From "Speeches from the Dock" by D. B. Sullivan, 1886
TWELVE months before Wolfe Tone expired in his prison cell, one of the bravest of his associates paid with his life the penalty of his attachment to the cause of Irish independence. In the subject of this sketch, the United Irishmen found their first martyr; and time has left no darker blot on the administration of English rule than the execution of the high-spirited Irishman who swung from the gallows of Carrickfergus on the 14th of October, 1797.
William Orr was the son of a farmer and bleach-green proprietor, of Ferranshane, in the county of Antrim. The family were in comfortable circumstances, and young Orr received a good education, which he afterwards turned to account in the service of his country. We know little of his early history, but We find him, on growing up to manhood, an active member of the society of United Irishmen, and remarkable for his popularity amongst his countrymen in the north. His appearance, not less than his principles and declarations, was calculated to captivate the peasantry amongst whom he lived; he stood six feet two inches in height, was a perfect model of symmetry, strength, and gracefulness, and the expression of his countenance was open, frank, and manly. He was always neatly and respectably dressed--a prominent feature in his attire being a green necktie, which he wore even in his last confinement.
One of the first blows aimed by the government against the United Irishmen was the passing of the Act of Parliament (36 George III.), which constituted the administration of their oath a capital felony. This piece of legislation, repugnant in itself to the dictates of reason and justice, was intended as no idle threat; a victim was looked for to suffer under its provisions, and William Orr, the champion of the northern Presbyterian patriots, was doomed to serve the emergency.
He was arraigned, tried, and convicted at Carrickfergus, on a charge of having administered the United Irishmen's oath to a soldier named Wheatly. The whole history of the operations of the British law courts in Ireland contains nothing more infamous than the record of that trial. We now know, as a matter of fact, that the man who tendered the oath to Wheatly was William M'Keever, a well-known member of the society, who subsequently made his escape to America. But this was not a case, such as sometimes happens, of circumstantial evidence pointing to a wrong conclusion. The only evidence against Orr was the unsupported testimony of the soldier Wheatly; and after hearing Curran's defence of the prisoner, there could be no possible doubt of his innocence. But Orr was a doomed man--the government had decreed his death beforehand; and in this case, as in every other, the bloodthirsty agents of the crown did not look in vain for Irishmen to co-operate with them in their infamy.
At six o'clock in the evening the jury retired to consider their verdict. The scene that followed in the jury-room is described in the sworn affidavits of some of its participators. The jury were supplied with supper by the crown officials; a liberal supply of intoxicating beverages, wines, brandy, etc., being included in the refreshments. In their sober state, several of the jurymen--amongst them Alexander Thompson, of Cushendall, the foreman--had refused to agree to a verdict of guilty. It was otherwise, however, when the decanters had been emptied, and when threats of violence were added to the bewildering effects of the potations in which they indulged. Thompson was threatened by his more unscrupulous companions with being wrecked, beaten, and "not left with sixpence in the world," and similar means were used against the few who refused with him to return a verdict of guilty. At six in the morning, the jury, not a man of whom by this time was sober, returned into court with a verdict of guilty, recommending the prisoner at the same time in the strongest manner to mercy. Next Orr was placed at the bar, and sentenced to death by Lord Yelverton, who, it is recorded, at the conclusion of his address burst into tears. A motion was made by Curran in arrest of judgment, chiefly on the grounds of the drunkenness of the jury but the judges refused to entertain the objection. The following is the speech delivered by William Orr, after the verdict of the jury had been announced: --
"My friends and fellow-countrymen,--In the thirty-first year of my life, I have been sentenced to die upon the gallows, and this sentence has been in pursuance of a verdict of twelve men, who should have been indifferently and impartially chosen. How far they have been so, I leave to that country from which they have been chosen to determine; and how far they have discharged their duty, I leave to their God, and to themselves. They have, in pronouncing their verdict, thought proper to recommend me as an object of humane mercy. In return, I pray to God, if they have erred, to have mercy upon them. The judge who condemned me humanely shed tears in uttering my sentence. But whether he did wisely in so highly commending the wretched informer, who swore away my life, I leave to his own cool reflection, solemnly assuring him and all the world, with my dying breath, that that informer was forsworn.
