At Swim, Two Boys is a great Irish novel, a gay love story but so much more
John Boyne: Jamie O’Neill’s masterpiece was first great Irish novel of new millennium
In rehearsal for the stage adaptation of At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill in the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin last year
I was a young man, still in my twenties, when Jamie O’Neill’s novel At Swim, Two Boys was first published in 2001. I was working in a Dublin bookshop and there was a lot of talk about the book, but for all the wrong reasons. The papers had picked up on the news. Irish writer receives record advance for novel! It happens still. Articles about literature that turn out to be articles about money, giving false hope to young writers who end up thinking that it happens to everyone. Although it can, if you have the skill and good fortune to write a masterpiece.
I remember working on the front till one morning, around the time that the book was receiving rave reviews and topping the bestseller list, when a middle-aged man came in and circled the display in the centre of the shop with an unimpressed expression on his face.
“So that’s the book they’re all talking about,” he said to me, lifting a copy and reading the blurb on the inside jacket. He held it away from himself as if whatever was inside those pages might be catching. “It’s about a couple of queers, I hear.”
I glanced up at him, my hackles already raised.
“I think it’s about more than that,” I said.
“You’ll have them all in now, I suppose,” he continued, throwing it back where he’d found it and unsettling the display. “Flappin’ their gums and wavin’ their hands in the air.” He performed a quick skit, the sort of exaggerated performance that even Kenneth Williams might have thought over the top, before marching off and leaving me to tidy the mess he’d created.
Ireland is a strange sort of place. We didn’t decriminalise homosexuality until 1993 – more than a quarter-century after similar laws had been enacted in Great Britain – and yet by 2015 we’d become the first country in the world to vote by plebiscite for same-sex marriage. Go figure, as they say. But attitudes change slowly and even though you could no longer be slung in jail in 2001 for doing what every heterosexual in the country was doing, it wasn’t exactly safe to walk down Grafton Street hand in hand with your boyfriend or to risk a kiss at the bus stop as you parted ways for the night. There was still a sense of the clandestine to what should have felt perfectly natural.
As a young gay man behind a bookshop counter, I watched the people who bought At Swim, Two Boys – and there were a lot of them – and used it as a tool for flirtation.
“It’s bloody great, that,” I said to other young men who, I guessed, were a little like me. In love with literature but starved of books that spoke to their own experiences of being gay in Ireland.
“You’ve read it then?”
“I have. I couldn’t put it down.”
The two of us might share a smile then and, if I was lucky, he might say: “Well, when I’m finished I’ll have to come back in and talk to you about it.”
And once in a while, he did. Thanks, Jamie O’Neill, I owe you one.
Of course, At Swim, Two Boys is a universal novel that encompasses much more than simply the gay experience. Jim and Doyler, the two boys at the heart of the story, are new to romance, unfamiliar with the tsunami of feelings that falling in love can provoke, and they struggle not only with their emotions but with their inability to put them into words. Who among us, gay, straight or somewhere in between, has not felt that confusion? But Jim and Doyler’s story takes place between 1915 and 1916, only 20 years after Oscar Wilde was packed off to Reading Gaol, his name a byword for perversion. The country was already preparing for a political revolution; there was little time for anyone to indulge in personal upheavals too.
There’s another novel that I think of when I think of At Swim, Two Boys, and that’s James Plunkett’s Strumpet City, possibly the finest Dublin novel of them all
One of the many strengths of the novel is how little it focuses on fear of discovery and instead builds its story around the development of the boys’ friendship and their ultimate goal: swimming from the Forty Foot in Dublin Bay to Muglins Rock where they might plant the flag of Ireland and claim that small piece of land as their own. And while Muglins Rock will eventually become the setting for the consummation of their relationship, they do not set out with sex in mind. They want to swim, to achieve something for once in their lives. And, most importantly, to achieve it together.
Much has been made of O’Neill’s debt to James Joyce, and it’s true that once you start to read the book you become swept along by the wonderful dialogue and the use of archaic Dublin phrasing that inevitably invites the comparison. But there’s another novel that I think of when I think of At Swim, Two Boys, and that’s James Plunkett’s Strumpet City, possibly the finest Dublin novel of them all, which speaks of the ordinary citizens affected by the 1913 Lockout and the progression of patriotism that would, within a few years, lead to the Easter Rising of 1916 and ultimately the creation of the Free State in 1922. The novels are connected by their extraordinary characterisation, by the light they shine on all sections of society – the poor, the dispossessed, the middle class, the Anglo-Irish aristocracy – and by the authenticity of the emotions they evoke.
But At Swim, Two Boys is notable for something else, now a mainstay of contemporary Irish literature that was less frequently discussed in 2001, and that’s the issue of child abuse within the Roman Catholic church. While Jim is too innocent to realise how he is being groomed by Brother Polycarp, the contemporary reader has no such naivety. It is the most significant story in Irish history over the last century – the sudden diminution of the power of the church over a people that were once in thrall to it. The actions of the clergy led to their own destruction, and to the creation of a more secular society. O’Neill writes about this subject with admirable prescience.
It was the first great Irish novel of the new millennium. There have been others since then: The Sea, The Secret Scripture, Room, The Gathering, Let the Great World Spin, Ghost Light, Brooklyn, to name a few. But O’Neill’s masterpiece holds a special place in my heart for its bravery, its originality, the memorable characters that populate its pages and the dexterity of its language. To read this novel is to marvel at the elasticity of words, to take joy in how a craftsperson can twist them into unexpectedly beautiful forms.
The middle-aged man in the bookshop in 2001. It’s about a couple of queers, I hear. He came back in the late afternoon when the shop was busier and strolled up to the till with four or five books in his hands. Big, meaty, ultra-masculine crime novels and a history of Irish rugby. At Swim, Two Boys was hidden somewhere in the middle. He was old enough to be my grandfather, had a wedding finger on his fourth finger and looked as if the only exercise he ever got was dragging himself from the bar stool to the gents a half-dozen times a night but still, I couldn’t help myself.
“It’s bloody great, that,” I told him, but he only grunted as he threw his money across the counter and quickly placed his purchases in his briefcase, snapping it shut and turning away without meeting my eye.
And I was right too. It is great.
This is John Boyne’s introduction to a new edition of At Swim, Two Boys by James O’Neill, published by Scribner at £9.99, to mark the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales