by Dr Carol Baraniuk, University of Glasgow
In 1998, the bicentenary of the 1798 Rebellion, Stewart Parker’s superb drama Northern Star ran for three weeks during the Belfast Festival in First Presbyterian Church, Rosemary Street – a setting richly evocative of the liberal religious, political and intellectual culture for which the city gained a reputation during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. A colleague offered me a spare ticket to the play, which portrayed the career of the magnetic Ulster United Irish leader Henry Joy McCracken, and I went along more or less just to pass the time. Little did I know as I took my seat that the event would spark an interest in the United Irishmen which was to change the course of my life.
I had always been fascinated by the history of Ireland but knew relatively little about the eighteenth century – if anything I’d suspected it might be rather dry compared to the seventeenth century’s turmoils, or the era of Home Rule, the Ulster Covenant and the Easter Rising, with which I was then much more familiar. But the play’s wit and pathos, its sparkling dialogue offset and underlined by inspirational readings on libertarian and anti-sectarian themes all proved enthralling. What I glimpsed in the hushed church on that dull November evening set me on a trail in search of the Ulster men and women of the 1790s, many of them Scots-speaking Presbyterians, who had aspired to achieve reformed government in Ireland and lasting peace among Protestants, Catholics and Dissenters.
That trail led me in the end to doctoral thesis research at the University of Glasgow. My subject was the Ulster poet James Orr (1770-1816), a devoted comrade of McCracken who shared time on the run with him in the Slemish district following defeat at the Battle of Antrim on 7 June 1798. Orr was a fine poet in standard English, but without doubt at his most dynamic and engaging when writing Ulster-Scots verse in a style and tradition associated with Robert Burns, though certainly not simply in imitation of the Scots bard. In fact it became clear to me that Orr had an exceptional, original talent, and the details of his relatively short life proved equally fascinating.
Born in 1770, a weaver by trade, Orr grew up in the County Antrim village of Ballycarry, a delightful spot, site of the romantic, ruined Templecorran church, which enjoys magnificent views across the Irish Sea to Scotland. Orr’s era used to be routinely defined as an ‘age of revolutions’. Certainly the French people’s storming of the notorious Bastille prison in 1789 was enthusiastically welcomed by many in Belfast and around the Ulster townlands. Weavers such as Orr, independent-minded men from the labouring-classes, were frequently political radicals, favouring the democratic ideals of Thomas Paine, expressed in The Rights of Man. They sought religious equality; social justice for the poor; and an end to the tithe – the tax system that compelled all citizens to contribute a proportion of their earnings to the established Anglican Church. When just into his twenties Orr, largely self-taught, well read and intelligent, was soon contributing barnstorming pieces articulating such views to the United Irishmen’s newspaper the Northern Star. His opinions, and his abilities as a writer, quickly gained him considerable attention in Belfast and within his own community.
Orr was no mere desk revolutionary. He is one of a line of patriotic ‘rebel’ poets in Irish history, but from the northern Dissenter strand of the island’s story. When the United Irishmen rose in rebellion in 1798, he and other men of the Ballycarry district marched to join with Henry Joy McCracken’s troops at the mustering ground on Donegore Hill on 7th June. In the north, the Rebellion was speedily snuffed out by the forces of the Crown. McCracken, like many in the leadership, was captured, tried and hanged while others were transported. Orr himself evaded arrest, but as a wanted man with a price on his head he was forced into hiding in safe houses or in the barren Antrim countryside for months, before briefly escaping to America. Thus he transitioned from rebel to fugitive, eventually taking on another iconic identity, that of the Irish emigrant, a melancholy exile divided by politics or circumstances from the country he loves. His poem ‘The Passengers’ is one of the most vigorous, wry, humorous and genuinely moving accounts of a voyage to America in the canon of emigrant literature composed on this island. It exhibits all the animation of a true eye witness account and really deserves to be much better known. But Orr did not find America congenial territory, and when an amnesty eventually permitted his return to Ballycarry he was glad to re-establish himself as a weaver there, and to set about documenting his experiences in verse.
At the heart of Orr’s work is a sequence of six Ulster-Scots pieces scattered seemingly at random throughout Poems on Various Subjects, his first volume published in 1804. These verses record or encode his time as one of the men of ’98. The sequence includes ‘The Wanderer’, an enigmatic broad Scots dialogue that allows the reader to share the tension and physical discomfort of his time as a wanted man. ‘A Prayer’, written in the form of a Scots metrical psalm, reveals a speaker wrestling with his conscience at the prospect of taking part in violent battle. ‘Donegore Hill’, a masterpiece if ever there was one, compels the reader with a withering first person account of tragi-comic events preceding the Battle of Antrim. It records Orr’s fury and frustration at the cowardice and perfidy of many of his comrades, and brusquely, almost in an aside, voices his deep sorrow over wrecked hopes:
My story’s done, an’ to be free,
Owre sair, I doubt, they smarted,
Wha wad hae bell’d the cat awee, [have successfully challenged authority]
Had they no been deserted.
