Orr, William (1766–97), United Irishman, was born at Milltown, near Antrim town, on the O'Neill estate, eldest son of Samuel Orr (d. 1796), a large farmer and sometime army purveyor, and his wife Alice. The family, which belonged to the Old Light presbyterian congregation at Mill Row, Antrim town, was of a substance and respectability to participate in some of the important offices of local government – William's brother James was appointed barony high constable in 1791. William belonged to the Antrim Volunteers in the 1780s. By the early 1790s much of the family land at Toome and Farranshane, near Antrim town, had been settled on him. Between the profits of his farm and those of a small family bleach green on the land, it was reckoned that he earned £300–400 a year. He engaged in the breeding of horses, took part in the local hunt, and also attended meetings of the local masonic lodge. In c.1794 he joined the Society of United Irishmen, and wrote occasionally for the United Irish newspaper, the Northern Star. His radical politics were set off by dashing dress and presence. Standing 6 ft 2 in. (1.88 m), he liked to wear a shirt of flawless white linen, an ornamental waistcoat, silk stockings, powdered hair, and a round hat. Detractors spoke of his liking for cockfights, ‘drinking-bouts in public houses’, and the pleasures of the fair, but admitted that he was ‘popular among his class’ (Foy, 26).
Orr got into trouble after associating imprudently with two disreputable soldiers cadging drink and board in Antrim. Lance-corporal Hugh Wheatley and Private John Lindsay of the Fifeshire Fencibles were taken into confidence by local United Irishmen, friends and relations of Orr, in late April 1796, while passing through Antrim town on their way back to barracks in Derry. Recruited under oath to the society, they were asked back to Farranshane to a committee meeting of the United Irishmen held in Orr's house. They undertook to start a United Irish group in their regiment and Wheatley was given a society constitution-book and resworn by Orr. Weeks after returning to Derry they were found out and interrogated by Col. James Durham. The Rev. George Macartney (1740?–1824), JP and vicar of Antrim, having suspected that the soldiers had fallen into subversive company while in town, followed their leads and on 17 July 1796 issued a warrant for Orr's arrest. Orr hid out in the glens of Antrim for eight weeks, finally visiting his farm on 14 September to see his dying father. Troops watching the house caught him crammed into ‘a press in the wall’ (Foy, 23). He was held in the gaol of Carrickfergus, lest friends in Antrim attempt a rescue. In the summer of 1796 hundreds of supporters twice gathered to save his crops. Having secured postponement of the case from the Antrim assizes of Lent 1797 to the summer assizes of mid September that year, the crown prosecution team was assisted by the sub-sheriff in assembling a ‘packed’ jury.
The defence case, managed by William Sampson (qv), John Philpot Curran (qv), and James McGuckin (qv) (a catholic solicitor, and later informer), hinged on the argument that the case properly fell within the scope of the crime of high treason and that Orr should not have been prosecuted under the insurrection act (which was promulgated weeks before the alleged crime). The testimony of the soldiers was not shaken, though doubts were current as to their character: Wheatley was said to have been mentally unbalanced. The jury twice baulked at giving a verdict before being forcibly told by the presiding judge, Barry Yelverton (qv), to come to a decision. Orr was found guilty and was recommended to mercy. Yelverton sentenced him to death, weeping (according to the convention of the day) as he pronounced the words. Orr denied his guilt and condemned the prosecution testimony as perjury.
Desperate efforts were made to commute the sentence, by Rev. George Macartney among others. Several of the jurors claimed to have been intoxicated during the trial and petitioned the lord lieutenant for clemency. Despite the pleas of his brother James, William refused to sign a confession and apology and publicly disavowed a fraudulent confession published by James in the Belfast press. On 5 October 1797 he issued a statement for publication affirming his patriotic feeling for ‘the injuries of the persecuted catholic’ (Foy, 31). Despite pleas even by Ulster conservatives, the administration, deeply worried by the efforts of the United Irishmen to suborn the military, was determined to make an example of Orr. After two postponements Orr was hanged on 14 October 1797 from a triangular arrangement of standing stones, known as the Three Sisters, on the seashore outside Carrickfergus. He was buried in the family plot in Templepatrick graveyard. The execution was popularly regarded as judicial murder and intensified violent radical alienation from the state in Ulster and the drift towards open rebellion. The slogan ‘Remember Orr’ became an anti-establishment catchphrase in north and south, and was used as a battle cry by United men during the 1798 rising in Antrim and Down. Several ballads were written about him, notably ‘The wake of William Orr’ by William Drennan (qv). Rosettes, memorial cards, and engraved rings in his honour were sold in every Ulster town. One republican ballad claimed that his ‘blood to our union more energy gave’ (Elliott, 130).
He married (1788) Isabella Greer from the parish of Duneane; they had five children.