Jamie O’Neill is a brave man. Few authors would risk comparison with Flann O’Brien by calling a novel At Swim, Two Boys. The title is an open play on O’Brien’s well-known 1939 book, At Swim-Two Birds. Luckily, O’Neill’s novel is as extraordinary as it is risky. The meticulously researched narrative re-visits some of the most turbulent moments in modern Irish history, namely Ireland’s involvement in the First World War and the 1916 Easter Rising, when Irish citizen soldiers staged an armed insurrection against British colonial rule. Ten years in the writing, this is a deeply intelligent and well-crafted story about the search for what it means to be a man and what it means to be Irish:
The struggle for Irish Ireland is not for truth against untruth. It is not for the good against the bad, for the beautiful against the unbeautiful… The struggle is for the heart, for its claim to stand in the light and cast a shadow of its own in the sun.
Although At Swim, Two Boys is both an Irish history lesson and a story about the search for authenticity, it is first and foremost a love story. A tale “of himeros, the desire that strikes the spirit through the eyes; of pathos, the soul’s yearning for its separated love,” it is the story of two young men united as friends, as soldiers, and as lovers, while their country struggles to define itself outside the colonial paradigm.
In 1915, when the novel begins, the social and political landscape of Ireland is rapidly changing. Many Irishmen support their countrymen “doing their bit” for the King in WWI, while others–mainly those of the aristocratic upper classes, who reap the most benefits from Ireland’s connection with England–argue against conscription, and view the revival of Irish language and culture as the only possibility for Ireland’s liberation. And then there are those who believe true freedom will only come about by empowering the workers, which James Connolly attempts to do at Liberty Hall. Meanwhile, the Irish Citizen Army practices marching drills with a handful of weapons and some shaky ideology.
Add to this landscape a relationship between two boys whose sexual evolution and search for social identity runs parallel to the rising tensions in the country. Jim Mack is an intelligent, introverted school boy who dreams of being either a priest or a teacher. While his older brother fights in the British army overseas, Jim lives under the watchful eye of his well-meaning but domineering father, Mr. Mack. A shopkeeper, Mr. Mack is as delusional about the valor of his service in the British Army (he deserted) as he is about his social status (the family lives inside their small shop in a working-class part of Dublin).
In the midst of this larger political confusion, Jim’s search for identity is both complicated and helped along by Doyler, the rough-talking, idealistic boy who picks up the Mack family’s dung cart each week, and whose politics Mr. Mack does not respect. In Doyler, Jim sees what his future might just as easily have been, had circumstances been different. Like Jim, Doyler was also granted a college scholarship; he was forced to work because his mother and many siblings, destitute and living in a Dublin slum, receive no support from Doyler’s abusive, alcoholic father. A self-proclaimed socialist, Doyler survives with his meager wages and the financial support of an older aristocratic lover, MacMurrough, a high society man disillusioned and depressed after a stint of jail time in England.
The boys’ friendship takes quick flight as Jim and Doyler meet each morning at the Forty Foot, a gentlemen’s bathing place in Dublin Bay, where Doyler teaches Jim to swim: “One time he called Jim cara macree, which he said means pal of my heart, and he took a thorn and pricked their palms and smeared their blood together.” The boys plan an Easter swim to the Muglins, an island in the distance that becomes, for Jim, a symbol of his relationship with Doyler: a perfect, self-contained, sovereign island that can be sought and reached. As Jim dreams, socialists and citizen soldiers–Doyler among them–are rallying in Dublin to stage their Easter fight for an independent Ireland.
Through his conversations with Doyler, Jim begins to understand that “politics was a puzzle at the best of times” as he unravels the political complexities of his world: “Sinn Feiners, Leaguers, Volunteers. They stood for Ireland, that much was clear, Ireland her own. Doyler was a socialist… His talk was names and slogans. Citizen Army, Liberty Hall, Nor King nor Kaiser.”
As their relationship deepens–”How did Doyler do this? He could make Jim so angry with himself, so ashamed. The next minute he was alive, like a spark was inside, like the full of him was electric”–Jim becomes better acquainted with gay life and culture and quickly falls in love: “How wonderful it was, this coming to know, certain of the knowing to come. Every word was weighed and every glance an inquiry. Each gesture gave just that little too much away.”
But his feelings for Doyler plunge Jim into a spiritual crisis, for the priests have taught him to subdue his desires, and his sexual attraction to Doyler is unmentionable in the Catholic tradition. In one heartbreaking scene, Jim tries desperately to absolve himself at weekly confession, but afterward he remains convinced of his damnation, “For no sin had been named that covered his wickedness.” He is tormented for weeks, confiding in no one; he simply hasn’t the words to explain. This is O’Neill at his most evocative and powerful–the narrative never flinches from the reality of what it was like to be a gay man in Ireland in the early decades of the twentieth century: “he felt a bursting to be known, to be born, that would no longer be delayed, but whose labor had come.” It is a story long missing from Irish literature.
The All-Ireland movement claims to seek the rebirth of a true Ireland but it, like the Catholic church, is cast in a less than favorable light. It is depicted as a country club movement obsessed with “the Christ-like sacrifice of youth,” existing solely for the privileged few who have the time and leisure for ideals, while the poor Irish, like Doyler’s mother, state the situation much more clearly: “‘Tis the dirty linen of them above that will keep us body and soul together.”
Although the church and other social institutions come across as morally bankrupt and filled with impotent ideology and corrupt politicians, one important lesson Jim learns in church–his faith in the innate goodness of people–enables him to believe in new “patterns of the possible” for boys like himself and Doyler: “How empty it would be if we didn’t know–it’s like a secret really–didn’t know how we could be.” His faith is steadfast, even as history unravels before his eyes and with it, the fate of both his life and his relationship with Doyler.
O’Neill takes risks in his book, imagining into history a love relationship between two young boys on the verge of being men, literally swimming to freedom, just as Ireland is at the brink of disaster. Those who know Irish history are familiar with the events of Easter 1916, when the novel reaches its emotional climax. When Ireland struck out against British forces, it led to the execution and martyrdom of the critical Irish leaders of the day, and the Rising, in many ways, sowed the seeds of the conflict still raging in Northern Ireland today. But it is the pleasure, heartbreak, and pure joy of the journey that make the book irresistible.
From the bits of 1915-specific slang, to the imagined sights and sounds of a Gaelic Revival garden party, to the fictionalizing of historical events and figures, to the Joyce-like precision with which O’Neill describes Dublin streets and landmarks, this is a novelist with a keen eye for detail, a critical, but honest affection for the history of his homeland, and an unflinching sense of the tactile world. But perhaps the greatest and most compelling risk O’Neill takes is to suggest that, no matter how war and politics may endeavor to destroy relationships, love is still the only bond worth fighting for–and at the worst of times, the only reality worth dying for.
Observer intern Emily Rapp Seitz is a student at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin.