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Belfast Presbyterians in 1798 were some of the most enlightened people - who knows how they might have changed history?

Published 25/10/2016

Historical perspective: journalist and author Conor O’Clery
Historical perspective: journalist and author Conor O’Clery

Ahead of a reading from his acclaimed historical novel, The Star Man, at the Linen Hall library tomorrow, award-winning Belfast-born foreign correspondent Conor O’Clery tells Una Brankin how he was inspired by a 200-year-old love affair amid the revolutionary fervour of the 18th Century.

If the dead can tune in to what the living are up to, there's a radiant young farm-girl from the late-18th century and her lovelorn admirer, from Moira, who will be very pleased indeed with Conor O'Clery's first historical novel. Willie Kean, a rebellious reporter, and Betsy Gray, heroine of the Battle of Ballynahinch, are the chief protagonists of The Star Man, its title a reference to the radical Belfast newspaper of the day, The Northern Star, which espoused the ideals of the United Irishmen - "Protestant, Catholic and dissenter".

The feisty Betsy and the tall dashing "Star man", Willie, were part of the 1798 rebellion that, if successful, could have prevented the circumstances and injustices which led to the bloodshed of the 20th century, north and south of the border.

The revolutionary fervour of the duo and their fellow Presbyterian comrades deeply intrigued and impressed the suave 75-year-old O'Clery, a former award-winning foreign correspondent and Irish Journalist of the Year, when he began his research for The Star Man, in the Linen Hall library in 2013.

"I was hugely surprised - I knew about Henry Joy McCracken and Thomas Russell and other United Irishmen, but I had no idea that the Belfast Presbyterians were so inspired by the American and the French revolutions and Scottish enlightenment," says Belfast-born O'Clery.

"That all combined to make them some of the most enlightened people ever to live in Northern Ireland. If they had prevailed at Ballynahinch in 1798 and if the Catholic Defenders in south Down and Co Louth could have rallied, who knows how that could have changed the course of history."

While based on historical fact, the story of Willie and Betsy's lives has been largely imagined by the retired Irish Times international news bureau chief, who was three blocks away from the Twin Towers on 9/11 and wrote poignantly and insightfully about it.

He has also written hundreds of powerful dispatches from Afghanistan, East Timor, Iraq and South Africa and was targeted by the KGB for their intelligence-gathering while he was reporting from Moscow.

In The Star Man, he writes in the same short, sharp, clear sentences as in his reports, but with the added colour and descriptive skill required for character development. (His style is a bit like Ernest Hemingway's, another former journalist). He vividly portrays Belfast in the 1790s as the prosperous manufacturing town it used to be, "the Athens of the north", with five Presbyterian churches, one Catholic and one Anglican, and the grand total of 167 taverns.

"Creating dialogue is the most difficult thing and I wanted to make sure I didn't use words that weren't in currency at the time," says O'Clery. "The editor pointed out I'd used 'posh' to describe the Grays' house, when that term only came in with the cruise lines - Port Out Starboard Home (referring to the more comfortable cabins, out of the sun, on the old ships sailing between England and India).

"I replaced it with 'fancy', or something like that. Writing fiction is big leap from journalism. I started out writing the novel as diary entries, each a short news feature, but it didn't quite work."

O'Clery's rip-roaring tale is interwoven with a colourful cast of characters, including the United Irishmen Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy McCracken and Thomas Russell, the Chief Secretary Lord Castlereagh, the notorious portrait painter and informer Edward Newell, the lethal barmaid, Belle Martin, and the society hostess Martha McTier.

It centres on the Society of United Irishmen, founded in 1791, with the aim of reforming a corrupt political system. Their ideas were disseminated by The Northern Star, the best-selling newspaper in Ireland in the 1790s and the expressive cornerstone of what was known as the 'Belfast Laugh'.

"That was about mocking the ascendency and landlords, and making fun of the more conservative elements," O'Clery explains. "I first came across it in the fascinating letters between the Belfast socialite Martha McAteer and Willie Drennan, who was well known in Dublin as 'the baby doctor'.

"The Northern Star used satire a lot; it was very funny in parts, especially the skits on the establishment. A very radical Private Eye indeed. They also reported on the Paris fashion of the day and the news from England, but their main aim was to educate readers in the principles of the French Revolution."

