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[393] At Swim, Two Boys – Jamie O’Neill

” Grey morning dulled the bay. Banks of clouds, Howth just one more bank, rolled to sea, where other Howths grumbled to greet them. Swollen spumeless tide. Heads that bobbed like floating gulls and gulls that floating bobbed like heads. Two heads. At swim, two boys. ” (10:227)

In 1916, during Easter week, Irish republicans mounted an insurrection, later known as the Easter Rising, with the aims of ending British rule in Ireland and establishing the Irish Republic. It is against this tumultuous event that the novel is set. It tells the love story of two young Irishmen: the studious, thoughtful and naive Jim Mack and the rebellious, outspoken and rugged Doyler Doyle. Unlike his friend who is in school on a scholarship, Doyler has to withdraw in order to earn a living to support his impoverished family. When Doyler joins the flute band in the Catholic school, of which Jim is a member, they renew their friendship. As Doyler takes Jim out to Forty Foot for a swim, a discreet cove in Dublin Bay where gentlemen bathe in the nude, their friendship grows into love.

Jim knew this man’s heart was deep and true, for he made Jim wish for an equal love and equal truth in his heart. He was swept by a great desire to take hold Doyler’s hand and tell him in his ear, ‘That’s how I think of you.’ (9:198)

Into their lives saunter Anthony MacMurrough, who served two years in prison for public lewdness and indecency. Indeed he is a reincarnate of Oscar Wilde but is conscious of who he is, as a homosexual, for fear of being discovered and earmarked. MacMurrough compartmentalizes his feelings of desire, love, and empathy in voices of Scrotes, his former cellmate who follows his mind. His soliloquies, or inner conversations, reveal his unhappiness at the direction to which his aunt, an advocate for and wealthy backer of Irish liberty, steers him. It’s only when he becomes a mentor to Jim and Doyler individually, teaching them about swimming, as well as homosexuality and philosophy, he opens and feels redeemed of his past.

The question for my friend was, were there any of us at all. The world would say that we did not exist, only our actions, our habits, were real, which the world called our crimes or our sins. (10:246)

As the date of the boys’ pact nears, so does the footstep of the Dublin uprising. Doyler has joined the Irish Citizen Army, which is to be joined by Irish Volunteers, of which MacMurrough is made a captain. Doyler leaves his army duty and pays Jim a visit. They renew their pact and confess their love for one another. On Easter Sunday in 1916, they swim to the Muglins, claiming the island with an Irish green flag and consummating their physical relationship.

Written in Irish brogue and also a style reminiscent of James Joyce, At Swim, Two Boys is a very long book for the events it conveys. It’s full of sociological insights and psychological depths. The two boys, and those with whom their lives are intricately and fatefully intertwined, lead readers up to the face of humanity in all of its ugliness and beauty. O’Neill prose , playing merrily with vocabulary, syntax, and Irish idiom, can be hard-going at first, but quickly establishes a context and pace apropos of the growing tension at which the story is pitched. Without being heavy handed on either the romance and the war, the book itself is a meditation on history, politics, and desire, inviting readers to reflect upon the many facets of humanity: friendship, family, love, poverty, religion, nationalism, patriotism, forgiveness, class identity, burden of tradition and, most of all, freedom. The freedom to love; the freedom to exist. It’s amazing how far the Catholic church would go to deny homosexuality. When Jim, walloped in guilt and unease, confesses sexual impurity, the priest names no sin that covers his wickedness, unless a woman (or a Protestant woman) is involved. The book truly captures the struggle to assert individuality and identity, especially sexual identity, in times of national crisis.

‘But what is Ireland that you should want to fight for it?’
‘It’s Doyler,’ he said.
‘Doyler is your country?’
‘It’s silly, I know. But that’s how I feel. I know Doyler will be out, and where would I be but out beside him? I don’t hate the English and I don’t know do I love the Irish. But I love him. I’m sure of that now. And he’s my country.’

Possessing great humor and elegiac quality, the friendship and love of the two boys in At Swim, Two Boys seamlessly embrace the love of country and freedom that haunts the novel. It is as much a book about love as it is a book about revolution. Since details of the uprising are left to the end, it is the heady confusion of the boys’ affection for each other and the complex portrait of emerging Irish nationhood that spur me on.

562 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


9 Responses

  1. This has been on my to-read list for a long time! Great to read your review here. Makes me want to read it even more now.

    • The first 70 or so pages are a bit slow and the Irish brogue makes it even slower for me. But once you get over that the book is very engrossing.

  2. Sounds like a wonderful book! Of course the Irish angle intrigues me 🙂

    • The size of the book gives me pause and that is why I have waited so long to pick it up. Jamie O’Neill is a wonderful writer. Although sometimes I cannot make sense of the Irish brogue, I enjoy his lyrical narrative. It’s a very moving story of two boys who tries to consummate their relationship during a tumultuous time.

  3. This has been a favorite of mine for quite some time – I’m glad you enjoyed it too!

  4. Such a terrific review Matt, and one that closely matches my feelings for the book. Great work.

  5. It must be me, I wanted to enjoy this book, but didn’t. I don;t know if it was the style of writing or the slow moving plot but I was glad to be finished with it.

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