The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

In the Swim with Two Boys

Book Review

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 13 April 2003

At Swim, Two Boys,” pecked out on Jamie O’Neill’s laptop while he worked for a decade at night as a London hospital porter, has deservedly received much attention. Nothing but this novel’s title reminds you of Flann O’Brien, but much would of other Irish writers from nearly a century ago. A reviewer on panned it as being of interest only to the tiny subculture of “gay Irish historical scholars.” In my response (from which the foregoing phrase was removed upon the posting of my reply on that site), I commented that I had been lent my copy by just such a scholar (from a well-known republican family in the Bogside, in fact). The confluence of these two streams, homosexuality and republicanism, while surely the subject of analysis in our postmodern academies, has largely eluded or been excluded from the wider world of popular fiction. Often, professors and critics forget that for many “common readers,” groundbreaking into fresh turf can unearth hidden bones and beauties. Particularly in the struggle undergone by one key character with his echoing voices of madness, O’Neill confronts the possibility of revolution beyond Fenianism from either the Starry Plough or St. Enda’s.

In the author’s characters, we ponder the transformation of a new nation through a new realisation of love--and exactly what and for whom it is sweet and fitting to die. Freshening familiar imagery, O’Neill takes us into the minds of those perhaps only half-able to grasp the new panoramas they imagine as they enter into realms of idealism, ideology, and violence. The novel shouldn’t be jailed within the ghetto of “gay romance,” to which many of its readers eagerly confine it. Rather, it’s a Joycean re/creation of 1916, told as if through the insights of a Bloom-ian, Eva Gore-Booth-ian, a Wildean wannabe, and a couple of comrades in the Citizen Army who share more than soldierly solidarity. Connolly and Pearse both appear in appealing cameos, that display the shine of both icons while dulling with a bit of tarnish their human tempers and grimier self-delusions.

I wouldn’t recommend O’Neill’s story to a reader who’s never read Oscar Wilde, a factual account of 1916, and “Ulysses.” Not due to snobbery, but for enjoyment-for one who recognizes the stylistic experiments with which O’Neill conveys his narratives an added level of familiarity with early 20th century cultural and historical context would ease one’s encounter with the author’s dense miasma of slang, allusions, and reliance upon Dubliniana. He teaches must to the novice. However, one addition that would've helped non-Dub readers: remember when historical novels had beautifully-drawn maps for the endpapers? One of "Kingstown" and one of greater Dublin might've aided those unfamiliar with some of the terrain. Being a native of Dun Laoghaire (post-1922 "Kingstown"), O'Neill seems a bit too confident that all of us can follow the intricately mapped travels of his protagonists without much assistance.

Like much in his novel, nevertheless, a slow immersion into the swim proves salutory to ease reader's cramps. I found the Joycean imitations in his various narratives fascinating, but those less enamoured of "Ulysses" seeking a more straight(pun?)forward telling of historical romance understandably may become frustrated with the experimentation O'Neill indulges in and the expectation that we're familiar with the dense context and subtext surrounding characters such as Eva MacM and Mr Mack. Not to mention a heap of allusions and jargon within the whole Irish-Ireland milieu of nine decades past. But, slowly, persistence and attention to nuance cue you in to essentials.

The novel actually lightens about halfway in its telling, only to in its final chapters go back to a Bloom's-eye passersby look at the beginning of the Rising that I found appealing. Once again, however, O'Neill keeps the p-o-v shifting like the Wandering Rocks and we have to tag along with his Odyssean urge to plow forward into a more Gertie McDowell style and almost a parody of popular page-turners before shoving the plot into the climactic battle scenes, that I found surprisingly moving in parts and cluttered and nearly slapdash elsewhere. "The fog of war" reified?

The ending let me down quite a bit. You anticipate when beginning the last chapter perhaps a sequel to this book. Having lived so long with his characters, O'Neill and I didn't want to let them go. But the last pages telescope too much into too little space. As with many epic stories, the telling of the journey becomes the reason to follow the adventures O'Neill recites, more than the rapid rush to hurry up for a rapid but flaccid denouement. After such an emotional and temporal investment in reading “At Swim, Two Boys,” the sudden deflation of what seemed to be another tale in the future telling disappoints the committed reader.

The musings captured especially in the novel’s final segments recalled for me Ernie O’Malley’s memoir “On Another Man’s Wound,” mixing careful observation of the natural and literary worlds with the shock and altered consciousness brought by war. As with O’Malley, O’Neill combines a flair for the dramatic with a focus on the honest. The raw material of O’Malley’s own transformation and the traumas endured in the subsequent battles for full Irish independence deserve more than Richard English’s biographical but limited study of this neglected Irish predecessor to the fictional creations limned by O’Neill. O’Malley’s unflinching blend of tenderness and severity deserves recognition for those today seeking to reconcile a brutal past with a compromised present.

For comparison, as well as O’Malley one could study Patrick McGinley’s fictional evocation of this era, “The Lost Soldier’s Sad Song,” taking the plight of a republican in the field and in prison and adding to the genre often consigned to the thriller or the memoir a lyrical and melancholy defiance that captures again what O’Neill and O’Malley convey. The common striving of young Irish men dreaming that with the triumph of the gun would arrive the dawning of the sunburst, a vision of a land changed not only in flag or slogan but spirit and loyalty to ideals believed dormant too long in the Irish mentality. And, for O’Neill most of all, the physicality of those who bled and starved for liberty.

The cumulative power of the novel, despite its sputters, provides an engrossing and sensitive look from a fresh perspective at events familiar to "Irish Historical Scholars," gay and straight alike. Like another recent look at these events, its own narrative alternately assured and maddening--Roddy Doyle's revisionist take on Dublin and its struggle towards (partial) independence, "A Star Called Henry"--O'Neill offers us a well-told story inescapably in Joyce's long shadow but struggling towards its own light, nourished and bloodied by 1916's history tangled with Irish fiction's stubborn roots.


Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.
- Thomas J. Watson

Index: Current Articles

14 April 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Maghaberry Update


"We Won The Peace, Now Let's Win The War"

PRO, POWs, Maghaberry


"In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash"

Paul Fitzsimmons


Killer Peaceniks
Henry McDonald


Hillsborough and the Anglo-American Agreement to Wage War
Anthony McIntyre


An English View of the 'Ra
Eamonn McCann


In the Swim with Two Boys
Seaghan O Murchu


A Better World Without Him

Anthony McIntyre


Arrogant Propaganda
Paul de Rooij


11 April 2003


Critique of the Anti War Movement

Liam O'Ruairc


A Diversion from the Task
Eoin O'Broin


Bush and Blair Summon the Irish Contras...
Anthony McIntyre


Not Firm Ground But Wet Sand: Prevaricating for Peace

Paul Fitzsimmons


Irish Leaders Miss Chance to Speak Out Against War
Eamon Lynch


London Update


Baghdad: First They Cheered and Then They...
Anthony McIntyre


America's Dual Mission

M. Shahid Alam


War: It Already Started
Paul de Rooij


Lacking Credibility
Bert Ward




The Blanket



Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices

To contact the Blanket project with a comment, to contribute an article, or to make a donation, write to: