ever present threat of being waylaid by prowling British warships on the lookout for escaping United Irishmen and Irish-born sailors whom they would impress into the Royal navy. Orr’s fear of been captured evaporated when the ship sailed into the mouth of the Delaware.  He disembarked at New Castle six miles south of Wilmington in Delaware.

 There is scant information as to where he eventually settled or what he did during his time in America. Some accounts have him working for a newspaper. It’s possible that he moved further up the Delaware to Philadelphia, the largest city in the United States at that time and the home to one of the major seaport on the east coast. It was also a preferred destination for the Scots-Irish due to its religious tolerance and business acumen and ethics.

Irrespective of where he lived in America he returned to Ireland after the hunt for rebels eased up. The 1801 Treaty of Amiens between the British and French included a provision for “the restoration of prisoners and hostages”. The French insisted that the leaders of the 1798 Rising be included.  Whether that had anything to do with Orr’s situation is, at best, conjecture. Perhaps it was the subordinate role he played in the Rising that allowed him to return without facing sanctions. It’s also possible that the blood lust pursued by the ruling Protestant Ascendancy(2) against the rebels had somewhat abated by then.

Back in his beloved Ballycarry, Orr resumed his weaving and literary endeavors. He also tended to the small tract of land he inherited from his father.

He published his first volume of poems in 1804. A common practice at that time was to enlist sponsors who paid him for a copy of the finished work.  He also had poems published in various publications including the Belfast Magazine, the Belfast Commercial Chronicle and the Belfast Newsletter. A second volume of his poem was published, posthumously, in 1817.

He was an active member of the local Masonic Lodge. He wrote numerous songs and poems for several local Lodges including the "Craftsmen of Ballycarry" and the "Dying Mason".

Orr died on the 24th April 1816 and is buried in the graveyard at Templecorran. In 1831 a monument was erected over his grave by local Masonic Lodges.  The monument was re-dedicated by The Provincial Grand Lodge of Antrim in 2014.  For detailed information on the dedication of the monument and the inscriptions on its façade click on the following link; 

Restoration of The Orr Memorial in Templecorran Cemetery, Ballycarry. | irishfreemasonry.com


Contributor:  Tomás Ó Coısdealha


1,  The stated intent of the Penal Laws, which were primarily directed at the native Catholic population was to, 1) deprive the native Catholics of all civil life, 2) reduce them to a condition of ignorance and, 3) to dissociate them from the soil.  These repressive and draconian laws, originally directed at the catholic population, were amended over time to curb the growing influence of the Presbyterians whose loyalty to the realm was suspect. 

According to Edmund Burke, an Irish political philosopher, the Penal Laws were "a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man."

2,   The Protestant Ascendancy  was the political, economic, and social domination of Ireland by a minority of  landowners, Protestant clergy, and members of the professions, all members of the Established Church of Ireland or Church of England from 1691 through the 1920's.


NAME:      Templecorran Cemetery                                                   

ADDRESS:   Ballycarry, Co. Antrim, Ireland



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Posted 8/6/2016