At Swim, Two Boys 
by Jamie O'Neill.
Scribner, 572 pp., £6.99, July 2002, 0 7432 0714 9
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A great Irish lady, her disgraced nephew and a young priest with strong Republican sympathies are driving through Dublin on St Patrick’s Day, 1916. ‘They were speaking of patriots, Dublin associations of famous rebels, ancient and modern.’ Merrion Square evokes the memory of a distinguished Irishman whom the English put on trial. His enemies bullied and corrupted the witnesses against him, the newspapers denounced him, his friends deserted him. ‘His conviction was inevitable. But from the dock he gave a celebrated speech that defied to the heavens the traductions of his adversaries.’ News of the hero’s arrest prompted an exodus of ‘like-minded gentlemen’ to France. ‘Flight of the earls,’ the priest comments, always quick to seize on the historical paradigm: ‘the Wild Geese who chose to serve in exile than suffer the alien yoke at home. It is history in a nutshell.’ And indeed it is. But whose history? Exemplary as this Irish martyr may be, the priest is unable to identify him because he does not feature in the standard martyrology of Irish nationalism. He is, of course, Oscar Wilde.

By the time this satirical scene occurs, two-thirds of the way through At Swim, Two Boys, Jamie O’Neill’s novel of the Easter Rising, the reader has already been forced to make some major adjustments to the canonical definitions of Irish identity, gay identity and the nature of the connections between the two. Earlier in the novel, the nephew is asked by a former school chum (now wearing the uniform of a British officer in the Great War), ‘are you telling me you are an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort?’ The indignant question carefully reproduces one of the few discursive means positively known to have been available in the period for making a claim of gay identity: in E.M. Forster’s Maurice, written in 1913-14, the title character identifies himself as ‘an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort’. In this context, the nephew’s riposte is the more startling: ‘If you mean am I Irish, the answer is yes.’

Both of these exchanges reclaim Oscar Wilde for Ireland and make homosexuality suddenly matter to our ways of thinking about Irish national identity. But they do so in exactly opposite ways. The first passage transforms your generic Irish patriot and martyr into a gay man; the second turns history’s most famous gay outcast into a defiant standard-bearer for the despised category of Irishness. One of O’Neill’s most breathtaking accomplishments in At Swim, Two Boys is to cross the codes of Irish identity and gay identity, making each into a figure for the other, thereby producing at one stroke a gay genealogy of Irishness as well as a specifically Irish image of male homosexuality – a romantic vision of the gay male world as ‘a nation of the heart’.

O’Neill is not the first writer to find in male homosexuality the stuff of nationalist fable: consider Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, or Michel Tremblay’s sagas of Quebec. But his rewriting of the canon of Irish literature and Irish Republican history from a gay perspective is original and ambitious. O’Neill creates a new founding myth of Irish nationhood in the form of a gay male love story.

‘Who are we?’ That question, posed by one of the gay characters, articulates the existential conundrum at the heart of all political movements that spring from a sense of commonality among the members of a large and diverse social group. It also articulates the problem facing any reviewer of O’Neill’s novel (though not all reviewers have been equally perturbed by it): that of determining whose history it is that is most radically, and productively, transformed by O’Neill’s rewriting of it.

At Swim, Two Boys is concerned in the first instance with Irishness. The gay love story at its centre is shaped by the requirements of the national allegory. If, for example, gay love in this novel consistently seeks an island for both its real and imaginary consummations, it’s not only because, according to another of O’Neill’s striking reversals of national identity, gay men live among heterosexuals as ‘angels among the Sodomites’ and therefore need a separate homeland of their own for their protection; it is also because the novel’s gay romance follows the form of the Irish Republican romance and recapitulates its dream of an independent island-nation. Nonetheless, it is the crisis of gay identity that O’Neill invokes to convey the impetus behind Irish nationalism – the shattering, world-making, nation-building thrill that comes from discovering ‘that we did indeed exist’ as a people: ‘That we had a nature our own . . . Our actions could not be crimes . . . because they were the expression of a nature, of an existence even.’ O’Neill’s character is referring to homosexuality here, but he is reflecting, and amplifying, the aspirations of the new nationalism.

O’Neill’s novel deliberately takes its readers back to the pivotal era when gayness and Irishness alike were under vigorous construction. Homosexuality dates from the same period as nationalism, after all: the Austrian writer who coined the word homosexuality in 1869 went so far as to exchange his Bavarian surname (Benkert) for an inverted, Hungarianised version (Kertbeny) out of devotion to the cause of Magyar political and cultural autonomy. At Swim, Two Boys attempts to capture the tentative, experimental trying on and putting off of identities, the improvisational efforts at self-definition characteristic of a time when both Irishmen and gay men were striving to forge in the smithy of their souls the uncreated conscience of their respective races – and were doing it, like Stephen Daedalus, through writing.

Gay community has been, at least in part, a textual effect. A single chapter in Karl Otfried Müller’s 1820s history of ‘the Greek races and cities’, devoted to the pederastic initiation rites practised in prehistoric times by the warlike Dorian tribes who colonised ancient Sparta and Crete, circulated widely during the Victorian period and served to promote a collective sense of gay identity (it provided the un-Christian name for the title character of Oscar Wilde’s novel). The gay characters of At Swim, Two Boys thrill to legendary tales of the military elites of Sparta, the Sacred Band of Thebes, Plato’s ‘army of lovers’; they cite the Symposium along with the Irish scholar J.P. Mahaffy’s Greek history.

The well-known Irish version of this effort to create a community by recourse to language and history is powerfully articulated in the novel. Encouraging himself to help the two boys achieve a sense of pride in themselves, one of the novel’s gay characters makes the connections clear in internal dialogue.

– Help them make a nation, if not once again, then once for all.

– What possible nation can you mean?

– Like all nations . . . a nation of the heart. Look about you. See Irish Ireland find out its past. Only with a past can it claim a future. Watch it on tramcars thumbing its primers. Only a language its own can speak to it truly. What does this language say? It says you are a proud and ancient people. For a nation cannot prosper without it have pride . . . The struggle for Irish Ireland is not for truth against untruth. It is not for the good against the bad, for the beautiful against the unbeautiful. These things will take care of themselves. The struggle is for the heart, for its claim to stand in the light and cast a shadow its own in the sun.

Little wonder, then, that the plot of At Swim, Two Boys hurtles relentlessly towards Easter 1916: both Irish nationalism and queer nationalism locate their mythological origins in an urban riot. Impertinent as it might seem to claim the Irish Rebellion as a prototype of Stonewall, O’Neill – who is not above making obscene puns on Ireland’s ‘rising’ – does finally invite us to view Stonewall as a latter-day gay replica of Easter 1916.

His contribution to the project of writing Ireland has already been much praised, and it’s time now to inquire into the implications of his revisionist history for gay politics and culture. How does his Irishing of male homosexuality reflect tensions in contemporary gay male culture and how does it respond to them? How does it address and reconstruct current forms of gay male social existence? After all, whatever else it may be, At Swim, Two Boys is arguably the most important work of gay male historical fiction since Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library. Much of the best gay male writing in English during the past fifteen years, on both sides of the Atlantic, has been preoccupied with historical themes. O’Neill’s novel deserves to be read alongside Hollinghurst, the films of Derek Jarman, Mark Merlis’s American Studies and An Arrow’s Flight, Robert Glück’s Margery Kempe, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and, above all, Neil Bartlett’s inexhaustible Who Was That Man? A Present for Mr Oscar Wilde as well as his more recent Mr Clive and Mr Page; all of which use the past to redefine gay existence in the present.

The comparison with Hollinghurst brings out the distinctive inflection O’Neill gives to the sexual metaphor of swimming, which is central to the work of both authors. Whereas the narrow, vulnerable zone of moneyed ease and privilege that Hollinghurst’s characters inhabit finds its natural analogue in the swimming-pool and in their exhilarating, illusory sense of free movement through a contained and yielding liquid element, O’Neill’s proletarian heroes, ‘upped sided and downed’ by society and history, by forces they cannot control, must submit to a gruelling physical discipline in the hope of being able to swim the rough, frigid, open tidal waters of Dublin Bay, thereby to achieve a tenuous ‘mastery of the world’. Sex doesn’t come any more easily to these boys than nationhood: it is a distant goal to be won by love and heroic striving.

Another effect of situating a gay love story in the outskirts of Dublin in 1915-16 is to imagine a time of linguistic innocence, when there was no name for the erotic nationality to which the two boys of the title ultimately aspire. Their love blossoms in a discursive silence. O’Neill’s learned and exuberant reconstitution of the spoken language of the day affords much deadpan play with the words straight, gay, queer and best of all out (‘My brother’s a Volunteer and he’s not out’ – that is, out fighting), which are brazenly tossed around in full knowledge that their current associations will pass for unintended. From the perspective of today’s urban gay enclaves, O’Neill’s Dublin radiates a pastoral simplicity: it is a place where untutored people express strong emotions in poetic language uncorroded by irony. (What does a boy say when you bring him to orgasm? ‘My gosh.’) That vision of gay desire without gay identity generates, for better or worse, a significant part of the story’s appeal.

Of course, it helps that the two boys at swim are 16 years old and possess all the markers of attractiveness in dime-store gay romantic fiction. They are pure of heart, handsome, muscular, noble, plucky. Their love is passionate but chaste: it takes them five hundred pages to have sex. One is taller, tougher, hunkier and butcher than the other, who is prettier, more sensitive, more sentimental and more idealistic, but they are both ‘straight as a rush’ and, when finally they do have sex, they have it without role-playing, hierarchy, power imbalances or gender-bending. For all its quaint sexual vocabulary, the narrative is explicit enough to satisfy the curiosity of even the most demanding gay male reader: the boys are versatile.

