Troubles and Twists

Blacklion

A review of Blacklion by Luke Francis Beirne

Published on November 1, 2023

The aloofness of the American cowboy permeates the personality of CIA agent Raymond Daly, protagonist of Luke Francis Beirne’s Blacklion. Except Beirne’s novel is not set in the Wild West, but in Ireland, right at the northern border, during the time of the Troubles. 

Blacklion
Luke Francis Beirne

Baraka Books
$24.95
paper
240pp
9781771863315

In true espionage thriller fashion, our detached agent has been catapulted into a delicate situation, one he needs to navigate with care if he’s to survive and not get caught – either by those he is infiltrating, a small group of republican volunteers south of the border, or their enemies, the loyalists and British Security Forces in the north. He is completely on his own – if he’s captured, no one will come for him. And there’s a good reason for that.

Raymond’s mission follows an uneasy ploy of back-alley maneuvers: the CIA has sent him to the Irish town of Sligo to put guns in the hands of the republicans. This is not so much to help defend their cause as it is to beat the Russians to it. We are, after all, also in the middle of the Cold War. In a twisted game of geopolitical strategy, it means the CIA is arming those fighting against the Brits, who just happen to be American allies. The line is thin here.

The tight-knit group Ray infiltrates includes Tommy Slowey, an arms smuggler from South Boston and the one who introduces him to volunteers: Gerry, his beautiful cousin Aoife, and brothers Liam and Dermot. The reader is privy to one intense arms-smuggling event. And then, the entire reason CIA spy Raymond Daly is in Ireland fades into the background. The story becomes about him falling in love with Aoife and jumping into the Northern Ireland conflict as if it was his own, in the name of keeping up his cover but perhaps rather more due to his need to protect Aoife. 

Mimicking the layered geopolitical context of Ireland in the 1970s, Beirne’s love story is irrevocably attached to a larger, overwhelmingly violent and desperate situation pervading Ireland, which ends up dictating how it will unfold. There is just no way out of it. The reports of bombings are halted by short and intense lulls during which retaliations are planned and executed. This saccadic rhythm is captured by minute descriptions of Ireland’s beauty and dramatic accounts of Ray’s past as a soldier in Southeast Asia. Besieged by flashbacks to his violent killing of a boy back in Laos, Raymond struggles with being caught up in wars that exert a personal price he finds more and more difficult to pay.

The plot is intricately intertwined with the history of that period. But how much do we really know about the politics and the violence that permeated Northern Ireland from 1968 to 1998? This is where, perhaps, it was more difficult for me to follow and get immersed in the writing. For example, it is only after my research that I’m able to place the novel’s events at around May 1974, when Daly asks Slowey about the Dublin and Monaghan bombings he’s heard about on the radio. Without this additional reading, it was easy for me to miss the finer integration of the plot in Ireland’s past.

I found the reading challenging. It’s hard to see the pattern of the literary threads Beirne weaves for us in Blacklion – a CIA cowboy, ex-Vietnam vet, in Ireland; the extremely complex and brutally violent geopolitical situation, backgrounded by the Cold War; a plot that attempts to crescendo into an existential message about love and war. Each thread is intense, deep, and merits a much longer novel to be able to distinguish the magnificent Irish tartans that compose Blacklion.mRb

Sharon Morrisey is hiding out here from her other professional life.

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