Arts

Conor O'Clery novel reveals Belfast man's starring role in 1798

Conor O'Clery's new book The Star Man features little-known United Irishman Willie Kean. He tells Joanne Sweeney how it's a book that he's wanted to write all his life

Former foreign correspondent Conor O'Clery was born in Belfast and grew up in Newcastle, Co Down
Joanne Sweeney

THE turbulent days of the Society of United Irishmen as seen through the eyes of a little-known figure from the 1798 Rebellion have been chronicled in a new novel by award-winning Belfast-born journalist Conor O'Clery.

The Star Man is a tale of bravery, passion and patriotism amid the rebellion leading up to the infamous Battle of Ballynahinch.

It tells a story of Willie Kean, a Belfast man who rose from a lowly clerk at the radical newspaper The Northern Star to be a significant figure in the United Irishmen and then as aide-de-camp to General Henry Monro in the battle.

While based on historical fact, the story of Willie's life has been imagined by the retired Irish Times international news bureau chief.

"The Society of the United Irishmen was founded in Belfast in 1791 with the aim of unifying Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter and reforming a corrupt system," O'Clery says.

"The society founded a newspaper in Belfast called the Northern Star in1792 with the aim to educate its readers in the principles of the French Revolution.

"I tramped the roads of Belfast, Co Down and Co Antrim to get a real feel for what it was like in those days. The more I read, the more that I realised that the Presbyterians of the time were almost as disadvantaged as Catholics, with evictions, forced immigration, punitive trade loss, and being barred from Parliament.

"But what really annoyed them was having to pay tithes to the established Church.

"Then I learnt about the heroic fight in Ballynahinch of mostly Presbyterian folk who fought for Liberty, equality and Catholic emancipation, so having grown up in the nationalist tradition I found this perplexing."

The 75-year-old was talking ahead of the book's launch tonight at Waterstones in Belfast.

O'Clery, who covered the collapse of Soviet Union and the 9/11 attacks in New York in 2001, is no stranger to drama and a bit of danger, having had his own brushes with the KGB in Moscow.

However, it was discovering Willie Kean and his exploits in the United Irishmen that opened his eyes to this historical period.

"You won't find his name in the history books but Willie Kean was a very important United Irishman," O'Clery says.

"I came across his name in several letters and Secret Service records and old archives that I was researching. His name kept cropping up. Being a newspaper man myself, I thought I could tell the story of this incredibly exciting and dramatic time in local history through the eyes of a newspaper man.

"The manner of Kean's escape from jail after he was sentenced to death – although I don't want to give too much away – is one of the great escape stories of the time."

But O'Clery says that his fascination is mostly to his interest in Co Down heroine Betsy Gray who fought in the battle alongside her lover and her brother.

"I've had a thing about Betsy Gray all my life. I've even confessed that to my wife," O'Clery admits. "And this book is as much as about her as it is about the Star Man who, incidentally, falls head over heels in love with her.

O'Clery says he has been meaning to write this book for most of his life.

"If I go back about 50 years, I can find my motivation for writing it," he explains. "Although I was born in Belfast, I was brought up in Newcastle, Co Down. The Mourne Observer serialised a book called Betsy Gray or Hearts of Down by Wesley Lyttle (1896).

"That book was really important to my life as I had always assumed that things were black and white in Northern Ireland. There's a miniature of Betsy Gray that's reproduced in the book. She was a very attractive woman but I think it's the stories of her riding the white horse – even though they might be exaggerated, it doesn't matter – and the fact that she was so brutally killed afterwards by yeoman from Annahilt, is so compelling.

"The manner of her death was just so dramatic."

O'Clery's first-person fictional narrative romps over 300 pages and for the author, the writing of it has helped him understand his native home.

He said: "These United Irishmen were the ancestors of today's Orangemen and unionists. Yet they went to battle with banners saying Eirn Go Bragh [Éirinn go Brách] and they sang the La Marseillaise.

"I have been planning all my life to resolve this conundrum in the form of a book and this is what I've done. I feel that I've a deeper understanding of the complexity of the society within I grew up.

"It was a story that gripped me and it's turned into a ripping yarn."

:: The Star Man by Conor O'Clery is published by Somerville Press, priced £14 and available from book shops.

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