O’Neill’s elaborate periodisation, in other words, does not extend to the history of sexuality. Hollinghurst, by contrast, set out to portray two distinct historical moments in the evolution of gay male subjectivity, a colonial and a post-colonial moment: he wanted to trace the effects of different material and ideological conditions on the lived experience of gay desire, while also pointing to enduring erotic and political realities. For all O’Neill’s strenuous efforts to make present to the reader a distant epoch and way of life, he does not attempt to historicise sexual subjectivity itself, only the discursive limits placed on its expression at the turn of the 20th century. Nor does he try to imagine a historically and culturally specific Irish experience of gay desire. The post-Stonewall reader has no trouble picking up the unmistakable clues to the boys’ sexual orientation that O’Neill has planted. Nothing is unfamiliar about this sexuality; only the label is missing.

Even so, the novel has an original contribution to make to the history of homosexuality, and a far-reaching one at that. It subsumes gay love within the established traditions of male friendship, and privileges the sentimental register of gay emotion over the sexual one. At the turn of the 20th century, if we’re to believe O’Neill, the working-class world of Dublin had carved out a certain social space for intimate male couples who expressed the special nature of their relationship by calling each other ‘pal o’ me heart’. Such friendships were not necessarily sexual: the fathers of the two boys seem to have had a non-sexual friendship of decisive importance in their lives. It had ended with a mortal insult, from which the offended party never recovered; his entire life was ruined, supposedly, by his pal’s youthful betrayal. In their sons’ case, gay love begins in friendship and expresses itself through friendship, which ultimately provides a cover for sex. Sexual love represents an intensification of romantic friendship, not a violation of it. Gay sex is both loving and friendly, and as such is decent, honourable, dignified.

This does have a certain plausibility, but it’s not clear how historically grounded it is. Romantic friendship did not always offer homosexual subjects a satisfactory vehicle for expressing their desires: Anne Lister, a Yorkshire gentlewoman of the early 19th century, found the model of romantic friendship afforded by the Ladies of Llangollen utterly useless for her own erotic purposes. O’Neill allows for a number of alternative versions of gay male sexuality in his novel, none of them very happy or edifying. In preference to them, he celebrates friendship as a superior mode of erotic expression.

Here, then, is the specific contribution Ireland makes to O’Neill’s model of gay love. He deliberately exploits the traditions of comradeship and solidarity indigenous to the Irish male world and makes the homosexuality of his protagonists piggy-back on their homosociality. In other words, he presents homosexuality under the sign of romantic friendship. This is doubtless what accounts for the surprising degree of acceptance of the novel on the part of the reading public. O’Neill cites one of Whitman’s hymns in praise of ‘the love of comrades’ in the epigraph to the first half of his novel; for the second half, he quotes St Augustine’s mournful remark from the Confessions about the death of his nameless friend (though he omits the initial clause in which Augustine imagines God in hot pursuit of the two ‘fugitives’, thanks him for killing the boy and praises him on that very account as both ‘god of vengeance and fountain of mercies’).

In the context of today’s post-liberation gay male culture, which has tended to make sexuality, not love, the lynchpin of gay identity, the turn to romantic friendship and the new emphasis on the tender, loving side of male homosexuality are refreshing. They also fulfil an evident need. At the end of his life, the late Alan Bray, a pioneering historian of homosexuality in early modern England, proposed that the theoretical charter for the new gay social history ought no longer to be Foucault’s History of Sexuality but Derrida’s Politics of Friendship. Future gay historians, Bray predicted, will be preoccupied less with analysing the links between sexuality and power than with documenting the various forms of ‘voluntary kinship’ among persons of the same sex that pre-modern societies once recognised, even formalised, and that post-modern queer cultures may want to reinvent.

Homoromance without gay identity: there is nothing new about the appeal of that powerful fantasy. ‘A homosexual is not a man who loves homosexuals,’ Proust said, ‘but a man who, seeing a soldier, immediately wants to have him for a friend.’ But the flight from identity to romance seems to be enjoying a new currency among gay men. The passage from Proust stands as the epigraph to Mark Simpson and Steven Zeeland’s recently published correspondence, The Queen Is Dead, which is largely taken up with Whitmanesque paeans to the erotic irresistibleness of friendly young men in the military and the contrasting horror of life in the gay male world.

O’Neill is not exactly nostalgic for romantic friendship of the Victorian sort, nor is he a prude: he does not elevate ‘the love of comrades’ in order to demean or devalue gay sex. And since the contemporary gay male world is often marked by brutal sexual competitiveness as well as by practices of courtship that do not quite answer to the definition of chivalry, there may be considerable value in promoting an erotics characterised by tenderness, fidelity, courage and personal integrity – by selfless devotion to a larger cause, such as love of country or the dream of a free Ireland. All the same, it is a sign of considerable malaise that so many gay men seem eager to find refuge from identity in romance.

