top of page

Blacklion by Luke Francis Beirne

Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw

It's been a while since IRA thrillers have been in vogue, so I was curious to see what Irish-born Canadian author Luke Francis Beirne would do with his second novel, Blacklion. All in all, it's an intriguing story set around a fictional bombing in the 1970s near the Irish border town of Blacklion in County Cavan. However, Beirne taxes the reader's credulity by having his protagonist, a CIA agent, run a covert operation to deliver U.S. arms to the IRA for the sole purpose of thwarting Russian and Libyan influence on the movement. Yes, it is a stretch, but then most spy thrillers are.

Beirne's protagonist, Raymond Daly, is a recently recruited CIA operative who has earned his spurs in Laos. The grandson of Irish immigrants, Raymond's ties to the Emerald Isle are tenuous, if not nonexistent. So his mission to undermine foreign influence on the IRA becomes a journey of discovery into his Irish roots, and a pretext for Beirne to educate his readers about the root causes of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Thankfully, Beirne keeps this to a digestible minimum and focuses more on the relationships between Raymond and his IRA contacts.

Raymond finds that gaining their trust is no easy matter. Most are Northern Catholics who have fled to the Republic to escape the violence inflicted on their communities by Protestant paramilitaries and British Army sympathizers. Violence breeds violence, and the young men and women Raymond meets are only too willing to commit atrocities of their own against their pro-British enemies and rival nationalist groups. Maintaining trust is paramount for survival with this crowd, and more than once, Raymond narrowly escapes execution by his suspicious contacts.

Against the highly political backdrop of the novel, a romance develops between Raymond and Aoife, the cousin of Gerry, one of Raymond's IRA contacts. At times, we wonder whether Raymond will get a bullet not for being uncovered as a spy but for his romance with Aoife. Raymond's cover story that he is merely a middleman, paid handsomely to ensure that a wealthy Irish sympathizer in Brooklyn gets free guns to the IRA, wears thin in the highly charged atmosphere of nationalist paranoia, and even Aoife, at times, has her doubts about him. As Raymond plunges deeper into the IRA labyrinth, he soon discovers that his new girlfriend is not just a pretty face, but a hardened foot soldier. And in the midst of it all, he begins to lose his own moral compass.

The strength of Beirne's writing lies less in plot development than in a fairly believable portrayal of basic human emotions: trust/distrust, love/hate, violence/the longing for a normal life. While not a page-turner, the novel does provide some well-measured suspense. There is no doubt that something is going to go terribly wrong, but we only find out what in the final chapters. In this, Beirne achieves a certain Hemingway quality for his protagonist and associates. All told, the novel is a fine effort in a genre where the bar has been set extremely high by Le Carré, Greene, Deighton and others. Beirne may not be in their league yet, but he seems well on his way.

Blacklion is published by Baraka Books.


Tag Cloud
bottom of page