Torn Between Love and War

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Review of 'At Swim, Two Boys', Jamie O'Neill, Scribner £19.99

This story interweaves the innocence and romance of two boys falling in love with a sharp narrative on the political climate and events leading to the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland. The main characters' fathers, Mr Mack and Mr Doyle, joined the British army and served together. They are both Catholics and are now back in Ireland and living in a small coastal town near Dublin where their lives diverge. Mr Mack, a small corner shop owner, sees himself on the up moving into respectable society. He sees his old friend Mr Doyle as a drunk letting his family fall into poverty. Their sons, Jim Mack and Doyler, become very close friends and fall in love with each other. Their story is set against the First World War and the developing turmoil in an Ireland under imperialist occupation which climaxes with the 1916 Easter Rising.

Both Jim Mack and Doyler pass scholarship exams, but Doyler's family cannot afford to have him at school any longer. He is furious and leaves town to stay with his mother's people in County Clare. While he is away there is an upsurge of class struggle which results in the Dublin lockouts. He is so impressed by the struggle that he fantasises about taking part in it. Doyler returns to town and finds work as a 'dungman's lad'--he wears a red hand badge and calls himself a socialist. Jim Mack, the younger of the two, is continuing education and believes his vocation lies with the priesthood. He struggles with his conscience and his sexuality under the depraved supervision of the priests at the local school.

O'Neill's story is told from different perspectives. Jim and Doyler are growing up in an uncertain world in the midst of an illicit relationship. Doyler and his family expose the hardness and poverty of the lives of the vast majority of people. Mr Mack, the small business man, constantly wavers between looking up to his superiors--the British ruling class, the Irish Nationalist bourgeoisie and the church--and having sympathy and contempt for the lower classes. Eva MacMurrough, a local land owner, sees a golden age of Ireland through her own noble family history and the fight for Irish independence. Her nephew Anthony has the arrogant confidence of his class but at the same time understands the oppressive nature of society through his experience of being gay. The different narrators give us an impression of the various interests, attitudes and forces present in Irish society at the time.

This is an absorbing tale written in a lovely colloquial style. It mixes everyday life with political events.