What puts O’Neill’s fusion of the fraternal and the romantic into doubt is the very thing that makes his novel so remarkable: its alignment of gay romance with patriotic romance. ‘To fight with your friend beside you. That would be grand,’ one of the boys says, thinking of his lover: ‘I know Doyler will be out, and where would I be but out 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.’ This is a stirring sentiment; the narrative returns to it a number of times. (Less nobly put: ‘If Ireland might be a boy instead of a blowsy old cow, I’d be all for Ireland, I would.’) But it also raises questions. Is it possible to have nationhood without nationalism? Romantic love without the chauvinism of the couple? Community without militancy?

O’Neill’s characters acknowledge that it takes at least two people to make a country. ‘For maybe it was true that no man is an island: but he believed that two very well might be.’ How about three people? ‘You won’t be happy till you have us the three in a bed,’ one of the boys says to the other. That facetious suggestion is never seriously entertained. Despite O’Neill’s unexpected and inventive depiction of a three-sided romance, in which each of the two boys either sleeps with or falls in love with an older man, no real challenge to the ascendancy of the couple-form emerges from the narrative and it never becomes clear how a gay male ‘nation of the heart’ could have more than two people in it – let alone two people of different generations – or how the third gay swimmer in O’Neill’s novel could ever win a place for himself in its title.

The one aspect of O’Neill’s romance that readers have complained about is its abrupt and untimely termination with the death of one of the boys in the final battle. (The two survivors, apparently, go on to join the IRA.) The tragic ending is determined from the outset by the glorious and ignominious precedent of the failed Easter Rising. It’s also predetermined by the plot of the male romance itself: the death of the hero’s friend has been the climax of buddy stories (as marriage has been the climax of heterosexual romances) from Gilgamesh on down. O’Neill could have dodged the exemplary force of those paradigms, just as he mocks the time-worn definitions of Irish identity and patriotism mouthed by his nationalistic priest. He remains eager, however, to tune all gay romantic sentiment in the novel, like all patriotic Irish sentiment, to the key of nobility, self-sacrifice and martyrdom: ‘And yet he could think of nothing more grand than helping this boy to his happiness. A happiness whose consummation must inevitably dash any hope of his own.’ If your boyfriend is your country, then self-sacrifice is the grandest way of loving him, even off the battlefield. Although the dialogic form of O’Neill’s narrative, its Joycean shifting among different points of view, allows him to take a critical distance from the perspective of any single character, O’Neill himself is still caught up in the glamour of tragic romance, both erotic and patriotic: he hasn’t had enough of that crying game.

When E.M. Forster wrote Maurice, he had never had sex, let alone sex with a man, and he knew he couldn’t publish a gay love story. And yet he imagined, and wrote, a coming-out story that culminated in a gay romance that was both fully carnal and crowned with a happy ending. If Forster’s readers, starting with Lytton Strachey, have never believed in that happy ending, that’s not only because poor Forster, expert beyond experience, actually had no idea what he was talking about (his determination to talk about it anyway should count as a point in his favour) but also because already by Forster’s day the novel had outgrown the romance form: it was capable of something more complex than either tragedy or comedy – as Forster himself was to demonstrate a decade later with A Passage to India.

Forster dedicated Maurice, famously, ‘to a Happier Year’. O’Neill expresses, through one of his characters, a similarly utopian wish, on behalf of both queer and Irish nationalities: ‘These things will come, my dear. Let you dream of this.’ The once standard mythology of gay history held that Forster’s happier year arrived in 1969. Lesbians and gay men have been able to look back in anger, or bemusement, on the dreary history of pre-Stonewall gay representations, which seem to have been divided into two chief modes, conservative-moralising and liberal-tragic, both of them requiring the death (usually, the suicide) of any lesbian or gay male character who had or who wished to have gay sex. The suicides are now gone from queer fiction, for the most part, but the happy endings that Forster insisted on, and that gay liberation promised, still elude us. And for good reason: gay life in the real world is not all fun and games. But if the liberated vision of the best gay novelists does not produce happy endings, neither does it situate all our hopes for a happier year in some distant dream of a promised land or refuse to imagine a future for gay lovers this side of the grave. O’Neill’s boys are so pure and heroic that they have nowhere else to go. Both nationalism and the novel are now capable of envisioning more liveable outcomes. I hope it will take nothing away from O’Neill’s achievement, from the inventiveness and emotional power of his writing, to wish that gay male fiction would produce different sorts of novel: novels of adult sexuality, without either the triumph of coming-out stories or the tragedy of teenage romances.

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