“I am no traitor! I die a persecuted man for a persecuted country.” It is the anniversary of the hanging of William Orr, 14 October 1797. “Country” can have two meanings, the ‘imagined’ nation or the rural vicinity. William Orr, a prosperous young farmer of co. Antrim, a Presbyterian, and a United Irishman, meant both. Lord Castlereagh (“I met Murder on the way, He had a mask like Castlereagh” wrote Shelley) decided an example must be made of a Presbyterian.
Orr was arrested while sowing flax, the basis of the celebrated Irish linens. In violation of the recent Insurrection Act he was hanged for swearing an oath for two soldiers of the Fifeshire fencibles, who were part of the British army of occupation, only they weren’t real soldiers but informants. It took place in his herdsman’s barn. Here is the oath of the United Irishmen.
In the presence of God, I do voluntarily declare that I will persevere in endeavoring to form a brotherhood of affection amongst Irishmen of every religious persuasion, and that I will also persevere in my endeavors to obtain an equal, full, and adequate representation of all the people of Ireland.
The oath is worth remembering because the phrase “brotherhood of affection” was a concept of friendship and solidarity that was intended to transcend inveterate religious divisions (Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian). The second memorable aspect of the oath was the goal for “equal, full, and adequate representation of all the people of Ireland” which not only is democratic and linked with the Parliamentary franchise reform struggles in Scotland, Wales, and England, but it is a speech-action whose utterance contradicts that quotation from Marx which Edward Said quotes three times in Orientalism (1978), “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.” To swear to obtain self-representation was a hanging offence. Thus terror enforced this particular aspect of “orientalism.” “All ground of jealousy between us and the catholics is now done away with,” he told “Humanitas” in a prison interview. The Crown “have denied us reform and them emancipation; they would not allow them to get arms nor us to keep ours; they have oppressed THEM with penal laws and US with military ones; we are all equally subject to the tender, to dungeons, and to death.” The tenders were fiflthy off-shore ship hulks standing by to immure the disaffected.
A vetted jury, threatened with beating, deprived of sleep, plied with whiskey, found him guilty, and vomited as the verdict was rendered. The government offered Orr mercy if he would confess guilt but he refused. Despite massive clemency campaign, the Chief Secretary noted “the question seems to be reduced to one of mere policy.” Taken from Carrickfergus court house to the Gallows Green. Artillery pieces placed on the roads to the gallows. Several thousand soldiers, on horse and foot, formed a square around the gallows, to break the spirit of the people and prevent a rescue. Orr calmly recited Corinthians 15 – “We shall not all sleep, but shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye at the last trumpet.”
The people refused to attend, silent and sullen withdrawing. For the funeral thousands crowded the roads and adjacent hills. People came from many miles around. Bigger says, “William worked hard for the cause, straining every nerve in his efforts to unite the people of every creed and class in their demands for absolute political and religious equality and freedom.”
He left a widow, Isabella, pregnant and their five children. William Drennan wrote a great poem, “The Wake of William Orr”
Who is she with aspect wild? The widowed mother with her child, Child new stirring in the womb, Husband waiting for the tomb.
A descedant of Jonathan Swift’s wrote in the United Irish Press, “Feasting in your castle, in the midst of your myrmidons and bishops, you have little concerned yourself about the expelled and miserable cottager, whose dwelling, at the moment of your mirth, was in flames: his wife and daughter then under the violation of some commissioned ravager: his son agonizing on the bayonet, and his helpless infants crying in vain for mercy.” The next year the redcoats put her house to flame “with only God’s earth beneath her feet and His sky overhead”.
“Remember Orr!” was found written on the walls, and on the pavements. Tokens bore the words. It was cut on pike handles. It was engraved on pike handles. It became the rallying cry of the United Irish before they commenced the rising of ’98 and their watchword once it began. Printers printed cards, for his cause “the injur’d RIGHTS OF MAN.” In Belfast a printer’s premises was destroyed by the militia. The visiting scholars at Dublin’s Trinity College meeting on the bicentennial of the ’98 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed greeted each other with smiles and solemnity–it was two hundred years! Remember Orr, they said.
