At Swim, Two Boys
by Jamie O' Neill
Many thanks to the London Gay Reading Group who recommended this beautiful novel. Written in prose that is idiomatic and elegiac, it is an epic 656 pages that deal with themes of sexuality, love, friendship, religion, politics and poverty.
Jim and Doyler were friends at the National School. Their fathers fought together in the Boer war. When Doyler returns to their home-town of Glasthule the boys' friendship is rekindled, only now Jim has a scholarship to the Grammar School and Doyler works slopping out other people's muck - his own scholarship given up so that he could work to help his family who live in dire poverty.
It is spring 1915 and the boys make a pact to swim to Muglins rock, an island in Dublin Bay, by the following Easter. As their friendship blossoms into love, Ireland finds herself in the grip of an uprising that the boys cannot ignore or escape. Central to their lives is the character of MacMurrough - a member of the "quality." MacMurrough is a troubled man who has been exiled form England to live with his aunt because of a scandal for which he was sent to prison. His homosexuality haunts his every thought and he is guided and taunted by voices from the past. He is a complex character, veering from abuser and predator to friend and mentor. As his feelings for Jim develop, and his character softens, so the voices seem to subside and when Jim and Doyler consummate their relationship, Jim seeks MacMurrough's reassurance and advice:
"McEmm, can I ask you? I don't know….. does it mean anything with marrying, McEmm. With Doyler and me?
'No Jim, you can't ask me that'
'I don't know you see. I never thought of it before and then I wondered, is it this way you'd be with a wife? You see I don't know'
'Wouldn't you be wiser waiting and see?'
He turned carefully. 'McEmm, you haven't brought this from England with you you know. It was here anyway……….
Consistently throughout the book, the boys' struggle with their sexuality is mirrored in Ireland's struggle for independence. Both are seeking a voice. As one of MacMurroughs "voices", Dr Scrotes, commands:
'Help these boys build a nation of their own. Ransack the histories for clues to their past. Plunder literature for words they can speak.'
Political events eventually dominate their lives and the boys go off to fight for a free Ireland with tragic consequences.
Published by Scribner, 656pp.