The Northern Star was edited by Sam Neilson, a Belfast woollen merchant. Its Presbyterian directors were Belfast's leading industrialists, bankers and merchants, who, as O'Clery describes, longed for the day the French would come and liberate Ireland. The paper's young clerk and reporter, Willie Kean, rose through the ranks of the United Irishmen as Belfast became a hive of sedition.

In 1796, he was betrayed by his best friend, served time in Kilmainham gaol in Dublin and, on release, played a key role in igniting the rebellion in Co Down, serving as aide-de-camp to the rebel commander General Monro at the Battle of Ballynahinch in June 1798, the last great battle for territory in the UK. They were defeated and hundreds died.

O'Clery says: "Willie escaped, but was captured and condemned to hang. How he evaded the rope is one of the great escape dramas of the times. (He settled in Philadelphia eventually and became prosperous.)

"I decided to write the story through his eyes and, the more I explored, the more I realised it was a very exciting story indeed, a story about Presbyterians fighting for liberty, equality and Catholic emancipation.

"These people were essentially involved in a civil war. There are no parallels in modern history. They were a unique element and rural Presbyterians were also caught up in their revolutionary zeal."

The unrequited love Willie Kean felt for Betsy Gray adds another compelling strand to the novel and stands as a metaphor for Kean's unfulfilled vision of a harmonious Ireland.

The author admits to being quite taken with Betsy himself, having first come across her 50 years ago, when his then local paper, the Mourne Observer, serialised a Victorian-era book, Betsy Gray and the Hearts of Down, written by a newspaper editor from Bangor called Wesley Little.

"I have had a thing about Betsy Gray almost all my life, as I've told my wife, and this book is as much about her as the Star Man, who in my account falls head-over-heels in love with her," says O'Clery. "Betsy was among those Presbyteria folk marching behind banners proclaiming 'Erin go Bragh' and singing La Marseillaise, brandishing a sword. She was said to have ridden a white horse at the Battle of Ballynahinch, but it was probably a pony."

Red-headed Betsy fought bravely in Ballynahinch, but was killed while fleeing from the battlefield. Her hand was cut off and she was shot through the eye. Admired by many unionists, Betsy has been called "Ulster's Joan of Arc". When O'Clery asked a leading Orangeman his opinion of her, he replied: "She is a heroine who fought to right the wrongs of her time."

So, when it comes to depicting the comely Betsy's love life in The Star Man, the author treads lightly.

"She is revered by a lot of people and I didn't want to have her involved in, um, sex scenes and I didn't want to detract from her as a metaphor for the unrequited love felt by Willie for her and for an ideal Ireland. She had to be a bit above that; not involved in the rough and tumble."

The Star Man is a product of painstaking research, from the writer's travels around Northern Ireland and his delving into history books, biographies, old pamphlets, letters, government records and The Northern Star.

"I walked in Willie Kean's footsteps about a mile on the back road from Hillsborough to Belfast and on the anniversary of the Battle of Ballynahinch in June, I stayed at the Millbrook Hotel there and got up at 4am to walk across the drumlins, trying to imagine what it was like for Betsy Gray and her companions as they fled from the battle.

"The weather was perfect that morning two years ago, as it was during the battle - that was one of the most glorious summers on record in the country."

O'Clery says he'd love it if a film was made of The Star Man, but hasn't imagined who he'd like to see in the starring roles. For now, he is happy to shine a light on a heroic group of Ulster men and women largely forgotten by history.

"Belfast had the best-organised people and the best thinkers in 1798, but sectarianism had already taken root in Co Armagh, because Catholics were beginning to move into positions traditionally held by Protestants and there were bitter divisions over land.

"In the aftermath of defeat, concessions to Presbyterians and the deepening sectarianism persuaded the Ulster Scots to transfer their support to the Union. The memory of '98 was allowed to fade, but some things will never be forgotten - a Presbyterian tour guide at Mount Stewart, the former home of Lord Castlereagh, who suppressed the men and women of '98, told me without hesitation that the local people hate him.

"The wonderful ideals of the 1790s haven't gone away. The best way I can put it, I think, is the line from the ballad, The Man From God Knows Where: 'Cease the wrong and the right will prevail'."

  • Conor O'Clery will read from his novel, The Star Man, published by Somerville Press, at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast tomorrow, at 1pm. Admission is free, but advance booking is recommended: phone 028 9032 1707, or log on to www.linenhall.com

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