At Swim, Two Boys (2002)
by Jamie O’Neill
Set against the turbulent backdrop of WW I and the Easter Rising, At Swim, Two Boys is one of the great gay a love stories. Two 16-year-old boys: smart, studious, Jim Mack and a laborer, Doyler Doyle, make a pact to practice swimming in the sea for a year so that on Easter Sunday of 1916 they will be able to swim out to a beacon of Muglins Rock. Unknown to them, it is also the time of the Easter Rising and Irish Rebellion. As their friendship develops, so do other, deeper, intense feelings. But, it is also much more than a love story. Mr. Mack, Jim’s father, is a shopkeeper who has dreams of moving up in society. He also has a history, with time in the army and broken friendship, with Doyler’s father. Eve MacMurrough is a tough, revolutionary woman, and way ahead of her time. Anthony MacMurrough is a lout who doesn’t have a purpose in life. All of their stories, along with many more characters, collide when Irish nationalism, sexual orientation, Catholic guilt, alcoholism, class identity, socialism, wars, unwed pregnancy, unionism, and loyalty push and pull them in directions they couldn’t imagine.
I’ve read this book twice. At first, I thought I was going to give up because of the Irish colloquialisms. In the first few pages it seems like it will be hard to read. O’ Neill writes in first person, stream of consciousness, with a great big nod to James Joyce and a dash of Oscar Wilde. But, stick with it. Once you get the rhythm, you will get lost in the story. One of the reasons I re-read it was because I missed so much at first, before I became used to the writing). O’Neill brings so much into the story, rich with symbolism and foreshadowing, that every single word on the page matters. The language transformed me into the moment, as if what I was reading on the page was happening around me; I got lost in this book. He uses imagery that is vivid and alive, weaving story lines that tackle hard topics. The fully formed characters with their own motivations and flaws interact with each other and the world while being pushed and pulled in unexpected ways.
Some of the characters are predatory or cruel, but they have redeeming qualities which adds to their realism. This book made me cry, the harshness of life during that era is a constant presence throughout the story. It is a gem; a literary work that is so beautiful and moving while also being gritty and realistic. And very, very romantic. The love story between Jim and Doyler is so innocent and awkward and moving, I fell in love with the boys myself.
This is definitely one of the best gay-themed books ever written. It is an essential LGBTQ read, and perfect for our own times.
“Grey morning dulled the bay. Banks of clouds, Howth just one more bank, rolled to sea, where other Howths grumbled to greet them. Swollen spumeless tide. Heads that bobbed like floating gulls and gulls that floating bobbed like heads. Two heads. At swim, two boys.”
Jamie O’Neill is an openly gay writer who lives a rather Salinger-like existence, rarely talking to the press, in a cottage in Gortachalla in County Galway, Ireland.