William Orr, a member of the United Irishmen, is executed by the British on October 14, 1797 in what is widely believed at the time to be “judicial murder” and whose memory leads to the rallying cry “Remember Orr” during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. He is regarded as the first United Irish martyr.
Little is known of Orr’s early life. He is born in 1766 to a Presbyterian farming family and bleach-green proprietor, at Ferranshane outside Antrim town. The family is in comfortable circumstances and, as a result, he receives a good education. His appearance and manner are at the time considered noteworthy as he stands 6′ 2″ in height and is always carefully and respectably dressed, a familiar feature in his apparel being a green necktie, which he wears “even in his last confinement.” His popularity amongst his countrymen is also noted, particularly among the Northern Presbyterian patriots. He becomes active in the Irish Volunteers and then joins the United Irishmen. Sometime in the mid-1790s, he contributes several articles to their newspaper, the Northern Star.
Orr is charged at Carrickfergus Town Hall with administering the United Irishmen oath to a soldier named Hugh Wheatly, an offence which had recently been deemed a capital charge under the 1796 Insurrection Act. The offence is aggravated from a legal point of view because of the allegation that it is a serving soldier whom he is alleged to have administered the oath to. The prosecution makes the most of this “proof” of the “treasonable” aim of the United Irishmen to “seduce from their allegiance” the “men who are the Kingdom’s only safeguard against the foreign foe.”
The United Irishmen know from the evidence of some of their own number that Orr had not administered the oath on the occasion alleged. They also have the evidence of another eyewitness, James “Jemmy” Hope. The soldier witness Wheatly perjures himself and it is proved he is of bad character. The person who did tender the oath is a well known member of the Society, William McKeever, who subsequently escapes to the United States. It is widely believed at the time that the authorities wish to make an example of Orr to act as a deterrent to potential United Irishmen recruits.
The actual case, which does not appear in the course of the proceedings but everyone, according to T. A. Jackson, is “in the know” and fully aware that the United Irishmen’s oath had been administered to a soldier “whether it was Orr or another who administered the oath was merely incidental.”
Orr is represented by John Philpot Curran, and the trial leads to a speech, which, according to T. A. Jackson, “is among the most remarkable of his many remarkable speeches.” It is a charge of libel against the Press newspaper, the journal founded by Arthur O’Connor to replace the Northern Star. The Press had published an open letter to the Viceroy, remarking scornfully on his refusal to show clemency to Orr. Curran’s defence is a counter-attack — an indictment of the Government, root and branch.
The only evidence used against Orr is the unsupported evidence of the soldier Wheatly and after hearing Curran’s defence of the prisoner, “there could be no possible doubt of his innocence.” Even the presiding judge, Barry Yelverton, 1st Viscount Avonmore, is said to have shed tears at the passing of the death sentence, although Orr’s friend, the poet and United Irishman William Drennan expresses his disgust at this display with the words “I hate those Yelvertonian tears.”
The sentence was hardly passed on Orr when regret is to seize on those who had aided in securing that verdict. The witness Wheatly, who subsequently goes insane and is believed to have died by his own hand, makes an affidavit before a magistrate admitting that he had sworn wrongly against Orr. Two members of the jury make depositions stating that they had been “induced to join in the verdict of guilty while under the influence of drink,” while two others swear that they had “been terrified into the same course by threats of violence.”
These particulars are placed before the Viceroy, but Lord Camden, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, is “deaf to all appeals” (including from his sister Lady Londonderry). “Well might Orr exclaim within his dungeon” he said “that the Government had laid down a system having for its object murder and devastation.”
Though his execution is postponed three times, Orr is hanged in the town of Carrickfergus on October 14, 1797, surrounded by an extra strong military guard. It is said that the population of the town, to express their sympathy with the “patriot” being “murdered by law,” and to mark their repugnance of the conduct of the Government towards him, quit the town on the day of his execution.
Orr’s fate “excited the deepest indignation throughout the country” and it is commented on “in words of fire” by the national writers of the period, and for many years after the rallying cry of the United Irishmen is “Remember Orr.” The journalist Peter Finnerty, who publishes an attack on Yelverton and Camden for their conduct in the matter, is later convicted of seditious libel, despite an eloquent defence by Curran.
(Pictured: William Orr from a sketch by E. A. Morrow)