By Stephen McKinley
In “At Swim, Two Boys,” his first novel, Jamie O’Neill uses the 1916 Easter Rising as the backdrop for a story about the political, sexual and emotional coming of age of two young Irishmen, shy Jim Mack and lively Doyler. Surrounded by a cast of characters who impel or impede their progress, the pair make a pact to swim to the Muglin rocks in Dublin Bay at Easter, 1916, to plant a green flag and claim the rocks for Ireland. Their liberation of the rocks is upstaged by the far greater Easter Rising in which they both have a part. The book has been acclaimed in Ireland and the UK for its use of authentic historical detail and linguistic subtlety.
O’Neill spoke to the Irish Echo last week. He lives in Galway with his partner.
Irish Echo: What was the inspiration for this novel, where you have blended the themes of political and sexual awakening — the Easter Rising and a love affair between two young men?
Jamie O’Neill: You know, there are expectations of an Irishman. I don’t just mean the stereotypes of drinking and wife-battering, but certain things such as you play Gaelic games and go to church on a Sunday, the kind of traditional things. I just didn’t feel part of all that. So when I was in England, and different people would say, ‘Oh, are you Irish?’ and I’d say, “No, I’m gay.”
Then on one visit back to Dublin, I remember going past under the walls of Arbour Hill where Pearse was executed, and I asked myself, was the love of Ireland for which he died, so very different from loving an Irishman? And that was kind of where [the book] came from. The more obvious identity I had then was being gay. One of the reasons for writing the novel was to answer that question vehemently, ‘Yes I am Irish, and here’s 200,000 words to prove it.’
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Echo: In your research for the book, did you come across any gay figures from the era of the Rising and the War of Independence?
J.O.: No. But since then I’ve come across letters — this isn’t in the Rising, this is in the War of Independence — where an American wrote when he was describing the IRA volunteers, that he’d never come across anything like the strength of the love they had for each other.
[The Washington Post reviewer] didn’t like the notion of putting gay characters into 1916. But I think 1916 is not so much history as mythology. Everybody owns it, and it’s open to any of our interpretations. It probably isn’t that bad a thing. It’s much easier to drop mythology than fact.
I’m quite proud to come from a nation that has taken arms and fought for its independence. They say that England would in time have given Ireland Home Rule, and so on, but I don’t think freedom can be given, it has to be seized. A law being passed decriminalizing homosexuality doesn’t mean anything; what matters is what people make for themselves. You can’t bequeath it on anyone like a gift.
Echo: Sir Roger Casement is present off-stage in the book. Was he also an inspiration?
J.O.: Recently there’s been the story of Casement’s diaries. The whole business of government money going into proving that they were false is so obnoxious. I found it an affront myself. Casement is the little pink chink in the green curtains. Why not let him be a hero to young gay people? Gay people need people to look up to as much as anybody else. And even though the diaries have been more or less verified [as genuine], there’s still people saying, ‘But let’s not let him become a gay icon.’ Casement is big enough to embrace many things. Casement was a humanitarian — don’t just worship him, practice his ideals. I think nowadays that will be the final excuse for Casement, that ‘he wasn’t really Irish, was he?’ because he was a Protestant.
Echo: The book has considerable depth of historical detail. How much research did you do?
J.O.: It took me 10 years to write the book. One of the problems was, I don’t have a great education. I didn’t go to university. I had to learn how to research, how to keep notes.
Sir Edward Carson did used to swim [where the two boys go swimming], and I even studied the tides on the day when I have him almost drown.
Research is really funny. I’ve found with research it’s not the reader you have to convince but yourself. I would research something like streetlighting, and as soon as I’d realize that I knew enough, I could leave it all out. Nobody walks along a street looking at streetlighting. But I had the knowledge so that I could drop in some tiny detail.
Echo: One of the most complex characters is the English-educated aristocrat MacMurrough, who acts as a mentor to the two young men, Jim and Doyler.
J.O.: You see, two young fellas going out to an island in the sea and kissing and having sex, well, that’s a grand story. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted to show that there is a tradition, I wanted there to be an older man who had suffered, I wanted to put them in the context of a tradition. When I was growing up gay, I felt like I was inventing it every day. I was sure it had never happened before. I wanted to show that there is a history, a tradition. Finding out our history is such an exciting thing.
Echo: What sort of response has the book had in Ireland?
J.O.: Generally pretty good, except for the Irish Independent, which had a headline that I thought was quite clever, “At Sea, One Novelist.”
The reviewer said that the novel wouldn’t be any different if the characters were Jim and Diana, you know if it had been a boy and a girl. He doesn’t see what it is about them being gay. And I think that’s just because he doesn’t know anything about being gay. But [in Ireland] it is considered more of an Irish book than a gay book.