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 inacree, 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, selfcontained, sovereign island that can be sought and reached. As Jim dreams, socialists and citizen soldiersDoyler among themare 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 mo s t evocative and pow erfulthe 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 churchhis faith in the innate goodness of peopleenables 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 reallydidn’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. 0 ‘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 exe cution 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 forand 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. 8/2/02 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 33
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