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At Swim, Two Boys

A Novel

About The Book

Praised as “a work of wild, vaulting ambition and achievement” by Entertainment Weekly, Jamie O’Neill’s first novel invites comparison to such literary greats as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Charles Dickens.

Jim Mack is a naïve young scholar and the son of a foolish, aspiring shopkeeper. Doyler Doyle is the rough-diamond son—revolutionary and blasphemous—of Mr. Mack’s old army pal. Out at the Forty Foot, that great jut of rock where gentlemen bathe in the nude, the two boys make a pact: Doyler will teach Jim to swim, and in a year, on Easter of 1916, they will swim to the distant beacon of Muglins Rock and claim that island for themselves. All the while Mr. Mack, who has grand plans for a corner shop empire, remains unaware of the depth of the boys’ burgeoning friendship and of the changing landscape of a nation.

Set during the year preceding the Easter Uprising of 1916—Ireland’s brave but fractured revolt against British rule—At Swim, Two Boys is a tender, tragic love story and a brilliant depiction of people caught in the tide of history. Powerful and artful, and ten years in the writing, it is a masterwork from Jamie O’Neill.


Chapter One

At the corner of Adelaide Road, where the paving sparkled in the morning sun, Mr. Mack waited by the newspaper stand. A grand day it was, rare and fine. Puff-clouds sailed through a sky of blue. Fair-weather cumulus to give the correct designation: on account they cumulate, so Mr. Mack believed. High above the houses a seagull glinted, gliding on a breeze that carried from the sea. Wait now, was it cumulate or accumulate he meant? The breeze sniffed of salt and tide. Make a donkey of yourself, inwardly he cautioned, using words you don't know their meaning. And where's this paper chappie after getting to?

In delicate clutch an Irish Times he held. A thruppenny piece, waiting to pay, rolled in his fingers. Every so often his hand queried his elbow -- Parcel safe? Under me arm, his hand-pat assured him.

Glasthule, homy old parish, on the lip of Dublin Bay. You could see the bay, a wedge of it, between the walls of a lane, with Howth lying out beyond. The bay was blue as the sky, a tinge deeper, and curiously raised-looking when viewed dead on. The way the sea would be sloping to the land. If this paper chappie don't show up quick, bang goes his sale. Cheek of him leaving customers wait in the street.

A happy dosser was nosing along the lane and Mr. Mack watched with lenient disdain. Any old bone. Lick of something out of a can. Dog's life really. When he came to the street Mr. Mack touched a finger to his hat, but the happy dosser paid him no regard. He slouched along and Mr. Mack saw it puddling after, something he had spilt in the road, his wasted civility. Lips pursed with comment, he pulled, squeezing, one droop of his bush mustache.

"Oh hello, Mrs. Conway, grand day it is, grand to be sure, tip-top and yourself keeping dandy?"

Nice class of lady, left foot, but without the airs. Saw me waiting with an Irish Times, twice the price of any other paper. They remark such things, the quality do. Glory be, I hope she didn't think -- his Irish Times dropped by his side -- Would she ever have mistook me for the paperman, do you think?

Pages fluttered on the newspaper piles, newsboards creaked in the breeze. Out-of-the-way spot for a paper stand. Had supposed to be above by the railway station. But this thoolamawn has it currently, what does he do only creeps it down, little by little, till now he has it smack outside of Fennelly's --

Mr. Mack swivelled on his heels. Fennelly's public house. The corner doors were propped wide where the boy was mopping the steps. Late in the morning to be still at his steps. The gloom inside gave out a hum of amusement, low mouths of male companionship, gathered by the amber glow of the bar. Mr. Mack said Aha! with his eyes. He thrust his head inside the door, waved his paper in the dark. "'Scuse now, gents." He hadn't his hat back on his head before a roar of hilarity, erupting at the bar, hunted him away, likely to shove him back out in the street.

Well, by the holy. He gave a hard nod to the young bucko leaning on his mop and grinning. What was that about?

Presently, a jerky streak of anatomy distinguished itself in the door, coughing and spluttering while it came, and shielding its eyes from the sun. "Is it yourself, Sergeant?"

"Hello now, Mr. Doyle," said Mr. Mack.

"Quartermaster-Sergeant Mack, how are you, how's every hair's breadth of you, what cheer to see you so spry." A spit preceded him to the pavement. "You weren't kept waiting at all?" This rather in rebuttal than inquiry. "Only I was inside getting of bronze for silver. Paper is it?"

The hades you were, thought Mr. Mack, and the smell of drink something atrocious. "Fennelly has a crowd in," he remarked, "for the hour."

"Bagmen," the paperman replied. "Go-boys on the make out of Dublin. And a miselier mischaritable unChristianer crew -- "

Ho ho ho, thought Mr. Mack. On the cadge, if I know my man. Them boys inside was too nimble for him.

"Would you believe, Sergeant, they'd mock a man for the paper he'd read?"

"What's this now?" said Mr. Mack.

The paperman chucked his head. "God be their judge and a bitter one, say I. And your good self known for a decent skin with no more side than a margarine."

Mr. Mack could not engage but a rise was being took out of him. The paperman made play of settling his papers, huffling and humphing in that irritating consumptive way. He made play of banging his chest for air. He spat, coughing with the spittle, a powdery disgruntled cough -- "Choky today," said he -- and Mr. Mack viewed the spittle-drenched sheet he now held in his hand. This fellow, the curse of an old comrade, try anything to vex me.

