Earlier today, I attended a Committee Meeting of the Irish Lodge of Research No CC, where those present spent a lot of time finalising all the many and varied issues that have to be considered when planning an important event such as the Centenary meeting of the only Research Lodge in the Irish Constitution. It was a three hour meeting, and by the time I got out, I felt the need for some calm and reflection.
I drove about six miles down the road from Carrickfergus, and, as it was quite sunny, I ended up in the old graveyard at Templecorran, where Wor Bro James Orr, Past Master of Ballycarry Masonic Lodge No 1014, and best known of the Ulster Weaver poets lies buried. Orr was a man of many parts, who began life as a hand-loom weaver, working from his family cottage, on the Manse Road in Ballycarry. The cottage still exists, although it is now in private ownership, and at one end is the room where his hand-loom would have been located.
Orr was self taught and became actively involved in one of the local book clubs,that had a small library and meeting place at the Six Road Ends.Here he first learned the facts of life about politics, and like many of his contempories, he became radicalised, particularly taking into account the revolutionary successes in America and France against the ruling governments. It was only a matter of time before Orr became involved with the United Irishmen movement of the 1790’s and his poetry was regularly published in the movements newspaper – The Northern Star.
He was involved in the Battle of Antrim in June 1798, and was one of the party that accompanied their leader Henry Joy McCracken, when they fled from the successful crown forces and went into hiding around Slemish mountain. However as the hunt for the rebels became more intense. James Orr and another rebel Jamie Hope eventually made good their escape, when the group dispersed and tried to escape seperately.
It was around this period that Orr took ship to America, where he would stay for a couple of years. It was just before he left that he penned his most famous, poignent and most moving poem sometimes known as the Emigrant’s Letter or simply the Irishman.
The savage loves his native shore,
Though rude the soil, and chill the air;
Then well may Erin’s sons adore
Their isle which nature formed so fair.
What flood reflects a shore so sweet
As Shannon great, or pastoral Bann?
Or who a friend or foe can meet
So generous as an Irishman?
His hand is rash, his heart is warm,
But honesty is still his guide;
None more repents a deed of harm,
And none forgives with nobler pride:
He may be duped, but won’t be dared –
More fit to practice than to plan,
He dearly earns his poor reward,
And spends it like an Irishman.
If strange or poor, for you he ‘ll pay,
And guide to where you safe may be;
If you ‘re his guest, while e’er you stay,
His cottage holds a jubilee.
His inmost soul he will unlock,
And if he may your secrets scan,
Your confidence he scorns to mock,
For faithful is an Irishman.
By honor bound in woe or weal,
Whate’er she bids he dares to do;
Try him with bribes – they won’t prevail;
Prove him in fire – you ‘ll find him true.
He seeks not safety, let him post
Be where it ought in danger’s van;
And if the field of fame be lost,
It won’t be by an Irishman.
Erin! loved land! from age to age
Be thou more great, more famed, and free;
May peace be thine, or, should’st thou wage
Defensive war – cheap victory.
May plenty bloom in every field,
Which gentle breezes softly fan,
And cheerful smiles serenely gild
The home of every Irishman!
Orr returned home in 1802 and returned to the struggle of making a living as a hand loom weaver. He continued to write poems, about life in Ballycarry, local characters and his local Masonic Lodge, where he had been one of the foundation members in 1809.Conviviality was a big problem then as now and money was always tight. Nonetheless, Orr would lead life to the full, and in 1804, he would publish his first chap-book entitled Poems on Various Subjects.
One of the most interesting aspects of this little chap-book is the subscribers list at the front which clearly shows that Orr’s work was popular and well supported in his local community. Clearly he had been by and large forgiven for his earlier political involvements and he now wrote on issues of local interest. It s here that we find the first published version of one of his songs :-
Come let us here, my Brethren dear,
Secluded thus from vulgar , sight,
In Fellowship and Friendship rear
A Temple up to Love and Light:
On Truth’s firm ground its walls we’ll found ;
Our Union shall cement it pure ;
Strife’s hammer’s’ rash, shall never clash
Against the Lodge of Ballynure.
This song was popular in most of the Lodges from Carnlough to Carrickfergus and was the first of a number of popular songs with a Masonic theme that Orr would produce. Sadly, like so many others at this time Orr would die young in the year 1816, at the age of 46 and was buried in the family plot in Templecorran, in an unmarked grave. His dying wish was that the rest of his unpublished poetry might be brought together and published for posterity. This was duly done in 1817 when a fellow Ballycarry Poet with the support of many local subscribers published a second posthumous volume of poems under the title Collected Poems by James Orr Ballycarry.
It was shortly after the publication of this second volume that a few local subscribers came together to discuss various options for a permanent memorial to Orr. Quite a few Masonic Lodges and a number of prominent Masons contributed to a fund for the erection of a memorial and on St John’s Day the 24th June 1831 the first stone was laid by Wor Bro, the Reverend W Glendy in the presence of a large assembly of Masonic Brethren and other supporters. It was reported upon in the Belfast Newsletter of the day as the largest assembly of Freemasons ever seen in the North of Ireland.
Over the years, this was one of the best known and most prominent Masonic memorials in the public domain and was frequently inspected by visiting Freemasons from all over Ireland. However by the turn of the Millenium, a concerted effort was made to raise funds to help refurbish and repair this important monument for the 21st century. The Masonic Order, under the Provincial Grand Lodge of Antrim played an important role in the fundraising and raising of public awareness of this work, and in conjunction with the local community association, eventually secured additional government funding to begin and carry out the necessary reinstatement to the standards set out by the Historical Monuments people in Northern Ireland. At long last this process is reaching a conclusion, and this magnificent memorial should now survive for many years to come.