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At Swim, Two Boys, (Scribner, 2002, $28) by Jamie O'Neill
by Angela Koenig
2003-01-29

This article shared 3039 times since Wed Jan 29, 2003
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The Irish uprising of Easter, 1916, is the setting for the love story of two young men told with an engaging sensibility and a treasure trove of language. When the story opens in 1915, Ireland is a mosaic of competing interests. Home rule has been promised by the English Parliament but World War I has given opposition Unionist forces the opportunity to gather their forces. Thousands of young Irishmen have gone to fight in the trenches for England, but some still entertain an alliance with Germany as a strategy for gaining independence. Portions of the population wish to create national self-consciousness through a revival of Gaelic language and culture while others are engaged in a socialist struggle against a perennial poverty that sends Irish sons and daughters into economic exile. For some England is the enemy and for others the Roman Catholic Church is the source of oppression.

Jim Mack and Doyler Doyle, schoolboys on the cusp of manhood, live in Dublin near an area of seashore called the Forty Foot. Swimming together has allowed the boys to maintain their friendship despite class difference. Jim's father's small store gives the family a precarious toehold in the lower middle class. Doyler has to struggle against a grinding poverty that has him cleaning sewers and glad of the work. Doyler, dark and handsome, has taken the occasional coin from men attracted to him, but Jim is slower to shed religious and cultural strictures. In the sea, the boys can avoid the currents that threaten to separate them, and there they can move naturally through the dance of small intimacies that mark the deepening of their friendship.

Jim and Doyler make a pact to swim from the Forty Foot to the Muglins, islands that lie at a nearly impossible distance from shore across dangerous tidal currents. Their promise binds them to a common future and elevates their friendship onto heroic ground. They will need to prepare themselves to attempt such a swim; the date they choose for their epic endeavor is Easter Sunday, 1916.

Anthony MacMurrough, damaged by the scandal of arrest and imprisonment for buggery in England, is in self-imposed exile at his ancestral estate. MacMurrough's aunt, a nationalist, insists that he ignore his crime and concentrate on the fact that it was an English imprisonment. In a bemusing phrase that is only one example of author O'Neill's frequent daredevil twists of language, we learn that Eveline MacMurrough is 'not quite the Irish colleen, but whatever it is colleen is the diminutive of.' Aunt Eveline would have her nephew save his embittered soul by joining the glorious fight, but MacMurrough is too well aware that even a free Ireland will have no place for him. 'A terrible fear shook him, a fear for his boy and what the future might hold. Lest he stumble and the crowd should find him. For we live as angels among the Sodomites. And every day the crowd finds some one of us out. ... I would not my boy should suffer so.'

MacMurrough's predicament is that he can only envision a future of jaded hedonism. The memory of a fellow prisoner, an old man named Scrotes who bore the shame and harsh punishment with Socratic dignity, prods MacMurrough with the possibility that he may be part of a people and not a criminal deviation. When MacMurrough falls in love with Jim, he reaches for the high-minded wisdom of Scrotes so that he can pass on a history in which the love of one man for another was once the occasion of honor and courage. MacMurrough tells Jim about the Sacred Band of Thebes, lovers who fought as a group, but he also tries to warn Jim about Irish militarism. With the reckless affection of the young, Jim replies: 'I know Doyler will be out, and where would I be but beside him? I don't hate the English and I don't know do I love the Irish. But I love him. I'm sure of that now. And he's my country.'

At Swim, Two Boys is an opportunity to remember the struggle to free love from stony imprisonment in a homophobic culture without the support of a movement, without years of theory. It returns a view of the one basic light on a distant shore: 'He slept that night thinking of loves and lighthouses. That one love might shine to bring all loves home. What more was the meaning of Easter?' Entering O'Neill's story is like plunging into an enchanted sea; you must surrender to the authorial language as price of entry, giving yourself up to exotic sentences and an elusive vocabulary. If you immerse yourself and don't strain after every word you will be amply rewarded by a story where even secondary characters are faultlessly drawn; soon enough, context will reveal a people struggling for honorable lives amid hostile and confusing circumstances.


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