The Shepherd and the Morning Star is inspired by rejection. My father’s life, which was colourful rather than exemplary, I portrayed as a novel and submitted the MS to several publishers. He was an Ulster Unionist MP whose career ended abruptly after an affair with a young lady from the opposite tribe. All the publishers found the story too incredible to risk committing to print. However, a few, having looked at my CV, suggested an autobiography. Nettled by the rejection, I turned my back on my father and started another novel. This too was rejected with the same suggestion about an autobiography. Finally, I took the hint and embarked on an autobiography but combined it with a biography of my father.
Writing an autobiography presented some surprising challenges. Memories are fickle phantoms and trying to decide which were true and which had been warped by changing circumstances over the years was not as easy as I thought. Integrity, self-awareness and consideration for the other actors who appear on one’s stage are essential. The exercise might seem like self-indulgence, a form of indecent exposure, but re-living painful experiences is also part of the process and is far from enjoyable.
My own journey has been eventful and, at times, dramatic. Having been asked to leave an elite public school, I chose to work in the shipyards in Belfast where I discovered the extent of discrimination and prejudice polluting the Province. That was the beginning of my political education. Finding the work tedious and repetitive and hoping to enhance my manly image, I left the yard and joined the army. Clearly a mistake. Unable to tolerate the discipline in school, the chances of surviving a strict military environment were slim. I was discharged. There followed one of the most exciting and enjoyable parts of the journey – working in the theatre in Belfast and Dublin. I think I was on the last tour of Anew McMaster’s Theatre Company, bringing Shakespeare to the masses in places like Ennis, Wexford, Cork and Limerick. Sadly, the acting career ended in what was called a ‘nervous breakdown’. Darkness descended.
The lights came on again when I went to Iona in Scotland where I was helped back to health by George MacLeod and the many remarkable people in the Community. Finding that hard physical work helped my mind, I became a hill shepherd, working in many parts of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. It was a perfect occupation, fulfilling and healthy. It ended when a tractor accident crushed my leg. However, the period of recuperation revived an interest in writing.
A new chapter started in 1974 when I enrolled in Stirling University as a ‘mature student’. Becoming active in student politics, I joined the Communist Party, helping to form the Anti-Apartheid Association and the Chile Defence Club. I launched into a second childhood. In spite of that period of self-indulgence, I graduated and, after a Masters degree, published two non-fiction books, one on Highland history. In order to earn a living, I trained as a teacher and found a position in a school in Argyll. At the same time, I had a scurrilous column in The Scotsman and published several short stories with Harper Collins. At that point the writing seemed to be going well. I was awarded a Writer’s Bursary by the Scottish Arts Council and dropped out of teaching. Literary success did not follow.
I returned to the school in a very different capacity, becoming a counsellor to disaffected and damaged youngsters. There was little time or energy left for writing till, after fifteen years, retirement suddenly loomed out of the mist. Recognising that I had never trained in the craft, I took courses in Creative Writing with the Open University. This did help. Although some short stories were published, finding an agent or publisher for longer works proved to be impossible. The style of writing favoured by the literati had changed. Authors like Eimear McBride and Anna Burns won prizes while conventional styles (from which I could not escape) became unfashionable. Still, I continued to wrestle with characters in my head, trying to give them substance and voice in my own way.
The prospect of writing about a living person (or one recently deceased) in a biography is daunting and, when it is a relative, it is hazardous, knowing that other family members may regard the attempt as betrayal. Still, I set out to portray my father as objectively as I could. Given that I am a nationalist, a republican and a socialist, such a task was fraught with difficulty for he was Imperial Grand Master of the Orange Order with his portrait on an Orange banner. We lived parallel lives. In spite of the chasm between the two, I have tried to be kind and write without malice. Using scrap books, letters, parliamentary papers and memory, I have tried to be accurate. In the exploration I hoped to find an explanation of how a young student in Trinity who saw himself as a playwright, a poet, a dreamer, who frequented the Gate Theatre, fell in love with an actress and took her away to Connemara in a horse-drawn caravan, could metamorphose into a fervent reactionary and admirer of the brutal ‘B Specials’. I never found the answer but I did find a man whose charm, wit and handsome appearance led him inexorably towards tragedy.
Combining these two stories, I submitted a draft to Birlinn in Edinburgh and was surprised and delighted to have it accepted. With the help of Tom Johnson, an editor who pointed out patiently the profusion of repetitions and mistakes, the MS has become a book. At the same time, one of the neglected novels has been accepted by Thunderpoint for publication in the autumn. The hours wrestling with words has brought some reward.
(c) Willie Orr
About The Shepherd and the Morning Star:
The Shepherd and the Morning Star is a remarkable double biography and autobiography. In the course of it the life of the son, Willie Orr, gradually emerges from under the shadow of that of his father, Lawrence Orr (PB), leading Ulster Unionist politician, philanderer and would-be bigamist, who ends his days in disgrace with his career and family in ruins.
Rootless and troubled, Willie himself went through various jobs – in the Belfast shipyards, as an actor, as a helper in the Iona Community. He suffered a severe nervous breakdown from which he slowly recovered, finding purpose and fulfilment working as a shepherd for many years and then later retraining as a teacher. In between times he wrote as a journalist for the Scotsman and with his wife set up a counselling service for adolescents in Oban.
This book is a deeply absorbing and powerful piece of writing, a record of mood and emotional development as much as a detailed chronology. Very funny in parts and with a poet’s sensitivity in others, it explores that precarious territory between the public and private lives of politicians. It ends with a glimpse of redemption and healing, a coming to terms with the ghosts of the past.
Order your copy online here.