Memorial to ‘Bard of Ballycarry’ restored

James Orr memorial in Templecorran cemetry in Ballycarry. INLT 13-002-PSB
James Orr memorial in Templecorran cemetry in Ballycarry. INLT 13-002-PSB

T he re-dedication of a restored memorial to the poet James Orr will take place in Ballycarry on Saturday June 7.

The memorial in Templecorran Cemetery was refurbished at a cost of £63,000 in a project spearheaded by the former chair of Ballycarry Community Association Dr David Hume.

The monument was erected in 1831 by the weaver poet’s Masonic brethren.

A re-dedication service will be held in the Old Presbyterian Church, at 1.30 pm, led by Rev Dr John Nelson, followed at 2.30 pm, by a re-dedication at the Orr Memorial by the Provincial Grand Master. Tea will be served afterwards in the community centre.

James Orr was born in 1770 on the outskirts of the then much smaller village of Ballycarry.

The modest house in which he was born and lived for almost all of his 46 years, still stands although the traditional roofing of thatch was replaced by slates some 90 years ago.

The building has long since ceased to be used as a dwelling house but its survival provides a poignant link with the life of this remarkable man.

His father, also James, made his living as a handloom weaver and doubtless by farming a smallholding.

When Orr was a child, he would have heard often of the landing of the French at Carrickfergus in 1760 and of the tradition of volunteer units raised for defence on such occasions.

He would have been aware of the Ulster army of volunteers which flourished from 1778 until 1784 and which was revived to a lesser extent in 1791.

He would also have been keenly aware of the political debates which flourished around the volunteer movement.

The sense of injustice, felt by many in Ireland against the powers of the London government and what they saw as the subjugation of the Irish parliament.

Many inspired by the politics of the American Revolution and later of the French Revolution, sought social and political equality,

Such grievances were taken up by the Society of United Irishmen, founded in Belfast in 1791 and which rapidly came to have influence in many parts of Ireland, chiefly in Ulster. Within a few years of the launch of the “Northern Star”, the United Irish newspaper, the poetry of James Orr appeared in its columns.

In mid and east Ulster, many were actively involved with the United Irishmen. Ballycarry was very much part of this, James Orr included. It is not known whether he was amongst the local commanders or leaders.

However, it is known that in the aftermath of the rebellion, he was designated as a “fifty pounder”.

That is a reward of £50 offered by the government for information leading to his arrest which suggests that the authorities were anxious to secure his capture.

However, he was sufficiently loyal to the cause to turn out in the early morning on June 7 1798.

He was part of the “Braid-islan Corps” which marched from Ballycarry to Larne where there had been fighting the previous evening and then to Ballynure and so on to Donegore Hill.

By the time he arrived there, however, the camp was in disarray.

The battle of Antrim having already been lost and the United Irishmen in full flight in fear of pursuing redcoats. A short time afterwards, Orr managed to escape from the country.

It is clear that Orr did not enter into this from any sense of adventure or youthful bravado.

In his poem “A Prayer” written on the eve of the unfortunate June 7 1798, although the title must have been added later.

He indicated plainly that he understood that what they were engaged in was war with all its tumult, pain and distress.

He declared that while his principles obliged him to fight, he trusted that no bitterness nor personal spite would attend him.

Orr the Freemason

James Orr never married. So, not unnaturally, he sought company with like-minded friends and in particular, the fellowship or indeed brotherhood of Freemasonry.

Orr’s friend and biographer A McDowell indicated that Orr was instrumental in establishing a lodge in Ballycarry and held office in that lodge, number 1014, over many years.

Orr the poet

James Orr lived in a generation when poetry was held to be amongst the highest expressions of literary skill and notable poets were regarded as leading figures in their society.

James Orr died on April 24 1816 at the age of 46. A little time before his death, he requested two of his friends to arrange the poems which he left unpublished and to bring them out in a further book, the profits of which were to be distributed among the poor of the parish of Broadisland.

Orr was buried, almost certainly in the same grave as his parents but a grave not marked by any stone.

Styled by contemporary writers, the “Burns of Ulster”, James Orr reposed in a nameless grave in the Churchyard of Templecorran for 14 years before a few patriotic individuals set on foot a subscription for the purpose of erecting a monument over the grave of Ulster’s Rural Bard.

The imposing structure was classical in design with a dedication to the memory of Orr, a poem by McDowell and numerous Masonic emblems.

It is the restoration of this monument that is the occasion of this present celebration and re-dedication.