"I'm after picking up," choosily he said, "an Irish Times, only I read here -- "

"An Irish Times, Sergeant? Carry me out and bury me decent, so you have and all. Aren't you swell away with the high-jinkers there?"

Mr. Mack plumped his face and a laugh, like a fruit, dropped from his mouth. "I wouldn't know about any high-jinkers," he confided. "Only I read here 'tis twice the price of any other paper. Twice the price," he repeated, shaking his cautious head. A carillon of coins chinkled in his pocket. "I don't know now can the expense be justified."

"Take a risk of it, Sergeant, and damn the begrudgers." The paperman leant privily forward. "A gent on the up, likes of yourself, isn't it worth it alone for the shocks and stares?"

Narrowly Mr. Mack considered his man. A fling or a fox-paw, he couldn't be certain sure. He clipped his coin on the paper-stack. "Penny, I believe," he said.

"Thruppence," returned Mr. Doyle. "Balance two dee to the General."

Mr. Mack talked small while he waited for his change. "Grand stretch of weather we're having."

"'Tisn't the worst."

"Grand I thought for the time of year."

"Thanks be to God."

"Oh thanks be to God entirely."

Mr. Mack's face faltered. Had ought to get my thanks in first. This fellow, not a mag to bless himself with, doing me down always. He watched him shambling through the pockets of his coat. And if it was change he was after in Fennelly's it was devilish cunning change for never the jingle of a coin let out. A smile fixed on Mr. Mack's face. Barking up the wrong tree with me, my merry old sweat. Two dee owed.

At last the paperman had the change found. Two lusterless pennies, he held them out, the old sort, with the old Queen's hair in a bun. Mr. Mack was on the blow of plucking them in his fingers when the paperman coughed -- "Squeeze me" -- coughed into his -- "Squeeze me peas, Sergeant" -- coughed into his sleeve. Not what you'd call coughing but hacking down the tracts of his throat to catch some breath had gone missing there. His virulence spattered the air between, and Mr. Mack thought how true what they say, take your life in your hands every breath you breathe.

He cleared his own throat and said, "I trust I find you well?"

"Amn't I standing, God be praised?" With a flump then he was down on the butter-box he kept for a seat.

Bulbous, pinkish, bush-mustached, Mr. Mack's face lowered. He'd heard it mentioned right enough, that old Doyle, he was none too gaudy this weather. Never had thought to find him this far gone. That box wouldn't know of him sitting on it. He looked down on the dull face, dull as any old copper, with the eyes behind that looked chancy back. Another fit came on, wretched to watch, like something physical had shook hold the man; and Mr. Mack reached his hand to his shoulder.

"Are you all right there, Mick?"

"Be right in a minute, Arthur. Catch me breath is all."

Mr. Mack gave a squeeze of his hand, feeling the bones beneath. "Will I inquire in Fennelly's after a drop of water?"

"I wouldn't want to be bothering Fennelly for water, though."

Them chancy old eyes. Once upon a time them eyes had danced. Bang goes sixpence, thought Mr. Mack, though it was a shilling piece he pulled out of his pocket. "Will you do yourself a favor, Mick, and get something decent for your dinner."

"Take that away," Mr. Doyle rebuked him. "I have my pride yet. I won't take pity."

"Now where's the pity in a bob, for God's sake?"

"I fought for Queen and Country. There's no man will deny it."

"There's no man wants to deny it."

"Twenty-five years with the Colors. I done me bit. I went me pound, God knows if I didn't."

Here we go, thought Mr. Mack.

"I stood me ground. I stood to them Bojers and all."

Here we go again.

"Admitted you wasn't there. Admitted you was home on the boat to Ireland. But you'll grant me this for an old soldier. That Fusilier Doyle, he done his bit. He stood up to them Bojers, he did."

"You did of course. You're a good Old Tough, 'tis known in the parish."

"Begod and I'd do it over was I let. God's oath on that. We'd know the better of Germany then." He kicked his boot against the newsboard, which told, unusually and misfortunately for his purpose, not of the war at all but of beer and whiskey news, the threat and fear of a hike in the excise. "I'd soon put manners on those Kaiser lads."

"No better man," Mr. Mack conceded. Mr. Doyle tossed his head, the way his point, being gained, he found it worthless for a gain. Mr. Mack had to squeeze the shilling bit into his hand. "You'll have a lotion on me whatever," he said, confidentially urging the matter.

The makings of a smile lurked across the paperman's face. "There was a day, Arthur, and you was pal o' me heart," said he, "me fond segotia." The silver got pocketed. "May your hand be stretched in friendship, Sergeant, and never your neck."

Charity done with and the price of a skite secured, they might risk a reasonable natter. "Tell us," said Mr. Mack, "is it true what happened the young fellow was here on this patch?"

"Sure carted away. The peelers nabbed him."

"A recruitment poster I heard."

"Above on the post office windows. Had it torn away."

"Shocking," said Mr. Mack. "Didn't he know that's a serious offense?"

"Be sure he'll know now," said Mr. Doyle. "Two-monthser he'll get out of that. Hard."

"And to look at him he only a child."

"Sure mild as ever on porridge smiled. Shocking."

Though Mr. Mack could not engage it was the offense was referred to and not the deserts. "Still, you've a good few weeks got out of this work."

"They'll have the replacement found soon enough."

"You stuck it this long, they might see their way to making you permanent."

