William Orr – Trial and Execution 1797

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William Orr (Source Internet Archive - F.J. Biggar, Remember Orr, 1906)
William Orr (Source Internet Archive – F.J. Biggar, Remember Orr, 1906)


“Remember Orr!” was the battle cry of the Counties Antrim and Down United Irishmen during the Rebellion of 1798. William Orr’s arrest and execution the previous year, instead of being the deterrent hoped for by the authorities, proved to inspire and strengthen the determination of the rebels.

William Orr Family Background

William Orr was born in 1766 to Samuel and Alice Orr. He was the eldest son. The Orrs were of Scottish stock and Samuel had been reared in Coleraine.

The family lived at Milltown in County Antrim and owned a farm. Their home was a comfortable, slated, two-roomed farmhouse.

Subsequently, the Orrs purchased a larger farm at Farranshane from the Craig family. This was situated about a mile and a half east of Antrim town. They were a well-known and well-respected family.

William’s younger brother James, held the office of barony High Constable in 1791. The Orr’s belonged to the Old Light Presbyterian church at Mill Row in Antrim town.

Young William Orr

As a young man William farmed at Toome and Farranshane and managed a small bleach green on the banks of the river bordering Rathbeg. He also bred horses and had a prosperous future ahead of him.

William was a popular character. He rode with the local hunt and was a member of the masonic lodge. At 6ft 2” he cut a striking figure and was known for always being smartly dressed, wearing a pure white shirt, green necktie and decorative waistcoats. We can imagine there were many young ladies who would have ‘swooned’ for the handsome and well-off young farmer.

In 1788 William married Isabella Greer from Duneane. Isabella was the daughter of a bleacher John Greer, who owned land on the shores of Lough Neagh and Jane Maclelland from Banbridge. The ceremony was carried out by the Rev Maclusky.

The couple had six children – Samuel, Jane, John, Alice (after William’s favourite sister), Isabella, and Wilhelmina who was born after her father’s arrest.

William Orr – The Volunteers & the United Irishmen

In the 1780’s, like many of his fellows, Orr and his brothers Samuel and James, enlisted in the Irish Volunteers. This was a Protestant militia organisation formed to protect local landowners against potential foreign invasion. As the British had withdrawn most of its troops to fight against the American War of Independence, the Irish had to arrange their own means of defence.

By 1794 William had joined the Society of United Irishmen. This body was formed in Belfast in 1791 from the more radically-minded of the Volunteers. Its agenda was to reform the political system and remove the restrictions imposed on all those of non-Anglican faith. Its aim was for all men to be treated equally regardless of creed.

This would mean that Presbyterians would be permitted to stand for political office and marriage between Presbyterians would be classified as legal. Also, Catholics would be allowed to vote, attend their religious ceremonies, be educated by Catholic teachers, allowed to live in towns and own land and have other ‘penalties’ removed.

Action Against the United Irishmen

By the time William enlisted, the government, fearing the growing political unrest, had outlawed the Society. Obviously, this was a decision not taken lightly by Orr, and shows a strong moral stance.

Orr wrote some articles for the liberal newspaper The Northern Star. These show that his opinions and beliefs came from a deep sense of injustice and the desire to follow the ideals of the French Revolution and American colonists in their determination for self-government.

William was totally committed to establishing a new Ireland where all men were regarded and treated equally. This led to his promotion through the United Irishmen and he became a member of the northern committee.

One of his comrades and confidantes however, was not what he seemed. Samuel Turner, whom William thought of as a friend, was an informer in the pay of the English government. As Orr came into more prominence his name was passed on to chief secretary Pelham.

“From this time forward, William Orr was a marked man. His popularity amongst the people, his unswerving honour and rectitude, his absolute confidence in the right prevailing, in spite of the power of a most corrupt ascendency, all weighed heavily against him in the eyes of those who had a policy to carry through, regardless of all moral obligation, and absolute negation of every principle of honour”

Francis Joseph Bigger Remember Orr, 1906

William Orr – Fugitive

In April 1796 however, a chance (?) meeting was to prove Orr’s undoing. Two British soldiers, privates Hugh Wheatley and John Lindsay of the Fifeshire Fencibles, were passing through Antrim town on their way back to their barracks in Derry after furlough in Scotland. Here they met some locals, who happened to be member of the United Irishmen.

