A time of violence: Luke Francis Beirne, Blacklion

Luke Francis Beirne, Blacklion. Baraka Books, Montréal, 2023

This edgy thriller by Irish-Canadian author Luke Francis Beirne has some similar elements to his previous novel Foxhunt, also published by Baraka Books. In my post on it just over a year ago I likened it to early le Carré (link HERE). Blacklion in some ways resembles some of Graham Greene’s fiction – in fact, Part 1 of this novel is called ‘The Quiet American’.

The setting is early seventies Ireland. The Troubles are at their height in Ultster. Ray, of South Boston American-Irish stock, has been dispatched by the CIA to infiltrate the IRA in the Republic with a view to re-establishing a lost line of gun-running. The aim is not so much as to support the Republican cause, as to prevent the Soviets from stepping in and further unbalancing the power dynamic in the Cold War.

Ray, as a conspicuous newcomer and outsider, has to win the trust of a deeply suspicious set of people (associated with the previous gun-running operation out of gangland South Boston) and IRA splinter-group volunteers. His loyalty is tested several times, each time in more dangerous and hair-raising ways. More than once his life is threatened, and he has to muffle his moral instincts when other people’s lives are on the line: to step in and prevent bloodshed he would jeopardise his cover.

There’s a sub-genre of thriller to which Blacklion makes a worthy contribution (a recent series of the hit UK tv series ‘Line of Duty’ is an example): the undercover cop/agent who has to compromise his human principles in order to fulfil his mission. This includes becoming involved in a sexual relationship with one of the female activists. The tension mounts when Ray’s initial guilt at deceiving Aoife turns into another kind of unease as he finds himself falling in love with her.

The plot is fairly standard for this kind of set-up, with increasingly nail-biting operations involving assassinations of rivals or suspected ‘rats’, and firefights with the British army that culminate in a dangerous operation in the town of Blacklion, just over the border in Ulster.

There’s less obvious political ideology in this novel than there was in 50s-set Foxhunt. There the conflicting and equally extreme positions of the Soviets and conservative Americans were foregrounded. In Blacklion, Beirne is more interested in what drives politically motivated activists to such extremes of violence, while also exploring the even more complex morality of the undercover agent. The validity of Ray’s actions and mission is never overtly judged; the narrative simply presents what happens and wisely leaves the readers to form their own views.

The fact that he is haunted by flashbacks of his previous illegal covert operation in Laos (during the Vietnam war) simply shows the price Ray pays for doing the job he does. In a way he comes to grudgingly admire the commitment to a cause demonstrated by the people he deceives, and to question his role and the murkier ‘cause’, if it could be called that, on behalf of which he is operating. As Yeats put it, the falcon cannot hear the falconer.

One minor cavil. The prose is terse, unadorned – I suppose it could be called ‘hard-boiled’ in a Hemingway/Chandler way. But I was a little put off by one aspect of this style; there are times when the ‘this happened then this’ approach becomes intrusive. Let me try and explain with a fairly random example.

‘Ray walked around the car and opened the passenger side door. He climbed inside and shut it. Aoife turned the key in the ignition and started the car. The headlights played across the grass before the sand…’

Why not the even more pared-back, ‘They climbed into the car and drove off’…? I don’t mind that minimalist prose style, but moments like this grated a bit with me. But that’s a minor point. I enjoyed this novel a lot. It’s an exciting, compelling read, but also thought-provoking. Morality and character are as much in play as politics or action.

My thanks to Baraka Books for the ARC.

Ireland, Sir John and Hazel Lavery

Mrs TD’s father was Irish and she has quite a few relatives living in the Republic of Ireland. My ancestry is also Irish, though mostly from N. Ireland. We recently went to visit some of her cousins and other extended family there.

He took us to some of our favourite places in the area, and several we’d not seen before. There was a magical drive across the Wicklow mountains to the village where some of Mrs TD’s ancestors are buried. Several pints of Guinness were involved in some delightful rural pubs. At one, high in the hills above Dublin city, we asked an old chap sitting at a table if it was ok to join him. He had wild white hair like the Doc in Back to the Future.

