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A Brief Dream

David McConnell

The Star Man: The True Story of Willie Kean, Journalist and Rebel. A Novel, by Conor O’Clery, Somerville Press, 320 pp, €18, ISBN: 978-0992736460

Conor O’Clery is the well known former Irish Times journalist who reported from the North, from London, from New York and Moscow, sending what Terence Brown called “magisterial reports” back to Dublin. Many of us heard his eye witness broadcasts on 9/11. Author of at least eleven books, including a biography of Chuck Feeney, he now turns his hand to a novel. But this is more than a novel; it is a way of learning about one great Irish tradition, that of the radical northern Presbyterians who in the late eighteenth century fought for equal status for all the people of Ireland.

It is the story of a people who participated in great events that shaped the modern world. They were intimately connected with the American Revolution (1776), some joined the Irish Volunteers (1778), some celebrated the French Revolution (1789), some founded the United Irishmen (1791) and took part in the rising of 1798. These events spanning nearly thirty years and reflected the ideas of the Enlightenment. What happened in Ireland affected the fate of Britain, America and France, and therefore the wider world. Most of this tradition is not well enough known today.

The novel is based on outlines of the life of a real person, Willie Kean, who was taught by the Rev William Bruce at what was to become the Belfast Royal Academy. Records show Kean there and at a number of other places during these years; O’Clery imagines him at many of the key events in the North and some in Dublin in the lead-up to 1798. Records show him taking part in 1798. His life is woven into the story of the newspaper The Northern Star, where he works after being expelled by Bruce. This was the newspaper of the United Irishmen. He is imagined to have been in love with Betsy Gray, often referred to as the Joan of Arc of the North.

Kean becomes the trusted ally of Sam Neilson, the editor of Star and a founder of the United Irishmen. Kean joins the United Irishmen, rising to a position of some prominence, and becoming the aide to General Munro at the Battle of Ballynahinch. So the novel draws on the real lives of Presbyterians of Belfast, Antrim and Down and their allies who were to conceive and take part in the rising of 1798.

As O’Clery writes: “No major character or event is invented”, so we are introduced to most of the major characters of the United Irishmen, their critics and their foes, moving from one real person to another, from one real event to another. Wolfe Tone makes brief appearances, Castlereagh is there, Edward FitzGerald, Drennan, Russell, MacDonnell, Arthur O’Connor, John Philpot Curran, Sampson, McCracken. David Bailie Warden is mentioned – later he represented America at the Council of Vienna, where he met Castlereagh, the scourge of the rebels. We learn of Castlereagh arresting William Orr on trumped up charges and later putting down the rebels savagely. Benjamin Franklin appears on banners and his visit to Belfast in 1771 is recalled.

The Star Man is pacy, but it is much more than a thriller. There is a different reason to read this book, indicated, I think, by the fact that it was launched in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. The RIA was founded in 1785 and illustrated the growing confidence associated with the Irish Parliament, in an atmosphere where there were calls for greater autonomy from London and for religious tolerance ,including Catholic Emancipation. The first president of the academy was Lord Charlemont, a founder and leader of the Irish Volunteers, the precursor of the United Irishmen.

There is something quite important about this book. O’Clery, born a Northern Catholic, who experienced the Troubles at close hand, is encouraging all of us in the Ireland to learn more about the Northern Presbyterians, the people who produced the Ulster Scots or Scots Irish ‑ and showing us why we should respect them. They are indeed part of a different culture, essentially a Scottish culture, one of international significance, which Catholic Ireland has not understood for nearly two hundred years, and which Northern Ireland has not been keen to recognise either.

O’Clery’s book is based on serious and extensive scholarship. The author mined the hard copies of The Northern Star in the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, which appropriately traces its foundation by the Presbyterians to the late eighteenth century. He drew on many books and pamphlets, travelled to the scenes of the events and spoke to descendants of some of the main characters. I am not a professional historian, but the many historical references I followed up, in the journalistic phrase, all “stood up”.