Orr’s poetry, his surviving prose work, and the personal recollections of his friends reveal him to have been essentially humane, gentle and thoughtful. The speaker in his great poem ‘To the Potatoe’, which prophetically deploys the familiar root vegetable as a symbol of Ireland, expresses his anger at the ‘proud prelatic pack’ – the Anglican upper classes who despise the potato because it is the food of the poor. He deplores the conditions in which ‘poor deels’ have to scrape a living ‘on bogs an’ braes’. For them there are no luxury foods – no meal, butter, beef or cheese. Hardly able to clothe their own children, they still are harried for rent by heartless collectors. His love for his own community, and compassion for the half-starved, ‘sarkless’ labouring classes is evident. It’s clear that he wishes to give them a voice, and to demand justice for them. But the poem shows his preference was for what we might now call ‘non-violent direct action’ – withdrawal of labour – to clip the wings of the callous authorities. Indeed his loathing of violence and cruelty simmers on or just below the surface of much of his work.
Nowhere is Orr’s affection for Ireland and its people clearer than in ‘The Irish Cottier’s Death and Burial’, probably his greatest poem. This tender portrait of a rural, labouring-class northern community evokes and dignifies the richness of village life with all its hardships, as the inhabitants come together to mourn the death of one of their most respected neighbours. A striking passage calls attention to the precarious condition in which their bereavement will leave the cottier’s widow and orphaned children, as the speaker urges those blessed with riches to show greater humanity towards the poor:
Come hither, sons of Plenty! an’ relieve
The bonny bairns, for labour yet owre wee,
An’ that mild matron, left in life’s late eve,
Without a stay the ills o’ age to dree: [endure]
Had I your walth, I hame wad tak’ wi’ me
The lamb that’s lookin’ in my tear-wat face;
An’ that dejected dame should sit rent free
In some snug cot …
A desire to speak up for the forlorn and oppressed in Ireland and beyond recurs repeatedly in his work. ‘The Assizes’, is a telling and sophisticated commentary on proceedings in a local criminal court. Here Orr deplores the blunt instrument that was the contemporary justice system, shown in the employment of harsh, even capital punishment for minor crimes:
Why then, profuse of life, drag forth to bleed
The pilfring sot, perhaps impell’d by need,
With the fell fiend who joy’d when blood was spilt …?
The same poem discloses a further and related occasional theme in his work – sympathy for women, as he observes how they often suffered within what we might call a patriarchal marriage system that could tie them for life to irresponsible, drunken or violent men:
If the gay servant of a neighb’ring chief,
Had not entic’d her into wedlock’s band,
Against her parents’ positive command,
Who both disown’d her: hence began her woes,
For wild and worthless was the mate she chose;
He squander’d all her industry could yield …
Orr’s eyes were not only on the local and the national. Global issues and the human rights of all engaged his mind and his emotions. He spoke for those who lived on society’s margins – beggars, the homeless, the mentally disturbed. A sincere believer in equality between races, he was fully alive to the evils of slavery and, like many within the United Irishmen’s movement, committed to abolition. His poem ‘Toussaint’s Farewell to St. Domingo’, written with the rousing, insistent rhythm of a protest song, was first published in 1805 in the Belfast Commercial Chronicle newspaper. Speaking out in this public forum Orr confronted his audience with the inhumanity of the slavery system and its barbarous abuses:
Proud Christians, who boast of their civilization,
Go far beyond Pagans in cruelty’s art!
A slave, in a cage, they hung days more than seven,
Till the poor mangl’d flesh from his cheek-bones was riven,
And his eyes were scoop’d out by the wild fowls of heaven,
While famine and thirst gnaw’d his sad sickly heart.
Though Orr’s hopes were disappointed in 1798, it is evident from the poetic legacy he has left to us that his commitment to stand up for the poor and the marginalised within and beyond his country never wavered throughout his life. From his two published volumes of verse his passionate, urgent voice still calls out to the hearts of those who read him today.
 Quotations throughout are from Orr’s, Poems on Various Subjects (Belfast: Smith and Lyons, 1804), or from Orr, Posthumous Works (Belfast: Francis D. Finlay, 1817).