He obviously heard our English accents. ‘You’re not from round here, are you?’ he asked, a little truculently. We agreed we were not. ‘I am’, said L. They swapped backgrounds, and it turned out that this Doc chap had lived next door to L’s old house on the outskirts of Dublin. ‘Your dad used to keep the Jersey cows?’ he said, suddenly becoming full of bonhomie. ‘My mother used to look after you when you were little!’ Small world, Ireland.

L had arranged some family gatherings at his house. Mrs TD was thrilled to meet more relatives for the first time. We got talking about my own ancestors: Lavery is a fairly common name in the north, and we found in our research that our families had sometimes lived in the same town, even the same house, at different times in the past.

We also talked about the Irish-Scottish artist, my namesake the artist Sir John Lavery (I don’t think we’re related). His Lavery forebears had been known for over a century on the southern shores of Lough Neagh in the lower reaches of the river Bann. He was born in a Catholic family (that wouldn’t have gone down with my father’s parents, staunch northern English Protestants) in Belfast. His father, Henry, a publican and wine merchant, sailed for New York intending to revive his fortunes in America. When established there, he hoped to send for his wife and young family. Soon after leaving Liverpool, his ship foundered in gales and Henry was one of over 300 people who drowned. John’s mother died soon after, and John was sent, still a child, to live on his uncle and aunt’s farm at Moira.

After a spell down and out in Glasgow, he got a job as a retoucher to a photographer/engraver in Glasgow. He studied art there, then in London and Paris. He spent time in northern France immersing himself in the styles of the late 19C: the latter part of impressionism and art nouveau.

He’s perhaps best known as a member of the Glasgow School (or Glasgow Boys), and as painter of decorative society women, but his range was far wider than that. Apart from rural, seaside and river scenes straight out of the late impressionist school, he painted Irish peasants, sporting events like tennis and horse racing, and much more. He painted the royal family several times, and was an official war artist during WWI. Though he never made it to the western front, he painted stirring naval and aerial scenes.

In London he met and fell in love with a beautiful flower girl called Kathleen MacDermott. He took her back to Glasgow with him as a model, and they married in 1890. Just months after the birth of their daughter Eileen, she died of tuberculosis in 1891. Soon after her death John discovered that Kathleen  wasn’t Irish but Welsh and her real name was Annie Evans. His portrait of her the year they met, An Irish Girl, shows the influence of Whistler.

After spells in Tangier, where once again John broadened his range of subject matter, he revisited Beg-Meil in Britanny. There in 1903 he met the beautiful American woman who was to become his second wife: Hazel Martyn. Of Irish ancestry herself, she was a society belle, engaged to the surgeon Ned Trudeau. Despite having fallen in love with Lavery, she bowed to family pressure and married Trudeau in December the same year.

He died a year later, by which time Hazel had given birth to a daughter, Alice. Hazel and John married in 1909.

In 1921 when negotiations were taking place between the British government and the Irish leaders seeking to establish the Republic, the Lavery house in S. Kensington was used as a base for the talks to proceed discreetly. There were even rumours (never substantiated) that Michael Collins, one of the Irish team’s leaders, had an affair with Hazel – who seems to have been a serious flirt. The treaty was signed that year that brought about the Republic of Ireland (while Ulster remained part of the UK – a deal which cost Collins and several of the other signatories their lives in the civil war that followed.)

Hazel Lavery banknote John painted Hazel’s portrait some 400 times. His stylised image of her as Kathleen ni Houlihan (or a personification of Ireland) appeared on Irish banknotes from 1928 (when it was Irish Free State currency) until 1975. There’s a link to the banknote website HERE My image above is from cousin L’s own copy of a 100 punt note – it shows the fuller portrait of Hazel with shawl and her arm leaning on a harp. Denominations below £10 only show her head and shoulders.

There’s a beautifully illustrated art-historical biography of Sir John by Kenneth McConkey, and one about Hazel by Sinéad McCoole.