James Orr (1770-1816): Poet, Presbyterian and Romantic

James Orr (1770-1816): Poet, Presbyterian and Romantic”


Carol Baraniuk (University of Ulster)

4pm, Tuesday 7 October 2014, 18 University Square, Queen’s University Belfast


The poet James Orr (1770-1816), from the Presbyterian, Scots-speaking County Antrim village of Ballycarry, experienced a brief period of fame during the 1800s when he published a volume of verse and became a regular contributor to Belfast newspapers and journals. Orr, a radical activist who had participated in the 1798 Rebellion, was a weaver by trade and an autodidact. He produced a small but significant body of poems in ‘Braid Scotch’ which are recognisably related to the Scottish vernacular verse tradition, however the greater part of his extant work is expressed in standard English. 

Orr’s Presbyterianism has been identified as New Light by previous commentators and several of his poems and essays reveal him engaged in debate with a conservative, Old Light faction within the local Kirk. This paper will address that aspect of his writing. In addition, discussion will be offered of his engagement with the works of leading literati of the Scottish Enlightenment. 

Scholars from disciplines such as social history have found Orr’s work fascinating for the ‘data’ which may be mined from it, however this paper will argue for due appreciation of Orr as an exceptional poet of the Rebellion/Union and Napoleonic eras, significant not only within Ulster, but within Irish literary history. It will be demonstrated that in his vernacular works Orr acted as a cultural transformer, re-shaping the Scottish poetic tradition to accommodate Irish experience and to address Irish national issues. Finally, Orr’s innovative work within the context of four nations Romanticism will begin to be elucidated. 

James Orr (1770–1816) writes from his experience of the story of the exiles from Ballycarry after the ill-fated 1798 Rebellion.

The Passengers

How calm an’ cozie is the wight,
Frae cares an’ conflicts clear ay,
Whase settled headpiece never made,
His heels or han’s be weary!
Perplex’d is he whase anxious schemes
Pursue applause, or siller,
Success nor sates, nor failure tames;
Bandied frae post to pillar
Is he, ilk day

As we were, Comrades, at the time
We mov’d frae Ballycarry,
To wan’er thro’ the woody clime
Burgoyne gied oure to harrie:
Wi’ frien’s consent we prie’t a gill,
An’ monie a house did call at,
Shook han’s, an’ smil’t; tho’ ilk fareweel
Strak, like a mighty mallet,
Our hearts, that day

This is my locker, yon’ers Jock’s,
In that aul creel, sea-store is
Thir births beside us are the Lockes
My uncle’s there before us;
Here hang my tins an’ vitriol jug,
Nae thief’s at han’ to meddle ‘em
L—d, man, I’m glad ye’re a’ sae snug;
But och! ‘tis owre like Bedlam
Wi’ a’ this day

Aince mair luck lea’s us (plain ‘tis now
A murd’rer in some mess is)
An English frigate heaves in view,
I’ll bail her board, an’ press us
Taupies beneath their wives wha stole,
Or ‘mang auld sails lay flat ay,
Like whitrats peepin’ frae their hole,
Cried ‘is she British, wat ye,
Or French this day?’

‘Twas but a brig frae Baltimore,
To Larne wi’ lintseed steerin’;
Twa days ago she left the shore,
Let’s watch for lan’ appearin’;
Spies frae the shrouds, like laigh dark clouds
Descried domes, mountains, bushes;
Tha exiles griev’t – the sharpers thiev’t –
While cronies bous’t like fishes
Conven’t, that day

Whan glidin’ up the Delaware,
We cam’ fornent Newcastle,
Gypes co’ert the whaft to gove, an’ stare
While out, in boats, we bustle:
Creatures wha ne’er had seen a black,
Fu’ scar’t took to their shankies;
Sae, wi’ our best rags on our back,
We mixt amang the Yankies,
An’ skail’t, that day

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