"Not so, Sergeant. And the breath only in and out of me." An obliging little hack found its way up his throat. "There's only the one place I'll be permanent now. I won't be long getting there neither."

But Mr. Mack had heard sufficient of that song. "Sure we're none of us getting any the rosier." The parcel shifted under his arm and, the direction coming by chance into view, Mr. Doyle's eyes squinted, then saucered, then slyly he opined,


"Stockings," Mr. Mack elaborated. "I'm only on my way to Ballygihen. Something for Madame MacMurrough and the Comforts Fund."

"Didn't I say you was up with the high-jinkers? Give 'em socks there, Sergeant, give 'em socks."

Mr. Mack received this recommendation with the soldierly good humor with which it was intended. He tipped his hat and the game old tough saluted.

"Good luck to the General."

"Take care now, Mr. Doyle."

Parcel safe and under his arm, Mr. Mack made his way along the parade of shops. At the tramstop he looked into Phillips's ironmongers. "Any sign of that delivery?"

"Expected" was all the answer he got.

Constable now. Sees me carrying the Irish Times. Respectable nod. Little Fenianeen in our midst and I never knew. After hacking at a recruitment poster. Mind, 'tis pranks not politics. Pass a law against khaki, you'd have them queueing up to enlist.

The shops ended and Glasthule Road took on a more dignified, prosperous air. With every step he counted the ratable values rising, ascending on a gradient equivalent to the road's rise to Ballygihen. Well-tended gardens and at every lane a kinder breeze off the sea. In the sun atop a wall a fat cat sat whose head followed wisely his progress.

General, he calls me. Jocular touch that. After the General Stores, of course. Shocks and stares -- should send that in the paper. Pay for items catchy like that. Or did I hear it before? Would want to be sure before committing to paper. Make a donkey of yourself else.

A scent drifted by that was utterly familiar yet unspeakably far away. He leant over a garden wall and there it blew, ferny-leaved and tiny-flowered, in its sunny yellow corner. Never had thought it would prosper here. Mum-mim-mom, begins with something mum. Butterfly floating over it, a pale white soul, first I've seen of the year.

Pall of his face back there. They do say they take on worse in the sunshine, your consumptives do. Segotia: is it some class of a flower? I never thought to inquire. Pal of me heart. Well, we're talking twenty thirty years back. Mick and Mack the paddy whacks. We had our day, 'tis true. Boys together and bugles together and bayonets in the ranks. Rang like bells, all we wanted was hanging. But there's no pals except you're equals. I learnt me that after I got my very first stripe.

He looked back down the road at the dwindling man with his lonely stand of papers. A Dublin tram came by. In the clattering of its wheels and its sparking trolley the years dizzied a moment. Scarlet and blue swirled in the dust, till there he stood, flush before him, in the light of bright and other days, the bugler boy was pal of his heart. My old segotia.

Parcel safe? Under me arm.

The paper unfolded in Mr. Mack's hands and his eyes glanced over the front page. Hotels, hotels, hotels. Hatches, matches, dispatches. Eye always drawn to "Loans by Post." Don't know for why. What's this the difference is between a stock and a share? Have to ask Jim when he gets in from school.

He turned the page. Here we go. Royal Dublin Fusiliers depot. Comforts Fund for the Troops in France. Committee gratefully acknowledges. Here we go. Madame MacMurrough, Ballygihen branch. Socks, woollen, three doz pair.

Gets her name in cosy enough. Madame MacMurrough. Once a month I fetch over the stockings, once a month she has her name in the paper. Handy enough if you can get it.

Nice to know they're delivered, all the same, delivered where they're wanted.

His eyes wandered to the Roll of Honor that ran along the paper's edge. Officers killed, officers wounded, wounded and missing, wounded believed prisoners, correction: officers killed. All officers. Column, column and a half of officers. Then there's only a handful of other ranks. Now that can't be right. How do they choose them? Do you have to -- is that what I'd have to do? -- submit the name yourself? And do they charge for that? Mind you, nice to have your name in the Irish Times. That's what I'll have to do maybe, should Gordie -- God forbid, what was he saying? God forbid, not anything happen to Gordie. Touch wood. Not wood, scapular. Where am I?

There, he'd missed his turn. That was foolish. Comes from borrowing trouble. And it was an extravagance in the first place to be purchasing an Irish Times. Penny for the paper, a bob for that drunk -- Jacobs! I didn't even get me two dee change. One and thruppenny walk in all. Might have waited for the Evening Mail and got me news for a ha'penny.

However, his name was Mr. Mack, and as everyone knew, or had ought know by now, the Macks was on the up.

The gates to Madame MacMurrough's were open and he peered up the avenue of straggling sycamores to the veiled face of Ballygihen House. A grand lady she was to be sure, though her trees, it had to be said, could do with a clipping.

He did not enter by the gates, but turned down Ballygihen Avenue beside. He had come out in a sweat, beads were trickling down the spine of his shirt, the wet patch stuck where his braces crossed. He mended his pace to catch his breath. At the door in the wall he stopped. Mopped his forehead and neck with his handkerchief, took off his hat and swabbed inside. Carefully stroked its brim where his fingers might have disturbed the nap. Replaced it. Size too small. Would never believe your head would grow. Or had the hat shrunk on him? Dunn's three-and-ninepenny bowler? No, his hat had never shrunk. He brushed both boots against the calves of his trousers. Parcel safe? Then he pushed inside the tradesmen's gate.

Brambly path through shadowy wood. Birds singing on all sides. Mess of nettles, cow-parsley, could take a scythe to them. Light green frilly leaves would put you in mind of, ahem, petticoats. A blackbird scuttled off the path like a schoolboy caught at a caper. Then he was out in the light, and the lawns of Ballygihen House stretched leisurely to the sea. The sea oh the sea, long may it be. What a magnificent house it was, view and vantage them both, for its windows commanded the breadth of Dublin Bay. If he had this house what wouldn't he do but sit upon its sloping lawns while all day long the mailboats to'd and fro'd.

Mr. Mack shook his head, but not disconsolately; for the beauty of the scene, briefly borrowed and duly returned, would brighten the sorrow of a saint. He followed the path by the trees, careful of stepping on the grass, till he came into the shadow of the house where the area steps led down to the kitchens.

And who was it only Madame MacMurrough's slavey showing leg at the step. Bit late in the morning to be still at her scrubbing. From Athlone, I believe, a district I know nothing about, save that it lies at the heart of Ireland.

He leant over the railing. "You're after missing a spot, Nancy."

The girl looked up. "'Tis you, Mr. Mack. And I thought it was the butcher's boy after giving me cheek."

She thought it was the butcher's -- Mr. Mack hawked his throat. "Julian weather we're having."

She pulled the hair out of her eyes. "Julian, Mr. Mack?"

"Julian. Pertaining to the month of July. It's from the Latin."

"But 'tis scarce May."

"Well, I know that, Nancy. I meant 'tis July-like weather. Warm."

She stood up, skirts covering her shins. Something masonic about her smile. "Any news from Gordie, Mr. Mack?"

Mr. Mack peered over her shoulder looking to see was there anyone of consequence about. "Gordie?" he repeated. "You must mean Gordon, my son Gordon."

"No letters or anything in the post?"

"How kind of you, Nancy. But no, he's away on final training. We don't know the where, we don't know the where to. Submarines, do you see. Troop movements is always secretive in times of war."

"Ah sure he's most like in England, round about Aldershot with the rest of the boys."

No cook in evidence, no proper maid. Entire residence has the look of -- "Aldershot? Why do you say Aldershot?"

"Do you know the place? Famous military town in Hampshire."

"You oughtn't be talking such things. Haven't I just warned you about submarines?"

"In Ballygihen, Mr. Mack?"

"Matter a damn where." He felt he had stamped his foot, so he patted his toes on the gravel and muttered, "Dang. Matter a dang, I meant."

The breeze reblew the hair in her eyes. Slovenly the way she ties it. Has a simper cute as a cat. "Is there no person in authority here I might address my business to?"

"Sure we're all alone in the big house together. If you wanted you could nip round the front and pull the bell. I'd let you in for the crack."

Flighty, divil-may-care minx of a slavey. Pity the man who -- He pinched, pulling, one droop of his mustache. "I haven't the time for your cod-acting now, Nancy. It so happens I'm here on a serious matter not altogether disconnected with the war effort itself. I don't doubt your mistress left word I was due."

She looked thoughtful a moment. "I misrecall your name being spoke, but there was mention of some fellow might be bringing socks. I was to dump them in the scullery and give him sixpence out of thank you."r

After the huffing and puffing and wagging his finger, in the end he had to let his parcel into her shiftless hands. She knew better by then to bring up the sixpence. He had tipped his scant farewell and was re-ascending the steps when she let out, "Still and all, Mr. Mack, it's the desperate shame you wouldn't know where your ownest son was stationed at."

"A shame we all must put up with."

"Sure wherever it is, he'll be cutting a fine dash of a thing, I wouldn't doubt it."

Slavey, he thought, proper name for a rough general. "Don't let me disturb you further from your duty."

"Good day, Mr. Mack. But remember now: all love does ever rightly show humanity our tenderness."

All love does what? Foolish gigglepot. Should have told her, should have said, he's gone to fight for King and Country and the rights of Catholic Belgium. Cutting a dash is for rakes and dandyprats. All love does ever what?

He sloped back down the road to Glasthule, his heart falling with the declining properties. Could that be true about the sixpence? It was a puzzle to know with rich folk. Maybe I might have held on to the stockings and fetched them over another day. Nothing like a face-to-face in getting to know the worth of a man. Or maybe the lady supposed I'd be too busy myself, would send a boy instead. Jim. She thought it was Jim I'd be sending. Jim, my son James. The sixpence was his consideration. Now that was mighty generous in Madame MacMurrough. Sixpence for that spit of a walk? There's the gentry for you now. That shows the quality.

Quick look-see in the hand-me-down window. Now that's new. Must tell Jim about that. A flute in Ducie's window. Second thoughts, steer clear. Trouble enough with Gordie and the pledge-shop.

Brewery men at Fennelly's. Mighty clatter they make. On purpose much of the time. Advertise their presence. Fine old Clydesdale eating at his bait-sack. They look after them well, give them that. Now here's a wonder -- paper stand deserted. Crowd of loafers holding up the corner.

A nipper-squeak across the road and his heart lifted for it was the boy out of the ironmonger's to say the tram had passed, package ready for collection. He took the delivery, signed the entry-book, patting the boy's head in lieu of gratuity, recrossed the street.

He was turning for home into Adelaide Road, named after -- who's this it's named for again? -- when Fennelly's corner doors burst open and a ree-raw jollity spilt out in the street. "Sister Susie's sewing shirts for soldiers," they were singing. Except in their particular rendition it was socks she was knitting.

"Quare fine day," said one of the loafers outside. Another had the neck to call out Mr. Mack's name.

Mr. Mack's forefinger lifted vaguely hatwards. Corner of his eye he saw others making mouths at him. Loafers, chancers, shapers. Where were the authorities at all that they wouldn't take them in charge? Fennelly had no license for singing. And the Angelus bell not rung.

Package safe? Under me arm. Chickens clucking in the yards, three dogs mooching. What they need do, you see, is raise the dog license. That would put a stop to all this mooching. Raise the excise while they're about it. Dung in the street and wisps of hay, sparrows everywhere in the quiet way.

The shop was on a corner of a lane that led to a row of humbler dwellings. He armed himself with a breath. The bell clinked when he pushed the door.

Incorrect to say a hush fell on the premises. They always spoke in whispers, Aunt Sawney and her guests. There she sat, behind the counter, Mrs. Tansy sat on the customers' chair, they had another fetched in from the kitchen for Mrs. Rourke. Now if a customer came, he'd be hard put to make it to the till. Gloomy too. Why wouldn't she leave the door wide? Gas only made it pokier in the daylight. Which was free.

"God bless all here." He touched the font on the jamb. Dryish. Have to see to that. Blessed himself.

"Hello, Aunt Sawney. Ready whenever to take over the reins. Mrs. Rourke, how's this the leg is today? I'm glad to see you about, Mrs. Tansy."

New tin of snuff on the counter. Must remember to mark that down in the book. Impossible to keep tabs else. Straits of Ballambangjan ahead. "I wonder if I might just...pardon me while I...if you could maybe." Maneuver safe between. Find harbor in the kitchen. Range stone cold, why wouldn't she keep an eye on it? Poke head back inside an instant. "Range is out, Aunt Sawney, should your guests require some tea."

Three snorts came in reply as each woman took a pinch of snuff.

He sat down at the kitchen table, laid the new package in front of him. His eyes gauged its contents, while he reached behind his neck to loosen the back-stud of his collar. He flexed his arms. Let me see, let me see. The boy at the ironmonger's had dangled the package by the twine and he had a deal of difficulty undoing the knot. Keep the torn paper for them on tick.

And finally there they were. Bills, two gross, finest American paper, fine as rashers of wind, in Canon bold proclaiming:

Adelaide General Stores

Quality Goods At Honest Prices

Mr. A. Mack, Esqr.

Will Be Pleased To Assist In All Your Requirements

An Appeal To You!

One Shilling Per Guinea Spent Here

Will Comfort Our Troops In France!

Page was a touch cramped at the base so that the end line, "Proprietress: Sawney Burke," had to be got in small print. Still, it was the motto that mattered, and that was a topper. Will comfort our troops in France. Appeal to the honor of the house.

Mustache. Touch it. Spot of something in the hairs. Egg, is it? Stuck.

Was I right all the same to leave it to honor only? Nothing about the pocket. How's about this for the hookum?

Pounds, Shillings and Pence!

Why Not Buy Local And Save On Leather?

Appeal to the pocket of the house. Might better have had two orders made up. One for the swells, other for the smells.

Never mind the smells, the Macks is on the up.

Jim. What time is it? Home for his dinner at five after one. Gone twelve now. He could maybe deliver the startings in his dinner-hour, the leavings before his tea.

Have I missed the Angelus so? How's this I missed the Angelus?

Clink. That's the door. Customer? No, exeunt two biddies. She'll be in now, tidy away. Aunt Sawney, I've had these advertising-bills made up...? No, wait till they're delivered first. Fate accomplished. Where's that apron? Better see to the range. "Aunt Sawney, there you are. Must be puffed out after that stint. I'll do shop now. You read the paper in your chair. We'll soon have a feel of heat."

"Stay away from that kitchener," she said.

"The range?" said Mr. Mack.

"That kitchener wants blacking."

"The range?"

She was already on her knees. She had a new tin of Zebra black-lead with her. "Ye'll have me hands in blisters. I left it go out since yesternight."

Surely a touch uncivil to name a kitchen range after the hero who avenged Khartoum. "Did we finish that other tin of Zebra already? Right so, I'll mark that down in the book. It's best to keep tabs."

"'Tis cold plate for dinner. And cold plate for tea."

"Whatever you think is best, Aunt Sawney. But you're not after forgetting it's his birthday today?"

"I'm not after forgetting this kitchener wants blacking." She damped a cloth in the black-lead tin, letting out a creak of coughing as she did so.

The door clinked. Customer. "I'll be with you directly," he called. Then, thoughtfully: "Not to trouble yourself, Aunt Sawney. I have a cake above out of Findlater's. Sure what more could his boyship want? But no mention of birthdays till after his tea. We'll have nothing brought off all day else."

"I suppose and you got him them bills for his treat."

Well, I'll be sugared. How would she know about the bills? He watched her at her labor for a moment. Wiry woman with hair the color of ash. The back tresses she wore in a small black cap which hung from her crown like an extra, maidenly, head of hair. Even kneeling she had a bend on her, what's this they used call it, the Grecian bends. If you straightened her now, you'd be feared of her snapping. Cheeks like loose gullets, wag when vexed. When the teeth go, you see, the pouches collapse. Nose beaked, with dewdrop suspending. Not kin, thanks be to God, not I, save through the altar. Gordie and Jim are blood.

