Orr, James (1770–1816), weaver, radical, and poet, was son of James Orr, who farmed a few acres and was a linen weaver. His mother's name is unknown. They lived in the small village of Ballycarry, in the parish of Broadisland, Co. Antrim. James was an only child, born when his parents were middle-aged. They were unwilling to risk sending him to school, so they carefully educated him at home; the father is said to have been very well educated. A near-contemporary source (George Pepper, 1829) claims that the youngster was something of a prodigy, able to read Spectator essays at the age of six; later in life, partly thanks to membership of a local reading society, he was remarkably well read. Handloom weavers were reputedly one of the most literate and politically radical groups in the period, and Orr certainly fits the stereotype. Pepper also claims that William Orr (qv) was James Orr's uncle, and that the younger man lived for three years with William Orr and his family, where his literary talents were nurtured and where he developed an interest in radical politics. Other sources do not support this account, but if there was a relationship it might explain an almost morbid interest in assizes, executions, and gallows, evident in several poems; this might have been prompted by witnessing William Orr's trial and execution.
Pepper ‘heard from good authority’ that James Orr in 1797 was secretary to the Antrim Association, of which William Orr was president; presumably this means a society of the United Irishmen (Pepper, 452). Pepper says that Orr sang a patriotic song called ‘The Irishman’, one of his most celebrated compositions, at a meeting of that body. The earliest publications traced are poems published pseudonymously (1796–7) in the Northern Star newspaper. This paper, edited by Samuel Neilson (qv), was sympathetic to United Irish views, and it is clear that Orr, like many of his neighbours, was actively involved in the 1798 rebellion. Several poems, dealing with the events of June 1798, provide a rare participant's perspective. Orr took part in the skirmish at Donegore, and fled after the defeat at the battle of Antrim. Local sources recorded Orr's successful efforts to prevent cruelty and looting by his colleagues. He seems to have been in hiding in an Irish-speaking area, perhaps in the Glens of Antrim or in the Sperrin mountains. After a short time he escaped to the US, but unlike many of his former comrades he found himself unable to settle there, and very soon returned home to Ballycarry, and thenceforth made his living as a weaver. In 1800 he sought to join the militia set up to counter a feared Napoleonic invasion, but the local gentry in command rejected his application because of his United Irish associations.
Orr's first verses were composed at meetings of a local singing school, where rival versifiers produced impromptu verses for the company to sing to the psalm tunes being practised, and he later wrote songs for masonic meetings. He published poems in the Belfast newspapers; a few carefully written essays on morality and education, signed ‘Censor, Ballycarry’, must also be his work. A collection of poems was published in 1804, with almost 400 subscribers, and another selection was published in 1817 after his death by his friend Archibald McDowell; Orr had requested that the proceeds should go to help the poor of Ballycarry. Orr's poems are an excellent source of information about the life and concerns of a fairly humble stratum of late eighteenth-century Ulster society.
Many of Orr's best poems deal with subjects of interest to his community – weaving, social life, and farming – and are written in the Scots language still widely spoken in the area. He expertly used Scots stanza forms, and joyously participated in the almost competitive composition of verse typical of the Scots tradition; several of his poems rework themes found in Robert Burns or other earlier writers. Orr's ‘An Irish cottier's death and burial’ is derived from a Burns poem, ‘The cottier's Saturday night’, but later critics acknowledge that the Orr poem is much more successful. Orr and his friend Samuel Thomson (qv) were pioneers in the use of written Scots in Ulster, and are regarded as the two most skilful Scots poets in Ulster. Both were celebrated in their day, and their work in Scots has been rediscovered in the twentieth-century revival of interest in the traditional literature and history of the north of Ireland.
Orr's verse in standard English is equally competent, even more ambitious and almost as interesting. The best of his work, particularly in Scots, is characterised by pleasing cadences and assured control of tone and technique; his novel and generally impressive experiments with soliloquies, verse epistles, and versified direct speech, in English and Scots, parallel his interest in extending the registers in which he could use the vernacular Scots language. Orr seems not to have known of William Wordsworth's poetry, but – apparently independently, and arguably more successfully – produced verse written in ‘the language really used by men’ (Wordsworth, preface to Lyrical ballads (1798)). As well as fascinating foreshadowings of romanticism, Orr's work more often reveals the influence of the enlightenment and of New Light presbyterianism; he was a member of the congregation of the Rev. John Bankhead (d. 1833), whose theological views were decidedly liberal, tending even towards unitarianism. Orr's poems provide a great deal of evidence on his reading, interests, radical aspirations and convictions; and in them and in the prose essays, the reader encounters a humane and generous personality. Like many other United Irishmen, Orr was an enthusiastic freemason, and believed that freemasonry and education would help to usher in a peaceful millennium. His poetry reveals humanitarian concerns, not yet common in the period; he opposed slavery and cruelty to animals and children and expressed support for a contemporary popular rising in Haiti. In 1812 he signed a petition in favour of catholic emancipation.
Orr never married; his friend McDowell believed that the resulting lack of domestic comforts drove the poet to socialise in taverns, and it was said that local fame and popularity encouraged his excessive drinking. He suffered from ill health in later life; Pepper says that a neglected cold in 1815 led to tuberculosis. He died 24 April 1816, and was buried in the old Templecorran graveyard at Ballycarry; some years later, freemasons erected an impressive monument over the grave. His poems were republished by a group of local enthusiasts in 1935; another selection appeared in 1992. A plaque put up by the local district council commemorates ‘the bard of Ballycarry’, probably the most significant eighteenth-century English-language poet in Ulster.