At Swim, Two Boys
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|LC Class||PR6065.N4194 A92 2001|
At Swim, Two Boys (2001) is a novel by Irish writer Jamie O'Neill. The title is a punning allusion to Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds. The book is written in a stream-of-consciousness style, which has led to favourable comparisons to James Joyce.
Ten years after publication, Alison Walsh, reviewing the year 2001 for the Sunday Independent, called it "a vintage one in Irish writing", specifically naming the "unforgettable" At Swim, Two Boys alongside books by Dermot Bolger, Eoin Colfer and Nuala O'Faolain. Terry Pender commented on At Swim, Two Boys: "With only this work O'Neill can take his rightful place among the great Irish writers beginning with Joyce and ending with Roddy Doyle".
Set in Dublin before and during the 1916 Easter Rising, At Swim, Two Boys tells the love story of two young Irish men: Jim Mack and Doyler Doyle. Jim goes to school on a scholarship (for which he is looked down upon) – he is quiet, studious, thoughtful, and naïve. In contrast, Doyler is outspoken, rebellious, brave, and affectionate. Doyler might once have received a scholarship, like Jim, but Doyler withdrew from school to find work and support his impoverished family, leading them to grow apart. They have an additional connection through their fathers, who served in the army together during the Boer War, and were once best friends.
Events of 1915
Jim attends a Catholic school, regularly visits church, and plays in the church's flute band, where he is the object of his Latin teacher's obsession. Brother Polycarp likes to have extra prayer sessions with him; Jim reminds him of his own past. Unbeknown to his father, Jim is offered the chance at a vocation, to join the brothers of the church. When Doyler enters the flute band, their old friendship is renewed. Doyler takes Jim out to the Forty Foot for a swim, a well known swimming area in Dublin Bay. The two boys make a pact: Doyler will teach Jim to swim, and in a year, on Easter Sunday, 1916, they will swim to the distant island of Muglins Rock and claim it for themselves. As their friendship grows, Jim reconsiders the vocation, ultimately refusing; Brother Polycarp is emotionally stricken and has to resign. Meanwhile, patriots appear on the novel's stage: Madame Eveline MacMurrough continues to support the idea of Ireland's liberty. The clergy also supports the patriotic body of thought, in particular, Father Amen O'Toiler – who pushes the boys church's flute band to resemble a regimental band. Even Jim's father, Mr. Mack, who is proud having served as a soldier in an Irish Battalion, is swollen with pride for the boys in MacMurrough's garden, seeing them all in uniform kilts.
Only Anthony MacMurrough, the nephew of Eveline MacMurrough, turns away from their politics. After his return from imprisonment in England, for acts of gross indecency, his nationalist aunt Eveline MacMurrough is determined to redeem his reputation through a prosperous marriage. In a garden party, Eveline MacMurrough introduces him to Irish society, pushing him to follow her patriotic ideals. However, MacMurrough is still caught up in his memories of imprisonment, conversing with the internal voice of his dead prison-mate, Scrotes, on the fate of homosexuals.
In the meantime, Doyler works to help support his family, which has been driven to poverty by Mr. Doyle's alcoholism and illness. Hidden to others but knowing of his sexual desires, he can make an earning out of it. MacMurrough and Doyler meet intimately, but MacMurrough fails in attracting the boy. Doyler being a vehement Socialist and outcast by the patriotic society of his home place, joins the Irish Citizen Army at Dublin leaving home.
Events of 1916
Jim, left alone from his pal of his heart Doyler, befriends MacMurrough. He becomes a mentor to Jim, teaching about swimming as well as homosexuality and philosophy. MacMurrough finds that he is unable to rid himself of his fascination with the two boys, their relationship and their pact to swimming, claiming the Muglins. The night before Easter Sunday, Doyler leaves his duties as army member and visits Jim: They renew their pact, confessing their love for each other. The next morning, Easter Sunday, Jim and Doyler successfully swim to the Muglins. Not only do they claim the islands with an Irish green flag, but they also make love to one another. On their swim back to Forty Foot, as Doyler is close to drowning, MacMurrough rescues both of them.
While Doyler rests and recovers at MacMurrough's house, Jim feels responsible for the duties his friend cannot carry out. As the Easter Rising takes place, Jim grabs the uniform of Doyler and joins the fighting for the Irish Volunteers at Dublin downtown. Meanwhile, MacMurrough does not realize Jim's action. Moreover, MacMurrough is attracted by the physical presence of Doyler in a way he cannot withstand.
When Doyler discovers what Jim has done, both Doyler and MacMurrough go searching for Jim. As they approach downtown Dublin where the fighting is occurring, Doyler sees Jim standing in the open. Just as the two are about to be reunited, Doyler is himself fatally wounded.