She coughed again, sending reverberations down her frame. Brown titus she calls it. Useless to correct her at her age. "I'll leave the inside door pulled to in case you'd feel a chill from beyond. You're only over the bronchitis."

"Mrs. Tansy says the font wants filling."

Gently Mr. Mack reminded her, "Mrs. Tansy is a ranting Methody."

"She still has eyes to see."

Why would anyone look into a font? he wondered as he poured the holy water. Suppose when you are that way, dig with the other foot that is, these things take on an interest, a mystery even, which all too often for ourselves, digging as it were with the right foot, which is to say the proper one, have lost -- lost where I was heading for there.

Cheeses, would you look at that motor the way it's pitching up Glasthule. Tearaways they have at the wheel. Take your life in your hands every turn you take. Hold on now, I believe I recognize that motor-car. He blew on his mustache, considering. There's a pucker idea: fonts for trams. Should send that in the paper. Never seen a font in a moving object. Would a bishop have one in his brougham for instance? Or is there maybe an injunction against fonts in anything not stationary? Should check the facts before committing to paper. There's fellows ready to pounce, the least miscalculation.

Nothing much in the street. Far away beyond the fields and the new red-bricked terraces rose the Dublin Mountains. Green grew to grey. Oats by reason the wet climatics. Clever the way the fields know to stop just where the hills begin. Turf then. They were down the other week trying to hock it on account the price of coal. Is there a season for turf, though? Make a donkey of yourself buying the wrong time of year.

Curls of smoke from the cottages nearby. Keeping the home fires burning. Back inside the shop. Clink, it's only me. Font again, no wonder it dries up so. Trade a little slack. Always the same this time of day. Might give that counter a wipe-down. Bits of snuff and goodness knows. Time to finish a stocking before dinner? Wouldn't it be grand now if Gordie would be wearing one of my stockings.

Where's there a place to fix a new shelf? Need a display for maybe a quality range of teas. High-grown, tippy Darjeeling, cans of, please. That would fetch the carriage trade.

What's this that Nancy one was on about, all love does ever what? Damn silly child. Holy show she made of his parade. Marching with Gordie in the ranks to the troopship. Son of mine stepping out with a slavey. Where's the up in that?

Here a shelf, there a shelf? Can smell it now, the wafting scents. Would madam take a seat while I weigh her requirements? None of your one-and-fourpence populars, but Assam and pekoe and souchong, and customers to match, and souchong and oolong and Assam and --

Peeping up at him, her dabs just nipping the counter, a little female bedouin with dirty face and half an apron on.

"Well, little lady? Why aren't we at school today?"

"The ma sent me over for a saucer of jam."

Beside the door Mr. Mack had fixed a makeshift sign. "One Shilling per Guinea Spent Here is a CREDIT to You!" He might better have saved the paper. "Ha'penny," he said to the slum-rat.

The sleek green motor cleared the feeble rise, haughty jerk as it jumped the tramlines, swept through the gates, gravel flittering with road-dust in its wake. Past the lodge, empty these years, least so by day, under the fairy light of arching trees, to emerge at its stabling where it shuddered in quiet triumph before a gauntleted glove that had stroked its wheel reached down to cut the engine.

Silence then, a world at rest. Not the antithesis of dust, of speed, but its complement. The gloved hand ungloved its partner which in turn ungloved its mate. Fingers untied her chiffon and felt for hair under her hat. Strays tidied behind her ears. The chiffon became a scarf, her hands reawoke the wide sloping brim of her hat. Gradually the earth too rewoke. Hedges chirruped to life, a crow bickered above, the sea resumed its reverend tide. Her hat was hopelessly démodé but the fashion was too ridiculous: she refused to wear flower-pots, and would have nothing to do with feathery things she had not shot herself.

Eveline MacMurrough slid to the passenger side, shifted her skirt over the low door. One leg, two legs, she steadied on the running-board, then slipped to the ground. The hand that held her gloves patted the coachwork, patted the trim. My Prince Henry. And they had thought to requisition you for an ambulance at the Front. Les brutes anglaises.

There was no one to see to her entrance, only the skivvy from the kitchen whom she had scarcely begun to civilize. This skin of jitters received her gloves, her chiffon, hat; Eveline allowed the dustcoat to be eased from her shoulders. L'idiote. "Not through the hall, child," she said. "Outside and shake the dust."

In the stand glass she reviewed her visage. The wind-screen had not been a total success. Then again goggles did leave such hideous lines. Perhaps it must be the veil after all. Though she did so resent the implication of purdah. Toilet water, a good scrub, then hot damp towels.

"Is old Moore about?"

"Would he not be in the garden, mam?"

Peasant insistence on interrogative response. It rather appealed to Eveline. Yes, she rather believed she liked it. "When you find him, tell him the motor-car wants cleaning. Lamps too, I dare say. Cook?"

"Hasn't she taken the morning to visit her sister in St. Michael's that's poorly?"

Defensive really: none of my doing, as though to say. "Are we to starve so?"

"No, mam. She left a cold dinner prepared."

"Lunch," said Eveline.

"Lunch, mam."

There was a quick call through the staff roll. Bootman repairing a leak in the attic, meaning presumably he was high; parlor maids called back to the registry, replacements not turned up. Really she must see to appointing new people, a housekeeper at the very least. So trying with the war on. Rush to the altar to avail of the separation allowances. It was something her nephew might take in hand. "And my nephew?"

"I'm not sure, mam" -- flush in her cheeks -- "if he hasn't gone bathing."

