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Challenging Burns: James Orr’s 'The Irish Cottier’s Death and Burial'

Challenging Burns: James Orr’s "The Irish Cottier’s Death and Burial"

James Orr (1770-1816) of Ballycarry, Co Antrim was one of a group of eighteenth-century Ulster poets who looked to Scotland for their literary models. They wrote in the tradition of Ramsay, Fergusson and Burns employing the Scots language which their ancestors had brought to Ulster during the Plantations era and earlier. These "Rhyming Weavers" as they have been sometimes designated since many of them, including Orr, earned a living at the hand-loom, were often remarkably erudite, well-versed in Enlightenment ideology, and radical in their politics. Orr himself was closely associated with the United Irishmen and their failed rebellion of 1798.

In addition to the Braid Scotch tongue, the eighteenth-century rural communities of north-east Ulster and south-west Scotland had in common farming, weaving, education and the Presbyterian faith. The world depicted by Burns, therefore, was one with which Orr and his contemporaries could easily identify. Orr, however, while clearly admiring of Burns, was never overawed by him, or guilty of sycophantic imitation.

Indeed Orr frequently develops and adapts Burns’s models to offer a distinct and original Ulster-Scots perspective on traditional themes and settings. At times he appears to challenge Burns’s portrayal of labouring-class experience, as if wishing to point out that the Scots genius has not told the whole story. Nowhere is this more evident than in Orr’s "The Irish Cottier’s Death and Burial", which taps a deep vein of angry grief to shatter the idyllic vision of rural life offered in Burns’s "The Cotter’s Saturday Night".

In that iconic, though often maligned, work Burns was writing within a well-established tradition of British pastoral poetry, which earlier Scots poets Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson had customised to accommodate the Scottish vernacular. Burns’s stated intention is patriotic: to celebrate "The native feelings strong, the guileless ways". He also draws on the British Augustan heritage, prefacing his poem with a quotation from Thomas Gray that signals his desire to dignify the "useful toil" and "homely joys" of the peasant class as a whole.

Although the poem has suffered at the hands of those twentieth-century critics who deplored what they interpreted as its kailyard-style sentimentality, Burns’s achievement was considerable. In addition to demonstrating that pastoral poetry expressed in the Scots tongue may prove a dynamic vehicle for the expression of regional and national identity, he also incorporated into British literary heritage an intimate portrait of Scottish Presbyterian family worship.

James Orr’s "The Irish Cottier’s Death and Burial", however, is much more a poem of social protest. Rather than simply echoing Burns’s depiction of the Cotter’s family life and devotions, Orr seems implicitly to oppose the Scots Bard’s idyll, choosing rather to articulate the Ulster-Scots community’s experience of poverty, injustice and marginalisation, even while he hopes that the grievances of Ireland as a whole may be addressed:

Erin! my country! preciously adorned
With every beauty, and with every worth,
Thy grievances through time shall not be scorn’d,
For powerful friends to plead thy cause step forth:
But more unblest, oppression, want, and dearth,
Did during life, distressfully attend
The poor neglected native of thy North, […]

In many respects Orr greatly extends the dimensions of what we may call "The Cotter Tradition" by strengthening the narrative elements and broadening the range of characters. While Burns chooses to focus on a family’s joyful, pious Saturday evening ritual, in four distinct episodes Orr depicts humanity’s most sombre rite of passage: the Cottier’s sufferings, his death-bed utterance, the community’s attendance at his wake and, finally, the burial in a rain and wind swept church-yard. This is no idyll, but a tragedy for which the dignified chosen verse form, the Spenserian stanza, is entirely appropriate.

A discussion of some significant features of the poem will make apparent the contrast with Burns’s work. Burns’s Cotter is the text’s central, controlling figure, identified both implicitly and explicitly with the Biblical patriarchs. It is he whom the "expectant wee things, toddlan, stacher through" to greet, he who "cracks" with his eldest daughter’s young man and he who both sets and delivers the agenda for the evening worship. His wife, despite being labelled "garrulous", looks on or serves, with her reported utterances limited to an enquiry about a name, or a banal remark about the cheese.

Orr too positions his Cottier centrally: he lies on his death-bed, surrounded by his family and helpless in the grip of delirium brought on by pleurisy, a disease aggravated by damp conditions. Infirmity and disempowerment are thus shown to be daily realities for the peasant class. That the Irish Cottier is as conscientious a guide to his family as his Scottish counterpart is evident when he summons sufficient strength to deliver a final, loving admonition to his family. While based on Scriptural precepts and offering the hope of heaven, his instructions reflect Orr’s own radical philosophy:

Be honest an’ obligin’; if ye thrive
Be meek; an, firm whan crosses come your road; […]
Should rude men wrang ye, to forgie them strive; […]
Scorn nae poor man wha bears oppression’s load,
Nor meanly cringe for favours frae the proud;

The Cotter’s guidance, by contrast, has a conservative tenor: the young people are warned to obey "Their master’s and their mistress’s command".

The devotion of the Irish Cottier’s offspring adds particular poignancy:

Ane to his lips the coolin’ cordial ha’ds,
An ane behin’ supports his achin’ head;
Some bin’ the arm that lately has been bled,
An’ some burn bricks his feet mair warm to mak;
If e’er he doze, how noiselessly they tread!

The reader is further drawn into the family’s experience through Orr’s unobtrusive and skilful employment of a range of effects as he relates the tale. These include mildly humorous cameos, such as the "glaikit wean" who has to be entertained with a story. The mother’s dilemma is expressed in a brief paradox which distinguishes the husband–wife relationship as a self-sacrificial partnership. She

[…] ha’f pleas’d could see
Her partner eas’d by death, though for his life she’d die.

