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Five Questions: Carol Baraniuk on James Orr

James Orr, Poet and Irish Radical

Carol Baraniuk is currently a full-time Research Associate on the Ulster-Scots Education Project at the University of Ulster, where she has also lectured on the Ulster-Scots literary tradition.  She completed her doctorate on Ulster poetry in the Scottish tradition at the University of Glasgow, where she is an honorary Research Associate of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies.  Her new book, James Orr, Poet and Irish Radical, which we discuss below, was published earlier this month by Pickering & Chatto and draws on her thesis and on her extensive previous research on Ulster-Scots literature.

1) How did you first encounter James Orr, and how did you come to realise that you wanted to write a book about him?

I first read the poetry of James Orr (1770-1816) when I was appointed to a research position at Stranmillis University College, Belfast.  I was working on a project investigating Irish and Scottish connections in literature, language and history.  Orr was one of a group of poets who lived in Ulster, were descended from Scots migrants and whose language was Scots.  They were contemporaries of Robert Burns, and like him, employed vernacular Scots and the stanza forms associated with the Scottish poetic tradition in their work.  I realised very quickly that Orr’s work was exceptional in quality and, more than that, he was a genuine cultural transformer, whose poetry embedded the Scottish poetic tradition within Irish literature.  I felt that his genius and originality merited a book length discussion.

2) Your title describes Orr as ‘Poet and Irish Radical’. How closely were Orr’s Irishness and his radicalism bound up with his poetical activities?

Orr’s heritage was Scots, but he always regarded himself as an Irishman – his community had been settled in Ireland for almost two hundred years by the time of his birth in 1770.  He identified with Irish concerns: as Presbyterians his people had suffered marginalisation during the period of the Irish Penal Laws, and were still subject to the tithe, a tax paid to the Anglican church, throughout his lifetime.  His work shows that he had a burning desire for social justice.  He himself worked as a handloom weaver, but he was deeply moved by the plight of the poorest classes.  He also deplored inequality and supported Irish Catholics who wanted emancipation.  Orr was attracted by the aims of the Society of United Irishmen, who were influenced by the radicalism of Tom Paine, as expressed in The Rights of Man, and who sought a more independent, democratic Ireland – an Ireland for Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter.  He became closely linked to Henry Joy McCracken and James Hope, leaders of the United Irishmen in the north of Ireland, and he led a troop of men from his home village of Ballycarry, Co Antrim in support of McCracken’s attack on Antrim town on 7 June, 1798.  Some of his best poetry deals with his experiences as an activist, covering his involvement in the United Irish Rebellion, his time on the run, his brief exile to the United States, and how he came to terms with Ireland in the era of the Act of Union of 1801.

3) In your introduction, you argue that Orr ‘is too often evaluated in relation to Robert Burns’. In what ways do you see the case of Burns as being an unhelpful lens for considering Orr’s life, works and reception?

There’s no doubt that Orr greatly admired Burns, but he and other original and innovative Ulster Scots writers have been assumed to be Burns imitators, when the best of them are nothing of the kind.  There’s a great difference between writing within a tradition, and writing to copy or imitate.  Orr employs the language and stanza forms of the Scottish tradition with great sophistication and dynamism.  He was fully conversant with Burns’s work, but also with the works of Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson, whose work influenced Burns himself.  We don’t, however, refer to Burns as a Fergusson imitator!  Orr does dialogue with Burns, and challenge him in several works, most notably ‘The Irish Cottier’s Death and Burial’ which presents a much more bleak picture of rural labouring class life than Burns’s ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’, with which it is often compared.  It’s helpful to be aware of the Burns poem, but Orr moves the tradition forward significantly, dealing with community life and focusing on the condition of the poor in Ireland.  He’s also much less sentimental, more pessimistic than Burns.  There’s a far greater sense of alienation in his work that makes it compelling in its own right.

4) Which particular works by Orr would you recommend to readers who haven’t encountered him before, and which would you select for introducing him to undergraduate and postgraduate students?

‘The Irish Cottier’s Death and Burial’ is a must, also Orr’s series on the 1798 Rebellion and the Union.  These are masterpieces of Scots verse which engage with an iconic period in Irish history, while conveying a unique, northern Dissenter perspective on events.  However, Orr’s writing in standard English has been unfairly neglected, too often assumed to be uniformly awkward and stiff.  I’d want to make both undergraduates and post graduates aware that he produced many fine pieces in the standard register.  ‘The Assizes’, an exploration of the contemporary legal system, is a remarkable narrative poem in heroic couplets, which demonstrates his excellence as a poetic craftsman.  It really deserves to be anthologised alongside the works of Pope, Crabbe and others.  Orr produced two volumes of verse, one in 1804 and a second, posthumous volume in 1817, so he was a contemporary of Wordsworth and Coleridge.  Several texts demonstrate that he was aware of the development of Romanticism, and was actively engaging with it – wrestling with the concept of himself as a poet and creative artist, dealing with Romantic themes and adopting a Wordsworthian approach to his subjects.  He should be approached and investigated as an important Irish Romantic poet.

5) What new topics are you currently researching?

Currently I’m continuing to scrutinise Ulster-Scotland connections, from the Union of 1801 to Partition in 1921.  My particular focus is on literary developments which reflect the changing political climate within the British archipelago.  I’m also fascinated by the concept of renaissance in Scottish and Ulster-Scots literature and am beginning to explore how it recurs and changes in both Scotland and Ireland from the period of the Scottish vernacular revival of the eighteenth century to the late twentieth century Ulster-Scots revival.  I don’t regard Ulster-Scots writing as something isolated from major literary and historical developments – it should be understood as a northern branch of Irish literature, and investigated within the context of archipelagic literary, political and historical relationships as these have developed over the past four hundred years.