Eveline had completed her inspection at the hall stand. The child waited by the pass door, hands by her sides like a board-school girl. Itching to be below stairs out of harm's way. Pauvre ingénue. Eveline smiled and ordered hot water and towels to her dressing-room. Even the imbécile might manage that.

While she sponged her cheeks with water of roses, she considered her interview with the new curate at St. Joseph's, Glasthule. Naturally, it was the canon she had called upon, some invitation to decline, but a young priest had received her, offering regrets at the canon's indisposition. The canon's health was neither here nor there to Eva, her confessor being of the Jesuits at Gardiner Street, but the young man made such parade of hospitality, she had quickly perceived her demurs would serve but to encourage his insistence.

She had accepted tea in best blue china. The curate gave his name -- unless she misheard, Father Amen O'Toiler, which sounded a sermon in itself. He fingered her card, then, still fidgeting, stood to make his say. "I cannot tell you, Madame MacMurrough, what pleasure it is to greet a scion of your famous name." Her famous name was given its due, which she heard as a type of Cook's tour of Irish history. Bridges taken, fords crossed, the sieges broken, battles lost, long valiant retreats -- and not a one but a MacMurrough had been to the fore.

It was a familiar account and she had waited politely, seated at the edge of an aged Biedermeier whose stuffing was gone. Absently she wondered which charity the curate had in mind and what donation might eventually suffice.

The priest had continued his progress round the sunless parlor, chilly yet fuming from an ill-ventilated fire. Every few paces he referred to her card, as though the heads of his argument had been pencilled thereon, as onwards he passed through the dark centuries, the long night of Ireland's woe. Yet night, he averred, not so dark as to blind, for in every generation a light had sparked, betimes no more than a flash on the hillside, moretimes a flame to set the age afire. And not once in all the years but the cry had gone out: MacMurrough! The name was imperishable, ineradicable, sempiternal, a lodestar in the Irish firmament that had blazed to its zenith, as many believed (and not least the curate himself, if he might make so bold), in the brilliant, some might say heliacal, career of Madame MacMurrough's late revered regretted father, Dermot James William MacMurrough, Queen's Counsellor, quondam Lord Mayor and Chief Magistrate of our great metropolis, freeman of the cities of Waterford, Cork, New York and Boston, Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, Member for the Borough of Ferns.

"And there at the moment of her direst need" -- the curate's voice had strained as he came to the crux of his tale -- "when sacred Ireland stood upon the edge, at the very brink of extinction, who stood forth to show the way? Who but your father saw through the genteel broadcloth, the polished suaviloquence, to the degenerate soul within? Who was it saved Ireland from the alien heretical beast?"

Yes, Eveline thought now, before her dressing-table glass, her father had been first to denounce Parnell. Though it had been a close race, so fierce the stampede.

Perfume bottles, phials of scent, Gallé and Lalique; a porcelain shepherdess proffered tiny sugared treats on a tray, offered them twice, for the toilet glass reviewed her, stretching through the bottles, a child sinking through colored viscous water. Eveline chose a bon-bon, sucked it thoughtfully.

There was more to this curate than at first she had suspected. More than once he had made allusion to the Fenians. His face had pecked in the intervals after, seeking collusion. She had nodded, blinked with charming detachment. Then taking her leave she had felt his high neck bend toward her. That odor of carbolic and abstinence so readily in the mind confused with mastery. The priest whispered in her ear: "The sword of light is shining still. England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity."

The formula was stale, let alone the notion, but it had sounded singular on the lips of a priest. If this now was the teaching of the seminaries, change most certainly was in the air. Poor old Parnell -- the Chosen Man, the Chief, the Uncrowned King of Ireland, adulterer, fornicator, the Lost Leader -- it would be the supreme irony: to have terrified the Church into Irish Ireland.

She rose now from her dressing-table and approached the garden window. She turned the hasp and the casement opened. She inhaled the breath from the sea. Casement, how very beautiful was the word. She spoke it softly. A decidedly beautiful name, Casement. "He is far from the land," she softly hummed.

A trundle on the stairs and the child came in with towels and steaming water. At the washstand she ventured to say, "There was a delivery while you was out, mam."

Eveline nodded.

"Only stockings, mam. Was I right to leave them in the library like you said?"

Stockings, yes. She must see to them directly her toilet was done.

One more bon-bon from the porcelain shepherdess. It was evident the maids -- the few were left her -- had been at her supply. "When you have finished whatever you are doing below, go down to Glasthule. The confectioner's will know my order."

As she came down to the library she saw through the open door the gardener and the gardener's boy and the gardener's boy's boy all greedily washing her Prince Henry. It was the one chore she might charge them to perform. Her mind drifted to a time late last summer when she had motored over the hills to the old demesne near Ferns. With her had traveled two gentlemen of the press and a representative of the Irish Automobile Club. Her intention had been to astonish the world by ascending and descending Mount Leinster, whose track, winding to the summit, had in parts a gradient steeper than one in three. This feat would prove not only the motor's magnificent pedigree but her own accomplishment, representative of all Irish womanhood's, in handling it.

And indeed she had carried the day. The motor performed superbly, the IAC man figured and stamped in his book, the newspapermen assured her of a prominent notice. She had expected at the least a Johnsonian quip -- the wonder being not in her exploit, but in a lady's wish to stage such performance. But the next day's newspapers gave no mention of her. The August bank holiday had passed and while she had been conquering Mount Leinster Great Britain had declared war on Germany.