As the evening progressed and drink being taken, the soldiers expressed an interest in the aims of the Society. The two were taken to a barn owned by Jack Gourley, near Farranshane where a meeting of the United Irishmen was taking place with Orr presiding. Wheatley and Lindsay, although serving soldiers agreed to form a unit of United Irishmen within the regiment and encourage their military comrades to join them. The ‘Test‘, that is the oath of loyalty, was administered.

‘In the presence of God, I do voluntarily declare that I will persevere in endeavouring to form a brotherhood of affection among Irishmen of every religious persuasion and that I will also persevere in my endeavour to obtain an equal, full and adequate representation of all the people of Ireland’

However, Wheatley and Lindsay had a somewhat disreputable reputation. It is believed by many that they were paid informers. At any rate, their behaviour aroused the concern of the Rev George Macartney, the Vicar of Antrim. He passed on his suspicions to Colonel James Durham in Derry.

After interrogation the men admitted their involvement with the illegal organisation. As a result, on 17th July 1796 a warrant was issued for William Orr’s arrest.

Orr went ‘on the run’ in the glens of Antrim, living rough among the valleys and hills of the region.

The Capture of William Orr

However, when news reached William that his father, Samuel, was gravely ill, Orr decided to return to the family farm to see his dying father.

Naturally, the homestead was under surveillance by the military. On 14th September, William Orr was captured. A belief persists that every one of the 22 Light Horsemen engaged in the arrest of William Orr, died at the Battle of Antrim on 7th June 1798 fighting against the United Irishmen.

On 17th September 1796 Orr was committed to Carrickfergus gaol, believed to be the securest stronghold in Ireland, by Lord Castlereagh . He was held here for a year before his trial commenced.

The Trial of William Orr

At the Lent Assizes Orr was prosecuted under the recently enacted Insurrection Act 1796. One of the points of this law made the act of administering an illegal oath a capital offence.

Orr consistently protested his innocence, claiming he was not the person who administered the Test to the two soldiers. In fact, it was widely believed, that another United Irishman, William McKeever, had applied the oath on the occasion in question before fleeing to the United States. Even among government circles this was well-known, but the authorities had to have a scapegoat to ‘save face’.

“…whether it was Orr or another who administered the oath was merely incidental”

T A Jackson, Ireland Her Own, 1991

Orr’s defence team consisted of William Sampson qv. (editor of the Northern Star), John Philpot Curran and James McGuckin (McGuckin is now known to have been a paid informant for the English at least from 1798).

Curran, from County Cork was a renowned lawyer and orator. His speech in defence of Orr was said to utterly remarkable. In passionate oratory, he condemned a judicial system so steeped in corruption and espionage that it relied totally on informers to gain convictions:

“The number of horrid miscreants who acknowledged upon their oaths that they had come from the seat of government – from the very chambers of the castle – when they had been worked upon by the fear of death and the hopes of compensation to give evidence against their fellows”

The prosecution had only the unsupported evidence of Hugth Wheatley. Notably neither Colonel Derham nor any other officer would vouch for the character of Wheatley and Lindsay.

During the trial large crowds arrived to watch the proceedings but few gained access as the courthouse was packed inside and out by soldiers. They had been commandeered to act as court bailiffs, and stood with their bayonets fixed.

The Verdict

Despite the jurors being ‘hand-picked’ by the authorities, they twice refused to pass sentence.

Respite for William Orr - Newsletter 6 Oct 1797
Respite for William Orr – Newsletter 6 Oct 1797

The Honourable Chichester Skeffington (afterwards Lord Masserene) had supervised the jury selection and anyone suspected of being sympathetic to Orr and the United Irishmen was “rigidly excluded”.

Eventually, the judge, Barry Yelverton 1st Viscount Avonmore insisted that they make a decision. The second judge was Tankerville Chamberlaine.

The jury found Orr guilty but recommended mercy. This recommendation was passed on to the government. The next day Yelverton sentenced Orr to death.

Confirmation of Execution - Newsletter 13 Oct 1797
Confirmation of Execution – Newsletter 13 Oct 1797

After sentence had been passed William Orr made a brief speech to the court. The following is an extract

“…but 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 least sanguinary means of procuring redress – if those be felonies, I am a felon, but not otherwise”

William Orr

Reaction to the Verdict

Public opinion was sympathetic to the young Orr (he was only 31) with most people believing the proceedings were nothing more than a ‘show trial’.

