I read this novel by Jamie O’Neill back in 2002 and the commemoration events in Dublin this weekend reminded me of it… and reminded me that I loved it so much.
The novel is set in Dublin before and during the Easter Rising of 1916. At its heart is the story of two boys, Jim and Doyler, and their emerging sexuality. Their attraction for each other grows while events around them prove to be dramatic for Ireland. Doyler promises to teach Jim to swim with the aim of swimming to a small island called Muglin’s rock to lay claim to it. The intention is to do this in a year’s time, which will make it Easter Sunday 1916.
Also important to the novel is the nephew of Eveline MacMurrough, a staunch republican. We discover that Anthony MacMurrough is in disgrace, having served a prison term in England for homosexual acts. His intention is to stay clear of politics but his aunt sees a way for him to redeem himself in the eyes of society. He cannot clear his head of his former lover who provides an internal monologue, commenting on the choices MacMurrough makes in his new life.
The story is one of identity; the boys as well as their country are struggling to be free. The extent to which the emerging Ireland will allow its sons to show their true feelings for each other is hinted at through the ending. Just as they look to be reunited events get in the way. Interestingly, in the depiction of Irish nationalism, we see socialists as well as traditionalists with each boy and MacMurrough taking a different path in the struggle.
‘At Swim, Two Boys’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?