At her library desk, begloved once more, this time in creamy four-button mochas, she opened the brown-papered parcel of stockings. Plain-knit, rough-textured stuff. Queer specimen down Glasthule had suggested the arrangement. She might not approve of enlistment in the tyrant's yeomanry, but she did not see why Irish soldiers should suffer cold feet. Besides, the soul had grown soft since Parnell, with the English and their ploys, killing home rule with kindness. A reacquaintance with arms might prove useful, indeed requisite, in the coming times.

For she too felt the change in the air. Last August, while she motored home alone through the acetylene-lit gloom, the twilight had forced itself upon her. But this was not the evening twilight of the foolish poets. It was the half-light before dawn, the morning of a new Ireland. For indeed it was true: England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity. And she, a MacMurrough born to lead, knew well where lay her duty.

Inside the foot of each stocking she inserted a slip of paper. Green paper whose script proclaimed: "Remember Ireland!"

Copyright © 2001 by Jamie O'Neill

Reading Group Guide

At Swim, Two Boys
1. The Irish have long been a storytelling people, and Jamie O'Neill is certainly no exception. He brings to life the Irish struggle for independence with an intensity and an honesty that is staggering. In what ways do you find O'Neill's writing to be reminiscent of that of other great Irish authors, both contemporary and classic? What techniques may O'Neill have borrowed from authors such as James Joyce, Flann O'Brien, Oscar Wilde, and even Frank McCourt?
2. Language, both in the narrative and, especially, in the dialogue between characters, makes this a rich and sometimes challenging read, but it also pulls us into the world of Ireland in a way that nothing else could. Why is language so significant in this novel? Discuss the ways that O'Neill wields words to shed light on individual characters and to illuminate the underlying forces that shape the tumultuous Ireland of the early 1900s.
3. Focusing on Aunt Eva, Aunt Sawney, Nancy, and even MacMurrough's Nanny Tremble, look at the different things women stand for in this novel. In what ways do their representational roles -- as church, as Ireland, as universal mother -- clash? Do they ever exist outside of these compartmentalized spheres? Also, does the novel suggest that women are above the weakness of the flesh, or that they are saintly beings? Is the author toying with the ideal of the Christian woman (holy and untawdried)?
4. Passion, lust, and love manifest themselves in very interesting ways in this story. While Jim and Doyler share a free and beautiful passion for one another, Brother Polycarp and MacMurrough are at times like sexual predators; one could almost say that they fall perfectly into the stereotypical homosexual deviant role that society perpetuates. To what extent do you think MacMurrough's predatorial behavior is a fulfillment of the expectations that society has for him as a gay man? Discuss the ways in which his love and desire for other men become subverted into lust and carnal desire though the lens of society's eye.
5. MacMurrough compartmentalizes his desires, his intellect, and his feelings of sympathy, empathy, and love in the voices of Dick, Scrotes, and Nanny, respectively. Are we to believe that he is literally schizophrenic? Or do these voices (and the way that they seem to meld into one voice by the end) point to larger themes?
6. Similarly, what instigates the transformation that MacMurrough undergoes throughout the course of the novel? Why does he seem, at least by the end, somehow freed from his self-hatred and ready to experience love again in the most selfless form? How much of this change can be attributed to Jim, who has a great capacity for love?
7. Symbols play a role of great importance in this story, and whether it is a flag, a stripe, a medal, or a religious emblem, the sacredness of these objects divides and unites the characters time and time again. What is it about the nature of symbols that makes them so powerful to these people -- and to all people, for that matter? Why, for instance, does Doyler's red badge mean so much to him? Do you think symbol worship in this novel verges on idolatry? Is it dangerous?
8. By the end of the novel, Jim seems set on more fighting. How do you feel about his choice to continue the fight? Are you left with a feeling of disillusionment? Do you think the author is making an overarching statement about war?
9. This novel, like some other covertly or overtly gay novels written in the twentieth century (The Well of Loneliness, Maurice, Giovanni's Room), ends in tragedy. Is this simply the plight of the gay character in modern literature? Is the reunion between Jim and Doyler in the last pages of the novel enough of a happy ending to make At Swim, Two Boys a novel of triumph rather than tragedy?
10. We watch as the characters in this novel struggle with their feelings of desire in a society that will not even recognize it. (Think back to the scene in which Jim tries to confess to the priest.) Discuss the ways in which Jim, Doyler, and MacMurrough try to rediscover a hidden history through the stories they tell one another about the Spartans. Why is having this history so significant to them? How does the notion of queer sexuality recycle, revise, and challenge traditional perceptions of gender in this novel?

About The Author

Raised in County Dublin, Jamie O'Neill is the author of Kilbrack and At Swim, Two Boys, which won the Ferro-Grumley Award for Fiction and the Lambda Literary Award in Gay Men's Fiction. He lives in Galway, Ireland.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (March 4, 2003)
  • Length: 576 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743222952

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Raves and Reviews

The New York Times Book Review A dangerous, glorious book: the kind that is likely to make absolutely anyone cry and laugh in public places.

Mark Harris Entertainment Weekly A work of wild, vaulting ambition and achievement...Rich and allusive, blisteringly of the most psychologically accurate and moving love stories in recent literature.

Robin Hemley Chicago Tribune In exquisitely sculpted prose, Jamie O'Neill...achieves a kind of richness of scope and ambition that makes one reluctant to come to its tragic and inevitable close.

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