AT SWIM, TWO BOYS, by Jamie O’Neill. Scribner. 572 pp. $28
This novel’s title points to Flann O’Brien, but the pervasive influence is James Joyce. Ultimately, however, as it traces the growing love between two young Irishmen and the growth of their political and nationalist consciousness, it is clear that Jamie O’Neill has written something new and significant — the novel that might have happened, as one commentator put it, if Joyce and Oscar Wilde had had a son.
It is 1915, and whether Mr. Mack likes it or not, Ireland is about to change forever. The Great War rages in Europe and around the world. Meanwhile, the calm in Ireland belies a growing undercurrent of political ferment.
As he walks around “Glasthule, homy old parish, on the lip of Dublin Bay,” pondering the world around him in short, half-formed thoughts, Mack’s entrance reminds the reader of the start of Bloom’s wandering around Dublin in “Ulysses.” The moment passes, and the focus of the novel gradually sharpens into full narrative flow: it is as if O’Neill wishes to show that while he may swim in a Joycean stream, he has his own stroke.
Mack, a timid shopkeeper, proud of his lower-middle-class roots and service in the British Army, seeks only the respectability that evades him. Posters appear in his town, however, condemning British Army conscription and at his son’s school, a new priest has started to make the boys learn Irish. Something is up. Mack is swimming vainly against the growing tide of dissent, socialist ferment and rising Irish nationalism of the era.
Mack’s studious son Jim is swimming too, but in a wholly different direction. Initially timid like his father, Jim is befriended by Doyler, a boy of the same age who is an outspoken socialist. Having met while swimming in the Forty Foot pool by the sea, the pals make a pact to swim the following Easter to the distant rocky outcrop in Dublin Bay, the Muglins.
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In 1916, they will reach the rocks in the bay, raise a green flag and claim them for Ireland. The symbolism of the venture is clear — but this is something more than mere boyhood adventure, a growing attraction between them, a deeper emotional and physical bond.
O’Neill takes a gay love story and makes it intertwine with the events leading to the Easter Rising. The pair’s love for country and love for each other are twin taboos: the growing Irish nationalism of the era is rendered as being everywhere but never directly before one’s eyes. For example, the unthinking loyalist Mr. Mack only peripherally notices the new, Irish-speaking priest. And, in a telling moment that blends the taboos, the aristocrat and nationalist MacMurrough, who becomes an older gay mentor to the two boys, comes out to an old army colleague, who demands, “Damn it all MacMurrough, are you telling me you are an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort?”
MacMurrough’s response: “If you mean am I Irish, the answer is yes.”
Surrounding the two boys are a cast of characters who are on their own political and personal journeys. They have subtle resonances that allow the reader to perceive qualities and quirks that remind us of real personalities from the Easter Rising. It is this method as well as the extremes to which O’Neill has gone to render authentic contemporary detail that makes this novel a truly historic masterpiece.
MacMurrough has recently returned from England to stay with his aunt, Eveline MacMurrough. MacMurrough has spent two years’ hard labor in a British jail, like Oscar Wilde, for “gross indecency” with another man.
His aunt aims to redirect his life in tune with her own growing Irish nationalism — but for those who know their Irish history, the pair’s name is a reference to MacMurrough, the King of Leinster, who infamously invited the English into Ireland in the 12th century to help him settle a score with a rival. The English never left, hence in the novel’s historical setting the name is a cruel joke and yoke upon them, their attempts to help the Rising by running guns a vain attempt to redeem for their hated name.
However, MacMurrough’s role in the novel ends up less important in the context of the Rising than how he becomes an unselfish mentor for the two young men and their growing love. Jim comes to understand that MacMurrough’s tales from ancient Greece were “more than stories, they were patterns of the possible.”
Where the novel falters is in the progression of some of the characters’ journeys toward the Rising. Particularly, Jim’s transformation from a petrified schoolboy who rebuffs Doyler’s initial advances in a fog of Catholic guilt, to a strong, confident swimmer, lover and fighter seems all too swift, even when it takes place during the winter and spring of 1915 and 1916. Also, occasionally, the use of real historical characters sometimes fails. The appearance of James Connolly in Doyler’s life is an unnecessary, forced moment. But in another passage, MacMurrough rescues Sir Edward Carson from drowning in the Forty Foot, then kisses him in revenge for his prosecution of Wilde — this seemed appropriate to the narrative. And Sir Roger Casement is there, but always an offstage presence.
Mr. Mack’s journey is almost the more interesting one, though he is a lesser character. Mack also provides much of the novel’s occasional flashes of humor. While walking one evening he sees a poster calling for recruits to the British Army that has been torn at one corner. He, the old soldier, dutifully attempts to fix it back into place — and is promptly arrested by a policeman who thinks he is ripping it down.
Earnestly, Mack goes to see the new priest, in the hope that he will intercede with the magistrate on his behalf. Instead, the priest, who has been breathing Irish nationalism into the boys whom he teaches, congratulates the spluttering Mr. Mack for his Irish patriotism.
As the book concludes, Mack is caught up in the Rising while out walking in Dublin. He still doesn’t get what is going on, and O’Neill’s power as a writer is stunning as he shows Mr. Mack’s vision falling dumbly on a strange new flag that some armed men are carrying down a street: “that same, strange, unaccountable flag, green white and orange. What on earth would Sinn Feiners want with a post office?”
The climax of Mack’s journey is a Joycean one, as he realizes that discipline, respectability and success in the world no longer matter, instead it is his son Jim that matters: “He stared back up the road where the soldiers had gone, the first of thousands to come, thinking only, helplessly, Jim, my son James, my son, my Jim.” For Jim and Doyler have achieved not the respectability of the status quo, but something far more glorious: they swim to the Muglins and plant their flag, they make love and then are quickly caught up in the doomed Rising.
This is a powerful Irish novel that uses a Joycean mastery of language, astounding historical detail and an engaging love story to raise questions about freedom, love, patriotism and desire.
— Stephen McKinley