Ballycarry is a settlement which goes back to the early Scottish settlement of County Antrim in the 17th century. In 1609 William Edmonstone of Duntreagh in Stirlingshire obtained a land grant of 2,800 acres at what was then called Broadisland. He brought Scottish families to his new settlement on the hills of Antrim overlooking the North Channel and founded the modern village of Ballycarry.
In 1770 when James Orr was born there the minister at Ballycarry was Rev. John Bankhead and it would have been Bankhead who would have baptised the baby son of James Orr the weaver of Manse Road. The young Orr attended Sunday school and took part in the skilful rhyming at Sunday School whereby the tunes of the Psalms were learned; using other words and rhymes so as only to sing the Psalm in the Kirk.
The school would have been attached to the church site, but James Orr did not attend school as his parents – who were Auld Licht Presbyterians – were concerned that the teacher there was influenced by New Licht thought which was contrary to their rather more conservative religious views.
In his poems and songs Orr gives us other details of the village which he knew. In a poem about Rev. William Glendy, he notes that the minister was founder of a Sunday-school and a Reading Society in the village. Fairs were held in Ballycarry at the fair hill and Main Street areas during James Orr’s lifetime and one of his best local poems is the song Ballycarry Fair, which outlines the events of the fair. The Fairhill may be close to the site of the Norman church of Brackenbury, or Brackenberg, and remains an area of common land in the centre of the village. He also wrote about the Glen at Redhall, highlighting a landscape which included a waterfall (“the splendid cascade from the rock”) and where oaks, ivy, wild flowers and holly bushes abound.
Ballycarry had been developed in the early 17th century around the old church ruin and the farmsteads which grew up in the countryside around. Orr spent time in the old churchyard, familiar with the fact that it had the first Presbyterian congregation in Ireland, and at Forthill, overlooking Ballycarry and the North Channel.
As a weaver he spent considerable time at his loom, located in the cottage where he had been born at Manse Road in 1770. He also spent time in the public house, which was where his Masonic Lodge met and where it seems he also sought social companionship among his friends in the village.
We have some idea of the landscape of the Ballycarry in which James Orr lived through his writings and also the accounts of the time in the Ordnance Survey Memoir.
The Memoir informs us that in the 1830s there were 55 houses in the village, 11 of them two storey dwellings and the remainder single storey. Almost all of them were slated. Most of the people who lived in the area were employed in agriculture, while the main landlord was Richard Gervas Ker, who also held lands in County Down and was MP for Downpatrick.