Pal o’ Me Heart

David Halperin

  • At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill
    Scribner, 572 pp, £6.99, July 2002, ISBN 0 7432 0714 9

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.

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