Conor O’Clery: Why I wrote The Star Man

The veteran journalist has written a novel about the radical Presybterians who founded the United Irishmen, including a fellow reporter and his heroine, Betsy Gray


Belfast in the 1790s was a prosperous manufacturing town, the Athens of the North. It had five Presbyterian churches, one Roman Catholic and one Anglican. It also had 167 pubs or taverns.

It was here that the Society of United Irishmen was founded in 1791, with the aim of unifying Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter and reforming a corrupt political system.

Its members established a newspaper called the Northern Star to educate readers in the principles of the French Revolution. It was edited by Sam Neilson, a Belfast woolen merchant. Its Presbyterian directors were Belfast’s leading industrialists, bankers and merchants, who espoused radical ideas and longed for the day the French would come and liberate Ireland.

For six years the Star was the most popular broadsheet in Ireland. It savaged the rulers of the country with wit, satire and irony. It mocked landlords and the Ascendancy, and contributed to what became known as the “Belfast laugh”.

A young man from Moira called William Kean wielded a pen there as a clerk and reporter, and later he wielded more than a pen: he became an important United Irishman.

Willie rose through the ranks as Belfast became a hive of sedition. In 1796 he was betrayed by his best friend, served time in Kilmainham, and on release played a key role in igniting the rebellion in Co Down.

He served 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 what is now the United Kingdom. They were defeated and hundreds died.

Willie escaped but was captured and condemned to hang. How he evaded the rope is one of the great escape dramas of the times.

Willie Kean is the Star man of the title of my book. He was a newspaper man like myself. I decided to tell the story of those times through his eyes, in the form of a historical novel.

His 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, the society hostess Martha McTier, the heroine, Betsy Gray, and many others.

I have had a thing about Betsy Gray almost all my life. And this book is as much about her as the Star man, who incidentally in my account falls head-over-heels in love with her.

This fascination started 50 years ago when the Mourne Observer, my local paper in Newcastle, Co Down, serialised a Victorian-era book called Betsy Gray and the Hearts of Down, written by a newspaper editor from Bangor called Wesley Little.

It told an astonishing story – to me anyway – of a heroic fight at Ballynahinch by mostly Presbyterian folk for liberty, equality and Catholic emancipation, marching behind banners proclaiming “Erin go Bragh” and singing La Marseillaise. Betsy Gray was among them, brandishing a sword.

I had known little about the Battle of Ballynahinch, though I lived a few miles away. It wasn’t commemorated locally, by either side. It was as if this bit of Irish history was too dangerous and contradictory to be disturbed.

Having grown up in the nationalist tradition I found it somewhat perplexing that these summer soldiers should have been the ancestors of today’s Orangemen and unionists. I resolved one day to resolve this conundrum for myself.

When I returned from a life abroad reporting on other countries’ conflicts, I begin to read up on the violent events in my own back yard.

I went time travelling around the North. I delved into history books, biographies, old pamphlets, letters and government records. I spent long days in the Linen Hall Library reading the Star.

I gained an appreciation of how the Scots-Irish of the North were then almost as disadvantaged as their Catholic fellow-countrymen. They were subject to evictions, forced emigration, punitive trade laws and the payment of tithes to the hated established Church.

They were also an enlightened generation, inspired by the Scottish Enlightenment, and the success of the French Revolution and the earlier American Revolution, in which many of their kinfolk fought the British.

They were influenced by reason as much as hatred. Their leaders knew they could not establish a proper republic in Ireland if three quarters of the population was disenfranchised. So they made Catholic emancipation a key demand.

Belfast became so menacing to the Ascendancy that a British general threatened to burn the town down and teach a lesson to “those disloyal, cloven-footed, Presbyterians”.

The town was put under military siege and the premises of the Northern Star was wrecked. The directors were imprisoned. Willie Kean was out of a job.

A worse fate awaited Betsy Gray. She fought bravely in Ballynahinch and was cut down and killed when fleeing from the battlefield. Her hand was cut off and she was shot through the eye. She has been called Ulster’s Joan of Arc and is admired by many who today enthusiastically embrace the Union. I asked a leading Orangeman his opinion of her. “She is a heroine,” he said, “who fought to right the wrongs of her time.”

Betsy is eulogised in several ballads. One concludes: “Shame on the cruel ruthless band,/ Who hunted down to death their prey,/ And palsy strike the murderous hand,/ That slew the lovely Betsy Gray.”

In my book, the Star man’s love for Betsy was unrequited, just as his love for an ideal Ireland, for which she became a metaphor, was unrequited. That was his fate. And Ireland’s.

In the aftermath of defeat, concessions to Presbyterians and 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. One day during a tour of Mount Stewart, the former home of Lord Castlereagh on the unionist Ards Peninsula, I asked the guide, a Presbyterian lady, what local people thought of Castlereagh, given his role in suppressing the men and women of ’98?” “Oh, they hate him,” she replied, without hesitation.

I feel I now have a deeper understanding of the complex society in which I grew up. I wrote the book to tell a story that fascinated me, and it turned into a ripping yarn, and I hope it contains some enlightenment for the readers too.

The Star Man by Conor O’Clery is published by Somerville Press
A BBC article about Betsy Gray

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