Jim is the son of shopkeeper Mr. Mack, running a small shop for everyday people's needs at Glasthule, close to Dublin. Jim is depicted as a rather naïve scholar boy and has a shy appearance: Jim Mack is worried about self-abuse and going to hell as he tries to obey to rules of church. When getting close his very first kiss in love and touches of love, he cannot withstand and withdraws. Still he has a clear mind, sharp ideas and thoughts. He identifies the swimming to the Muglins of both boys as their unification, their very own experience no one can ever take them away.
Doyler is the dark diamond son of Mr. Doyle, who is Mr. Mack's old army pal. Doyler has grown up under poor circumstances, hence he already knows quite a lot about life and is not naïve any more at all. Doyler used to be Jim's friend when they were about twelve, but Doyler left town looking for work and his Irish roots for some time. As Doyler returns and the story takes places, Jim and Doyler are both aged 15 to 16 years old. Doyler is patriotic to the Irish workers front and joins the Irish Citizen Army.
Madame Eveline MacMurrough is depicted as the daughter of a famous republican figure in the local patriotic history. She supports the troops with socks to warm the soldiers' feet's in the name of Ireland, organizes a garden party to enliven the patriotic society and its clubs. Finally, she even backs up the Republicans by providing them with weapons for the Easter Rising.
Anthony MacMurrough is the nephew of Eveline MacMurrough. Jim calls him McEmm as the story develops. At the novel's outset, MacMurrough has stayed in prison serving two years' hard labour for acts of gross indecency, due to him being engaged with a chauffeur-mechanic boy. As he returns to Ireland, his previous cellmate Scrotes follows in his mind, providing an internal ghostly friend, supporting the soliloquizing of MacMurrough. Staying at the home of his nationalist aunt Eveline MacMurrough, she pushes him to become a patriotic Irishman, mentoring and leading, eventually getting married. However, MacMurrough is not happy at his determined role, rests drawn back in the idea of being earmarked for his homosexuality. It is only when he becomes a mentor to Jim and Doyler individually, teaching them about swimming as well as homosexuality and philosophy, he opens.
Awards and nominations
2002 Lambda Literary Award, section Gay men's fiction
2002 Ferro-Grumley Literary Award
2003 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award nominated
2003 XV Premio Letterario Giuseppe Berto, section foreign fiction (Italy)
Film, TV, theatrical or dance adaptations
Welsh dance company Earthfall created their 2005 production of At Swim Two Boys as the company’s second collaboration with Jamie O’Neill and incorporated both live and archive film footage, live music, dance, and text.
At Swim Two Boys was inspired by Jamie O’Neill’s award winning novel of the same name. Set in Ireland in 1916, the work juxtaposes the developing love affair between two young men with political turmoil in Ireland and the slaughter on the Western Front – contrasting the dream of national liberation and the search for personal freedom. The production is staged in a slowly filling lake in front of a waterfall and performed by two physical performers and two musicians.
The original production toured for three years over 5 seasons with over 100 performances, playing to sell-out audiences in the UK, Ireland, Holland, Croatia, and Germany. It was performed by Welsh dancers Terry Michael and Cai Tomas. Both dancers created the piece in collaboration with Earthfall, winning multiple awards and touring to critical acclaim.
- Browning, Frank (15 June 2002). "'At Swim, Two Boys'". NPR. Retrieved 15 June 2002.
- Walsh, Alison. "A wild wave of new Irish writing". Sunday Independent. 3 April 2011.
- Pender, Terry (1 December 2001). "Remarkable debut novel tips hat to James Joyce". The Record - Kitchener, Ont. Retrieved 1 December 2001.
- Lark, L.: "At Swim, Two Boys", RALPH, The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities, Volume XXXI Number 3, published at RalphMag.org, Early Fall 2002
- Farrier, P: "At Swim Two Boys", The Stage, The Stage Reviews, 20 May 2005
- Leask, J: "Boys will be Homo-erotic Slip Slidin' Away with Earthfall", The Dance Insider, Flash Review, 5-12, 2006
- http://www.atswimtwoboys.com www.atswimtwoboys.com
- Homepage of Jamie O'Neill
- At Swim Two Boys website Earthfall production
- Map at Google of The Muglins and Forty Foot
- Forum focussing on the novel
- First chapter of At Swim, Two Boys, The New York Times
- Review by Michael Pye, The New York Times
- Interview with Jamie O'Neill on his novel (MetroWeekly)
- Essay by Aída Díaz-Bild
- Critical essay: Intertextual re-creation in Jamie O'Neill's "At Swim, Two Boys"
- Interview on The Alchemy of Composition: Jamie O’Neill’s Literary Magic