In that heady period leading up to 1798, Belfast was a city in turmoil. It had a population of almost eighteen thousand, almost all them Presbyterians, led by its merchant class and on the verge of becoming a great industrial city. People there were in touch with the most progressive political ideas of Europe and America. It is imagined that Kean bought a copy of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man while still at school. When the radicals were forced into rebellion, however, and when they lost, the field was handed to the Orangemen, many of them also Presbyterians, and eventually the island of Ireland was partitioned. Most Presbyterians of all viewpoints were lost to the new Irish state. The last two hundred years can in a way be seen as time spent trying to recover, to reinstate, the ideas which motivated the most progressive of the Northern Presbyterians of the eighteenth century, who were characterised by their interest in education, toleration, independence of mind, fairness, justice, knowledge, reason, and democratic commitment – in sum the elements of the European Enlightenment.

The names in my own family history ‑ Warwick, Rankin, Boal, Tennant, Russell, MacDonnell (McConnell) ‑ appear in the book as historical figures. Archibald Warwick (William Warwick in the book), a Presbyterian minister, was hanged beside his church in Kircubbin. I was brought up a Presbyterian in Dublin – it was Presbyterian light, however, and I gave it up when I was fourteen. But Presbyterianism influenced me, and importantly, protected me from the dominant alternatives – note the plural.

This form of Protestantism evolved strongly in Scotland, was carried first to Ulster and then decisively to America, influencing the foundation of both the United States and Canada. Arthur Herman makes the case in The Scottish Enlightenment (2001) that the Scots and Ulster Scots invented the “modern world”. We can argue that this group of Presbyterians could have provided Ireland with distinctive connections to the Enlightenment.

Presbyterians suffered terribly. Like others they were subject to trade restrictions. But beyond that their marriages were not recognised as legitimate, they paid tithes to the Episcopalians [Anglicans] and were excluded from government jobs. As tenants they were rack-rented. Indeed they were discriminated against in much the same way as Catholics. In the eighteenth century hey emigrated in vast numbers to America – 200,000 in the middle decades, accounting for about ten per cent of all colonists by 1770. In August 1773, 3,500 arrived in Philadelphia. The Ulster-Scots Presbyterians brought over a burning hatred of the Episcopalians and supported the case for the separation of Church and State. We can get a measure of their influence in other ways too. The Declaration of Independence was signed by fifty-six people, nineteen or whom of whom were Ulster Scots or Scots. The final copy was written by Charles Thompson, secretary to the Continental Congress, an Ulster Scot. The first printing, in Philadelphia, was by an Ulster Scot. Founding what became Princeton University in 1746, Ulster Scots had a large influence on American education for the next century and beyond. Seventeen of forty-four residents of the United States are of Ulster Scots descent.

The Star Man is a vivid introduction to the ideas and character of the people who produced the Ulster Scots, their early associations with the American revolution (feared in both London and Dublin), and with the French (deemed an even greater threat). The novel shows Bastille Day being celebrated with joy and enthusiasm in Belfast in 1792. Willie Kean studies French. The French ship L’Amitie, carrying arms to Ulster, is wrecked off the coast of Down in April 1798.

The novel recounts a tragedy. Thousands died, or were wounded, imprisoned, executed or displaced in and after the risings in Antrim and Down. Not all of those interested in Irish history have heard of the Battle of Ballynahinch. It is a place not far from Moira, where Kean was born and the sympathetic Lord Moira had his great house, Montalto. Some five to six thousand United Irishmen, almost all Presbyterians but with some Catholic Defenders, armed with pikes, some muskets and three or four small ship’s guns, faced several thousand professional soldiers and militia with heavy cannon. The government troop column is said to have been three miles long. Folklore says the United Irishmen might have won if they had not mistaken a British call for retreat as a call for their own retreat. Munro was captured and hanged, Betsy Gray was savagely killed.