Several of the jurors petitioned the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Camden, for clemency, claiming they had been plied with strong drink throughout the deliberations and ‘encouraged’ to produce a guilty verdict or they would be accused of being United Irishmen too. Due to this Orr’s defence asked for a retrial, but this was refused.

“Old Archibald Thompson, of Cushendall, was foreman of the jury, and is thought will lose his senses if William Orr’s sentence is carried into execution, as he appears already quite distracted at the idea of a person being condemned to die through his ignorance, as it seems he did not at all understand the business of a juryman. However, he held out from the forenoon till six o’ clock in the morning of the day following, though it is said he was beaten and threatened with being wrecked and not left a sixpence in the world on his refusing to bring a verdict of Guilty”

Extract of a letter written to Henry Joy McCracken by his sister Mary Ann 27th September 1797

Opposition to the Death Sentence

The Rev Macartney and even some of the Ulster gentry pleaded for a commutation of Orr’s sentence.

The High Sheriff and Sovereign of Belfast the Rev William Bristow himself, implored Orr to admit guilt in order to save his life (he later denied this). William was said to reply

“If I thought myself guilty, I would freely confess it, but, on the contrary, I glory in my innocence”

William Orr Denial of Guilt - Newsletter 20 Oct 1797
William Orr Denial of Guilt – Newsletter 20 Oct 1797

Orr was visited in prison by his family who also begged him to publicly acknowledge his guilt and apologise in an effort to avoid the hangman.

Orr’s younger brother James, even went as far as to have a confession printed in a newspaper purporting to come from William.

James Orr Letter - Newsletter 20 Oct 1797
James Orr Letter – Newsletter 20 Oct 1797

Orr responded with his own statement written to the Lord Lieutenant

“…..to contradict a most cruel and injurious publication which has been put into the newspapers, stating that I had confessed myself guilty of the most enormous crimes which a perjured and miserable wretch came forward to swear against me.

My lord, it is not by the confession of crimes which would render me unfit for society that I expect to live; it is upon the strength of that innocence which I will boldly maintain with my last breath”

William Orr

The Execution of William Orr

After two postponements, William Orr was taken to the scaffold at Gallows Green in Carrickfergus, known locally as The Three Sisters, on 14th October 1797. He was accompanied by Presbyterian minister Rev Mr Adam Hill and the Rev William Stavely, Covenanting minister of Knocbracen.

Before mounting the gallows, Willam handed out printed documents again asserting his innocence. Here on the shores of Belfast Lough, with the noose around his neck, Willam Orr spoke his last words:

“I am no traitor. I die a persecuted man for a persecuted country. Great Jehovah receive my soul. I die in the true faith of a Presbyterian”

English soldiers ringed the site and two heavy pieces of artillery were placed on the road leading to Belfast, for fear of an attack by Orr supporters.

The Execution of William Orr (Source Internet Archive - F.J. Biggar, Remember Orr, 1906)
The Execution of William Orr (Source Internet Archive – F.J. Biggar, Remember Orr, 1906)

It is said the residents of Carrickfergus, to a man, closed up their shops and businesses that day and left the town to express their outrage and disassociation with the execution.

“Most of the inhabitants of Carrickfergus left the town to show their detestation of the verdict and the manner in which the trial had been conducted”

Belfast Telegraph, 14th October 1958

“Time has left no darker blot on the administration of English rule than the execution of the high-spirited Irishman whose body swung from the gallows of Carrickfergus on 14th October 1798”

Sean Cellaigh, Speeches from the Dock, 1953

Orr’s Funeral

The Burial of William Orr (Source Internet Archive - F.J. Biggar, Remember Orr, 1906)
The Burial of William Orr (Source Internet Archive – F.J. Biggar, Remember Orr, 1906)

Afterwards Orr’s body was cut down and transported to the slated house of a Mr Wilson on the land side of the road. Here desperate but fruitless efforts were made to revive Orr.

The corpse was then placed on a bed of straw in a cart and taken to the Presbyterian Meeting House in the village of Ballynure. Orr’s close friend, Rev Adam Hill, was the minister here and agreed the body should be waked in his church.