The Scottish Cotter’s wife, however, is relegated to stereo-type, the butt of the narrator’s patronising masculine references to the "frugal Wifie" with her "woman’s wiles".

While Burns depicts a family, Orr’s project is more substantial: the evocation of a whole community and its response to an event at once tragic and commonplace. He is at pains to stress the Scots character of that community, noting that when their minister arrives those present attempt "To quat braid Scotch, a task that foils their art". Here, and in the stanzas devoted to the wake, Orr permits some relief to the predominantly solemn mood, achieving an effect of exceptional richness. First, he enumerates the superstitions observed following the death, such as covering the mirror with a cloth, while noting that these would have earned the learned, rational Cottier’s disapproval. Then his eye roves over the attendant mourners, and with brief, acute observations he delineates a range of diverse personalities and behaviours:

Some argue Scripture — some play tricks — some greet; [...]

Or han’ tradition down, an’ ither fright,
Wi’ dreadfu’ tales o’ witches, elves, an’ ghaists.
The soger lad, wha on his pension rests,
Tells how he fought, an proudly bares his scaur;
While unfleg’d gulls, just looking owre their nests,
Brag how they lately did their rivals daur, […]

An while some lass, though on their cracks intent,
Turns to the light and sleely seems to read, […]

Just as Burns’s Cotter’s Saturday evening followed a carefully determined pattern, so the wake progresses: an all-too-familiar ritual. The solemn context of bereavement underscores the piety expressed in the simple service led by "an auld man", which consists of psalm singing and a comforting Scripture reading "That maks them sure the dead shall rise again". On this occasion too the sharing of a meal has a central place, with hospitality a priority, but the family’s poverty is evident in the reluctance of all save the odd "menseless loun" to partake of more than a few morsels of the "Hard bread, an’ cheese" and "gills a piece o’ rum".

The narrator draws attention to the crowds who attend, and to the natural courtesy with which they and the grieving family behave. Notable is the Ulster-Scot’s eschewing of big, noisy displays of emotion: the wife is "rack’d yet resign’d" and a son hands round the wake supper "wi’ becomin grace". Throughout the long night the cottage is constantly full of neighbours who have come to offer support.

Orr recreates the abundant community life that continues despite the presence of death, while never detracting from the occasion’s solemnity. He pictures the disregarded and the undervalued in society, purposefully recording and dignifying their rites and individual personalities. Quite deliberately, he abandons narrative detachment in order to make a direct protest against the inequalities and callous attitudes which exacerbate already harsh conditions for bereaved families of this class:

Come hither, sons of Plenty! an’ relieve
The bonny bairns, for labour yet owre wee…
Had I your walth, I hame wad tak wi’ me
The lamb that’s lookin’ in my tear –wat face;
An that dejected dame should sit rent free
In some snug cot, […]

In this Orr displays, without affectation, his genuine identification with the people whose experience he documents. By contrast, Burns’s melodramatic railing against a merely hypothetical despoiler of Jenny, the Cotter’s daughter, seems a calculated ploy to "milk" the situation for maximum sentiment.

Abruptly, the mood grows utterly bleak as the burial follows upon the wake. The full potency of Orr’s refutation of an idealised pastoral landscape is striking as he exposes his characters and the reader to the desolate landscape and appalling weather:

Warn’d to the Cottier’s burial, rich an’ poor
Cam’ at the hour, tho’ win’ an’ rain beat sair;
An’ monie met it at the distant moor, [...]

Once more the observation of community customs is detailed, including the "shouther[ing]" of the bier into the churchyard and the two youths kneeling at the grave to lay within it "their blest father".

Towards the end of "The Cotter’s Saturday Night" Burns includes a vision of the family united in heaven, "While circling time moves round in an eternal sphere". By contrast Orr’s final images are earth-bound. It is the funeral crowd that circles, unwilling to quit "the church-yard drear". They contemplate the disturbed earth, the "dear dust " of previously-buried loved ones, and the headstones which are powerless to convey the personalities of the deceased, and thus "only tald the inmates’ years an’ names".

Orr’s grasp of the value of narrative restraint is evident here. As grief rises to a climax in a communal "saut, saut flood" shed for all the dead kinsfolk, he offers no didactic commentary but confronts the reader and his characters with "empty sculls, an’ jointless banes, / That, cast at random, lay like cloven wood". No comforting resolution can be offered. The eventual, wordless passing of the mourners through the church-yard gate to their different homes seems an anti-climax, but is the only feasible response. Orr admired the poetry of Thomas Gray, and within this poem echoes of the "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" may be detected, but he includes no consoling reference, in the style of Gray, to "repose in the bosom of his father and his God". Instead, the desolate atmosphere and the imagery of disintegration dominate.

In their conclusions both Orr and Burns discard the intimacy of the rural settings and give attention to the nations represented by their protagonists. Once again the contrast is plain. Burns’s Scotia is portrayed triumphant and secure. For her defence a "wall of fire" is formed by her "virtuous Populace" around their "much-lov’d isle". Orr, located on the other isle, his "Erin", imagines "Ten thousand Cottiers, toiling on thy wilds". For them, patriotic heroism survives in a stubborn, desperate embrace:

Closer in thy distress to thee they cling; And though their fields scarce daily bread bestow, Feel thrice more peace of mind, than those who crush them low.

Orr’s poem was included in his 1817 posthumous volume, more than thirty years after Burns composed "The Cotter’s Saturday Night". The Ulster poet’s challenging of Burns’s portrayal of peasant life reflects his characteristic realism when dealing with pastoral subjects. It also demonstrates that while identifying closely with the Scottish poetic tradition, and drawing on the literary heritage of the three kingdoms, he retained an authentic, original and independent voice.

Carol Baraniuk

June 2009