The tragedy which permeates this novel is the blow dealt to the ideas of the Enlightenment in Ireland. The chance for a tolerant progressive society was swept away. In the North, radical and progressive Presbyterianism quickly gave way quickly to Orangeism. In the South, progressive Anglicans were replaced over the next century by conservative Catholics. Progressive thinking was suppressed across the island and has not fully recovered. In the words of Laurence Parsons, later 2nd Earl of Rosse, in his poem reflecting on 1798: “It was a brief dream.”

Could it have been otherwise? O’Clery suggests an answer by posing another question. If the United Irishmen had won in the North and defeated the British would they have had to fight the Catholics in the South to keep their freedom? That is of course one way of looking at the events of 1912-1922.

The Star Man is a thought-provoking thriller based on scholarship, which I hope will encourage wider understanding of Northern Ireland and a greater respect for the Northern Presbyterians and their offshoot, the Ulster Scots. This book might also help Northern unionists to learn more about themselves, and how their radical kin contributed so much to the modern world.


David McConnell is a fellow emeritus of the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin and was chairman of the Irish Times Trust between 2001 and 2010.

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published this month. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is “White Terror”, Hugh Gough’s review-essay from 2015 on the Paris Commune of 1871 and its suppression. Here is an extract:

If the Commune’s social and political aims were fluid, its religious aims were not and its prime target was the Catholic church, which had firmly attached itself to the conservative and royalist right since 1789. After the death of Archbishop Christophe de Beaumont on the barricades in June 1848 the church had become one of the major props of the Second Empire, benefiting in return from an almost total monopoly of the educational system. Largely due to Catholicism’s persistent habit of cosying up to the political right, anticlericalism had become a feature of popular radicalism and exploded into life as the Commune began: church schools were closed, state and church separated, religious orders dispersed and churches used as shelters, refuges and political clubs. When the Versailles government executed several captured prisoners in early April, Archbishop Darboy was taken hostage, along with several dozen priests, and imprisoned in the Conciergerie, which had held victims waiting for the guillotine during the French revolutionary terror. He was eventually executed on May 24th after Thiers refused to barter prisoner exchanges, the third Parisian archbishop to die a violent death since 1848.

What began as festival ended in tragedy. There was no realistic hope of the communards either fragmenting the French state into self-governing units or persuading the provinces to rally behind them. Without outside support their fate was inevitable. Thiers … was able to methodically put together an army that badly needed a morale boost after its drubbing at the hands of the Prussians, and gradually move on Paris from the west. It remorselessly reconquered the capital, suburb by suburb and street by street as the communards fought a long and bloody rearguard battle … The fighting ended in Belleville, and in the tenth and eleventh arrondissements, climaxing in a final massacre in the Père Lachaise cemetery on Sunday, May 28th at the spot now known as the mur des fédérés. Thiers’s forces of order were no sabbatarians, the Commune was well and truly over and much of Haussman’s Paris in ruins.

The exact death toll will never be known. Communards themselves later claimed a figure of more than thirty-five thousand. Merriman goes for a lower figure of seventeen thousand, while Robert Tombs, who studied the conflict from the Versailles side, opts for less than half that number, around eight thousand. Even using the lower death figure, the Commune had almost four times more Parisian deaths in ten weeks than the French revolutionary terror achieved in eighteen months. Yet statistics alone will never reflect the intensity of the conflict and Merriman rightly emphasises the importance of the class hatred that shaped the attitude and behaviour of the political and military authorities both during and after the event.

Several army units slaughtered opponents without authorisation, interrogation or reprimand. A Te Deum was later celebrated in Notre Dame for the murdered Archbishop Darboy, but none for the thousands of communard dead, whom Pius IX later called “men escaped from Hell”. The Catholic church went on to clarify its attitude by constructing the basilica of the Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre as an act of penance for the sins that had brought Prussian defeat and civil war. Like Père Lachaise cemetery, it has since lost much of its symbolic significance and became just another stop on the tourist trail.



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