"The law under which I suffer is surely a severe one--may the makers and promoters of it be justified in the integrity of their motives, and the purity of their own lives! By that law I am stamped a felon, but my heart disdains the imputation.
"My comfortable lot, and industrious course of life, best refute the charge of being an adventurer for plunder; but if to have loved my country--to have known its wrongs--to have felt the injuries of the persecuted Catholics, and to have united with them and all other religious persuasions in the most orderly and sanguinary means of procuring redress--if those be felonies, I am a felon, but not otherwise. Had my counsel (for whose honorable exertions I am indebted) prevailed in their motions to have me tried for high treason, rather than under the insurrection law, I should have been entitled to a full defence, and my actions have been better vindicated; but that was refused, and I must now submit to what has passed.
"To the generous protection of my country I leave a beloved wife, who has been constant and true to me, and whose grief for my fate has already nearly occasioned her death. I have five living children, who have been my delight. May they love their country as I have done, and die for it if needful.
"Lastly, a false and ungenerous publication having appeared in a newspaper, stating certain alleged confessions of guilt on my part, and thus striking at my reputation, which is dearer to me than life, I take this solemn method of contradicting the calumny. I was applied to by the high-sheriff, and the Rev. William Bristow, sovereign of Belfast, to make a confession of guilt, who used entreaties to that effect; this I peremptorily refused. If I thought myself guilty, I would freely confess it, but, on the contrary, I glory in my innocence.
"I trust that all my virtuous countrymen will bear me in their kind remembrance, and continue true and faithful to each other, as I have been to all of them. With this last wish of my heart--nothing doubting of the success of that cause for which I suffer, and hoping for God's merciful forgiveness of such offences as my frail nature may have at any time betrayed me into--I die in peace and charity with all mankind."
Hardly had sentence of death been passed on William Orr, when compunction seemed to seize on those who had aided in securing that result. The witness Wheatly, who subsequently became insane, and is believed to have died by his own hand, made an affidavit before a magistrate acknowledging that he had sworn falsely against Orr. Two of the jury made depositions, setting forth that they had been induced to join in the verdict of guilty while under the influence of drink; two others swore that they had been terrified into the same course by threats of violence.
These depositions were laid before the Viceroy, but Lord Camden, the then Lord-Lieutenant, was deaf to all appeals. Well might Orr exclaim within his dungeon that the government "had laid down a system having for its object murder and devastation." The prey was in the toils of the hunters, on whom all appeals of justice and humanity were wasted.
Orr was hung, as we have said, in the town of Carrickfergus, on the 14th of October, 1797. It is related that the inhabitants of the town, to express their sympathy with the patriot about being murdered by law, and to mark their abhorence of the conduct of the government towards him, quitted the town en masse on the day of his execution.
His fate excited the deepest indignation throughout the country; it was commented on in words of fire by the national writers of that period, and through many an after year the watchword and rallying cry of the United Irishmen was--
Charlotte Milligan Fox, sister of the poet Alice Milligan, was a founding member of the Irish Folk Song Society and an indefatigable field collector of Irish traditional music. Her singularly important work on Irish haprers is here presented for the twenty-first century reader. This edition of Annals offers a much greater number of illustrations than were included in the original 1911 publication, a full biographical introduction, an extensive bibliography of the writings of Milligan Fox and an appendix discussing the variant texts of Arthur O’Neills Memoirs.
Join our mailing list to receive updates on new content on Library, our latest ebooks, and more.
You won't be inundated with emails! — we'll just keep you posted periodically — about once a monthish — on what's happening with the library.