Remember James Orr, an Irish poet and patriot who died 200 years ago today

Orr was a progressive Ulster Presbyterianism, a patriotic Irishman who rejected the idea that Gaelic ethnicity was a precondition to this; an Ulster Scots speaker and a republican

In this year of anniversaries, the celebrations and commemorations come thick and fast. Although much of the pageantry and controversy that marked the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising happened last month, April 24th marks the true centenary of its outbreak. Meanwhile April 23rd, the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, saw various media outlets crammed with soundbites about Stratford upon Avon’s bard: his legacy celebrated in a series of cultural events to promote the powerful Shakespeare brand and seek to boost tourism, as well as the public’s knowledge of his work.

Just one day after the Shakespeare celebration, and simultaneous with the centenary of the outbreak of the Easter Rising, another anniversary, a bicentenary, will pass almost unremarked. Tucked in a historic graveyard in a quiet corner of Co Antrim stands a monument to a poet, James Orr, who died 200 years ago on April 24th, 1816.

The Old Churchyard of Ballycarry is far away from from the emotive symbolism of the GPO or the cultural epicentre that is Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, but those who would listen might hear echoes of those two commemorations by the graveside of James Orr. Like those who barricaded themselves in the GPO, Orr’s political convictions led him into open rebellion against the government of the day: Orr led what he called a “throuither squathry” of Broadisland men through the fields and loanens of Antrim as they joined up with the Co Antrim United Irishmen at Donegore Hill during the 1798 rebellion.

Like Shakespeare, Orr was a writer. Although the literary traditions they represent are incomparable in terms of their scale and influence, for the small band of scholars and enthusiasts interested in the Ulster Scots literature, Orr’s major poems are as central to the tradition as Shakespeare’s works are to English literature.

There are many reasons why James Orr is worth remembering. Firstly, he is the best Ulster poet of his generation and he wrote well in both English and Ulster Scots. But Orr’s life and writings also reveal some interesting parallels with modern Northern Ireland. During the 1798 insurrection and its bitter aftermath, he witnessed violence and reprisals. Despite this, after a brief period of self-imposed exile, Orr adapted to the post-conflict society and remained politically engaged. In this period Orr’s politics were consistently enlightened and progressive.

Despite being a humble Co Antrim weaver, he was interested in political developments in London, France and around the world. He felt compelled to use his writing to condemn slavery and the foreign policy of the superpowers of the day. At home his poetry gave voice to aspects of the culture, customs and language of the lower classes and he argued for the importance of universal education and for political engagement at all levels of society. Furthermore, in his poems he passionately criticised cruelty towards animals and celebrated his local landscape, consequently giving it a sense of dignity and worth for his diverse readership.

What we choose to commemorate, and how we do it, says as much about us as the original event. Therefore, we tend to commemorate events and people that bolster our own assumptions about history. Although some of the issues that Orr faced seem very familiar and very current, to remember him can challenge, in a positive way, some of those assumptions and narratives that we have built up in modern Northern Ireland.

Orr’s rich and dense Ulster Scots poems certainly debunk the peculiarly popular myth that Ulster Scots is a recent “unionist” invention. Maybe more important is the fact that Orr seems deeply contradictory to us: Orr was shaped by his Ulster Presbyterianism, but was progressive in his thinking; he was a patriotic Irishman who rejected the idea that Gaelic ethnicity was a precondition to this; he was an Ulster Scots speaker and a republican; he was a revolutionary turned constitutional liberal. Perhaps to remember Orr is to challenge, rather than reinforce, some of the assumptions we make and some of the divisions that we live by. So in this crowded year of anniversaries, maybe there’s room for another; maybe it’s time to remember Orr.

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