The injustice put the justice system on trial. The hanging pushed the United Irish closer to insurrection. The goals expressed in the oath are noble, and in some ways they are realized in much of still-divided Ireland. So, why should we remember Orr? Referring to the 1790s Marx wrote Engels, “a class movement can easily be traced in the Irish movement itself.” A small incident occurred as William Orr arrived at the scaffold, and from it we can trace the “class movement.” Three sources describe it.
First, a letter written from Carrickfergus on the hanging day: “A small circumstance worthy of note occurred shortly before his alighting from the carriage. A poor man who was his tenant, stood weeping by his side, to whom he stretched out his hat, which he presented to him as a token of friendship and remembrance, and requested his friends to show kindness to him, for though he was poor he was honest, which was more to be respected than wealth.” Poor but honest, the locution is common enough in the gallows literature, but the rest of the phrase – “which was more to be respected than wealth”–was bold and uncommon. Something is hinted at in this phrasing.
William Sampson, a United Irish lawyer, provides a second version thirty-four years later in Philadelphia. “The story of his last moments, as I have heard it told by those who witnessed them, was thus: upon the scaffold, nearest to him, and by his side, stood a Roman catholic domestic, faithful and attached to him. Manacles and pinioned, he directed them to take from his pocket the watch which he had worn till now that time had ceased for him, and his hours and minutes were no longer to be measures of his existence. ‘You my friend, and I must part; our stations here on earth have been a little different, and our mode of worshipping the Almighty Being that we both adore. Before His presence we shall stand both equal; farewell, remember Orr.'” This version is melodramatic, consistent with recently emancipated Catholicism, and it projects into the past a hierarchical deference (different stations) of the 1830s. As a symbol of manly honor, the hat provides stature and protection, while the watch belongs to a later period, a commodity, hidden, and industrial.
The third source is provided by Francis Joseph Bigger, a Presbyterian lawyer, active in the Gaelic revival, a scholar and editor of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, amateur archaeologist, who accessed Antrim oral tradition and produced Remember Orr in 1906. He names the poor man. Davey MacQuillin was a Presbyterian and is so buried. “He doubtless came of a catholic stock judging by his name, and this may have given rise to the statement. I also believe that MacQuillins to have been a remnant of the ‘mere Irish’ left after the plantation had swept over the country, and that they clung to their old patrimony, even as under-tenants.” The old patrimony of the ‘mere Irish’ refers both to indigenous possessors and to the community social relations of the clachan and meithal.
Bigger continues, “The MacQuillins had been lords of Rathmore of Magh-linne and their great rath is still preserved close beside Farranshane.” Orr was raised in Farranshane, a townland of Gaelic mixed production, agricultural and bleach grounds, tannery, wheelwright, with husbandry amid the well ploughed uplands and carns and raths of past heroes. “William Orr, knowing this, may have had a special affection for one of the old stock.” The “special affection” Orr may have had towards the MacQuillins was part of the solidarity expressed by the “brotherhood of affection” of the United Irish. He was part of the ‘underground gentry.’ The gesture of passing the hat could be a symbol for sharing the hegemony in the land as well as solidarity. Solidarity was essential to the clachan and social relations of the townland. While Orr was imprisoned a neighbor organized the corn and potato diggings, and the ploughing. Hundreds came.
Edward Said took Marx to task, because the “old Moor” homogenized the Third World in using the term “Oriental,” and well he might. In his letters on India of 1853 Marx said England’s mission was to annihilate “Oriental mode of production” and lay the foundations of Western society. But by 1857-8 while Marx was writing the Grundrisse and the sepoys in India mutinied, the Moor was less likely to speak of the Oriental mode of production which masked “tribal or community property” which in most cases was characterized through a self-sustaining combination of manufacture and agriculture.” This unity could be discovered in Mexico and Peru, India, and, added Marx, among the Celts.
Davey MacQuillin masks through these sources a similar community not of utopia or “subterranean fields” but an actuality of the commons. This, also, is why we remember Orr.
PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. He is the author of two of CounterPunch’s favorite books, The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org