” As the silent company of mourners followed the cart across the countryside a vast concourse of people joined it, and all along the way the country folk rushed from their houses to wait on the roadsides, in tears and anguish, while it passed by. One man named Kennedy stepped forward and kissed the rough wood of the country cart that formed the bier of the martyred dead, and many others did likewise”

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946

It is said great crowds stood guard over the coffin all night.

The following morning, a Sunday, the cart carrying the remains of William Orr made its way to Templepatrick. At the cemetery a party of dragoons were stationed to disperse the hundreds of supporters and sympathisers who had assembled to witness the burial.

Only close family were permitted access to the graveyard. William Orr was laid to rest in the family plot beside his sister Alice.

William and Ally Grave
William and Ally Grave


As a result of his kindness and respect for his friend, the Rev Adam Hill was arrested and thrown into Carrickfergus jail. However, the authorities, despite determined efforts, were unable to find any eyewitnesses to speak out against the minister for holding the wake. Adam Hill was eventually released.

Another Orr sympathiser was Loughrea native, Peter Finnerty. He was a printer and publisher and wrote condemning the biased trial of William Orr and Lord Camden’s refusal to reprieve the death sentence. For this he was tried for seditious libel and suffered a session in the pillory (stocks) and two years in prison.

Poems, ballads and songs were written in honour of the United Irishmen’s ‘first martyr’. These have passed down through the generations including ‘The Wake of William Orr‘ by Dr William Drennan one of the founders of the Society.

Memorial cards and silk rosettes commemorating Orr were produced in every town in the north of Ireland. So worried were the authorities, that they deemed it illegal to possess an Orr memory card. It is recorded that at least one unfortunate man from Hillsborough, was hung when such a commemorative card was found concealed in the heel of his shoe.

Specially engraved rings became popular mementoes. These gold rings were inscribed with the motto ‘Erin-go-Bragh’ and ‘Sacred to the memory of William Orr’ and decorated with a small shamrock.

Indeed, during his own incarceration Henry Joy McCracken was said to pass one of these rings through the prison bars to his sister Mary Ann, for safekeeping.

“In fact they were ‘death rings’ and anyone in possession of one was put to death”

Northern Whig 16th June 1931
Discovery of a William Orr Memorial Ring - The Northern Whig 16 June 1931
Discovery of a William Orr Memorial Ring – The Northern Whig 16 June 1931

The Orr Family

That William Orr was a liked and respected member of his community can be seen by the fact that during his imprisonment in Carrickfergus, 600 supporters turned up at his farm to bring in the harvest.

After the Battle of Antrim, the Orr house was attacked and burned to the ground with Isabella and her children having to flee for their lives. It was believed at the time that the government-backed yeomanry was responsible. Isabella and her young children sheltered among the wild bushes and gorse. However, with the help of local folk a nearby old building was made habitable for the family.

The ploughing and harvesting were undertaken by friends and neighbours for many years after to help the widow Isabella Orr and her family. This was not just an act of kindness but also bravery as Lord Camden had declared any such support shown to the Orr family was illegal.

Isabella died in her 40’s and was buried alongside her husband in Templepatrick.

The Informers – Wheatley and Lindsay

As for Wheatley and Lindsay, not an awful lot is known.

A month after the trial Hugh Wheatly received £178 3s 9d and John Lindsay £122 2s from the English authorities in Dublin Castle. The pair received several more payments in the ensuing months.

Subsequently, Wheatley made an affidavit before a magistrate confessing to committing perjury “that he felt great compunction for his crimes against Orr, and what he had sworn against him was false”. Wheatley was to end up insane and committed suicide.

William Orr Remembered

The death of William Orr has always been regarded as being politically motivated. The English government were determined to ‘make an example’ of him in the hope of frightening local folk into submission and forgoing the ideals of the United Irishmen.

However, the opposite result ensued driving young men to espouse the causes of the Society.

“The execution was popularly regarded as judicial murder and intensified violent radical alienation from the state in Ulster and the drift towards open rebellion”

Desmond McCabe Dictionary of Irish Biography 2009
William and Ally Grave
Templepatrick Graveyard view
Templepatrick Graveyard view

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