WILLIAM ORR of Farranshane, Co. Antrim. Irish Patriot.


"They led him forth from his prison cell!

They swung him high on the gallows tree

And the people wept as the brave man died-

Died for his faith and counterie."- Old Ballad

William Orr was the son of a farmer and bleach-green proprietor, of Farranshane, in the county of Antrim. The family were in comfortable circumstances and there were several Orr  homes in the district. William resided at Farranshane, and his  brother James at Cranfield. His father, Samuel, succeeded to Kilbegs (the home farm) from his father, also Samuel, about 1796 while uncles were farmers in the area -  James Orr at Creavery and John Orr at The Folly.   Another uncle, William, had died young and a fifth uncle, Joseph, went to England.

F J Bigger (author of  "The Northern Leaders of  `98 (No. 1) William Orr " (1906) was an a great admirer of William Orr and gives  a rather rosy account of events. He says that the young William 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 is said to have stood six feet two inches in height, was a 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.

The original aim of `United Irishmen` was to obtain equality for all under the law, regardless of religious persuasion. However, these noble aims were soon distorted as the society became exposed to more extreme views. After about 1795 the leader of the United Irishman, Wolfe Tone, was in France and the aims of the society turned to the use of force in order to achieve its objectives and, importantly, sought the aid of the French. In the turmoil of those times and fear of war with France, it was inevitable that the government brought in an Insurrection Act under which it was deemed a treasonable act to administer the oath of membership for the United Irishman. 

William was alleged to have administered the Oath to two soldiers who informed on him, he was arrested and tried. There was great sympathy for William and many considered it a trumped up charge. Indeed the jury was locked in a room overnight and were copiously supplied with food and whiskey until they reached a decision. The judge apparently cried when handing down the mandatory sentence of death. The `guilty` verdict was followed by attempts to have it overturned - the foreman was an elderly man who was so confused he did not know what he was doing and one of the two soldiers who were witnesses was of unsound mind. Appeals were made to the powers that be but it is clear that the government wanted to make an example of William and he was executed at Carrickfergus, Co Antrim on 14 October 1797. A contemporary letter from Mary McCracken to her brother, Henry Joy McCracken (a leading figure in the United Irishmen and commander of their forces in the battle for Antrim in 1798) gives a clear picture of events.

The cry "Remember Orr" was a watchword in the Rebellion that broke out in 1798. His speech from the dock is a humbling address:

" 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 him and all the world, with my dying breath, that that informer was foresworn.

The law under which I suffer is surely a severe one-rnay 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 countrv-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 least 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

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. "

The scene on the fateful day was described thus. Saturday morning, the 14th of October, 1797, dawned clear and bright upon the old town of Carrickfergus.  Blinds were drawn, shops were closed, everywhere signs of sorrow and mourning were visible. At the prescribed hour the condemned man emerged from his prison cell and declined to use a coach, fearing that he might be separated from his friends and that soldiers might be his companions. He expressed the wish to have the company of the Rev. Mr. Stavley and the Rev. Mr. Hill upon his journey to the scaffold, and these gentlemen were permitted to sit with him in the carriage.

The authorities evidently feared an attempt at rescue as there was a strong military guard, from different regiments in Belfast and Carrickfergus. At the place of execution the infantry were drawn up in the form of a triangle round the gallows; on the outside of the infantry the cavalry continued to move; while at some distance two cannons were planted, commanding the Carrickfergus and Belfast roads. But these precautions were unnecessary. The people shunned the sight of this unpardonable butchery, and, shutting themselves up in their houses, prayed for the painless death and eternal happiness of the martyr William Orr.

When the gallows had been reached, Orr shook hands with his friends, and with an heroic attempt at cheerfulness which he could not have felt, told them to bear up bravely. With a firm step he mounted the fatal ladder, and drawing up his fine manly figure to its full height, looked unflinchingly upon the dangling rope and the bristling arms of the soldiery. The hangman stealthily advanced and slipped the noose round the neck of the condemned man. As he did so an indignant flush spread over Orr's features, and in a loud voice he exclaimed -

" I am no traitor! I am persecuted for my country. I die in the true faith of a Presbyterian."

The next moment the ladder was kicked away, and the soul of the first victim stood before his God. Such was the fate of William Orr, one of the noblest men who ever breathed, and thus he died by the hand of a wicked and blood stained Government.

Dr. William Drennan, the son of a Presbyterian clergyman was a founding member of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen and later its secretary and president. He advocated " a constitutional conspiracy " which is what most of the United Irishmen had in mind until roughly 1795. He penned the famous poem " Wake of William Orr ". More about Dr William Drennan and the early days of the United Irishmen can be seen in the note about The Volunteers.

An interesting letter from one Mary Allen in 1899 describes a possible connection with Wiliam Orr. This has subsequently been validated in Bob Foy`s book "Remembering all the Orrs". William had a brother Samuel (1774-1831) who married Mary Redmond (1761-1836). They had ten children some of whom died as infants, but six  went to America including Samuel Redmond Orr b 1793.


Speeches from the Dock, T.D., A.M. and D.B. Sullivan

Betsy Gray or Hearts of Down, W G Lyttle

A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century, W.E.H.Lecky

The Northern Leaders of `98 (No 1) William Orr , F.J.Bigger

Remembering all the Orrs, R.H.Foy.


Orr Name Study Ulster Scots Reference material