Orr, William (DNB00)

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ORR, WILLIAM (1766–1797), United Irishman, born at Farranshane, co. Antrim, in 1766, was of respectable presbyterian family, and owned a good deal of land and a bleachgreen. He is erroneously described by Froude as ‘a Belfast tradesman’ (English in Ireland, iii. 176). He joined the United Irishmen at an early stage, but was moderate and cautious, and at a meeting near Carrickfergus in 1796 strongly supported a resolution, which was passed, threatening the expulsion of any member who counselled assassination. He became popular, and was one of the first arrested by the government during 1796. The specific charge against him was that he had administered a treasonable oath to two soldiers, Hugh Wheatley and one Lindsay. Such an act was at the time a capital offence, and both soldiers swore to Orr's identity with the man who had given them the oath. James Hope, however, informed Dr. Madden that a man named William McKeever administered it (Madden, United Irishmen, ii. 254). Orr denied the charge, and Hugh Wheatley, whose character was bad, afterwards admitted having given false evidence. But he received at the time some secret-service money and a commission as lieutenant in the Edinburghshire militia (Fitzpatrick, Secret Service under Pitt, p. 390). Orr was kept in prison for about a year previous to his trial, which took place at Carrickfergus, to the intense indignation of the inhabitants, who left the town during the proceedings as a protest. Yelverton, lord Avonmore, was the presiding judge, and Arthur Wolfe, afterwards Lord Kilwarden, was prosecuting counsel. They were both humane men, but both concurred in the verdict of guilty pronounced, after some delay, by the jury. Orr was recommended to mercy. Two days later, when the sentence was to be pronounced, Curran endeavoured to serve his client, and spoke with moving eloquence. He quoted the affidavits of three jurymen, two of whom declared they had been rendered incapable by drink, the other testifying that he had been intimidated into giving his opinion against the prisoner. Sentence of death was nevertheless passed. An attempt to bribe Orr's gaoler failed; but a short respite was granted, and Orr's brother obtained, on the representation that he had confessed his guilt, several influential signatures to a petition for pardon. Orr apparently signed a confession. But his brother afterwards declared that he himself concocted it without the prisoner's knowledge, and Orr strenuously denied responsibility for it. Orr's mind seems to have been slightly affected at the close, but he met his death courageously on 14 Oct. 1797 at Carrickfergus. The popular excitement rose very high after the execution. ‘Remember Orr’ became a watchword, and was chalked on the walls in many places. At a public dinner held in London to celebrate Fox's birthday, the Duke of Norfolk, Lord Oxford, Erskine, Sir F. Burdett, Horne Tooke, and others, being present, two of the toasts were: ‘The memory of Orr, basely murdered,’ and ‘May the execution of Orr provide places for the cabinet of St. James' at the Castle.’ The watchword formed the conclusion of the document which brought the brothers Sheares [see Sheares, Henry] to the scaffold; and Dr. Drennan's vigorous poem on the subject was, and is still, one of the most popular of Irish patriotic effusions.

A son of Orr, a major in the army, served with distinction in the Peninsular war. On his desiring to be relieved of his commission, the Duke of York asked whether he was a son of William Orr, to which he replied: ‘I have that honour.’ The duke generously sent the widow of Orr 1,000l., and made the son a barrack-master, first at Longford, and afterwards at Dublin.

[Fitzpatrick's Secret Service under Pitt, pp. 390–91; Lecky's Ireland in the Eighteenth Century, iv. 83, 104 et seq.; Madden, ii. 253, &c.; Life of Grattan, by his son; Curran's Speeches; McNevin's Trials.]

D. J. O'D.