At Swim, Two Boys

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My Dublin

The Dubliner Magazine, September 2001
exploring Dublin and the genesis of At Swim – JO’N

I was walking with a companion through Dublin in the early Eighties, along Westmoreland Street, past the Bank, towards Grafton Street. Back then I had no sense of ‘town’, of its districts: I knew the thoroughfares but I did not know where to go. We passed the grand buildings and their ribbons of pavement, crowded yet unintimidated, the stalls by the Bank, all that amiable bustle – and I was struck by the friendliness of the people. My companion couldn’t go fifty paces without being hailed, interrogated, what’s the story, anything up? When I remarked my surprise, my companion, a student at Trinity, laughed. ‘They’ll talk to you too,’ he told me, ‘soon as you owe them money.’

Well, it was the early Eighties and money, so it seemed, had only recently been invented. Up till then, my leisure had been dawdled along the sea-wall in Sandycove, sun-basking in summer, wave-dodging in winter: often we strayed as far as the Forty Foot where stark flesh would at times be displayed (and studiously be ignored) whilst we talked upon important subjects. Now and then we swam. Dun Laoghaire then was a self-contained neighbourhood, for whose people Dublin, when thought of at all, was an uncalled-for journey, a supererogation: all that way and the pint the same.

But that year in the early Eighties was the summer of my coming into Dublin, my coming out, so to speak. I had discovered myself a writer and, discovering pubs in the same breath, I was naturally drawn to the snug in Doheny and Nesbitt’s, where afternoons would be whiled, chin inclined at an inspirational slant, pint nursed and pen chewed, notebook ever at the ready. In the evenings we crossed to O’Donoghue’s for a few bars of Wolfe-Cronyism, a brief few bars till it was time for Davy Byrne’s where we drank on our best behaviour waiting for the Bailey queue, across Duke’s Road, to shorten. The Bailey was my introduction to Dublin’s particular, its finest son, the bouncer. Here I was learnt the unarguable truth that trainers are not acceptable – not trainers, but sneakers as then we called them (and quite rightly too, for it was the Eighties, and more sneaking was done then than any training). Up until the Bailey my only experience of sartorial codes had come second-hand from James Bond films, and I remember enquiring in my best 007 whether the management kept a stock of alternative footgear. But I was young, smart, cute and happy. The Bailey, for all its slew and crush, was my Dublin home.

As that summer progressed, it wasn’t these tweenage evenings but the Saturday lunches that I came to treasure at the Bailey. Camp gossip over oysters and stout while we rehearsed our Friday shenanigans. For by then Dublin had opened its rosier secrets. I was strolling the Green one afternoon and a gentleman approached. Did I know the way to the Club, he wished to know. Well, the only Club I knew of was that bar in Dalkey where Hugh Leonard was wont to sup (over whose suede shoes I once had uptipped an unfortunate pint). Something in the gentleman’s manner, an improvised bravado, gave me to understand it was not Dalkey he had in mind, nor hob-nobbing the night with Hugh Leonard and the likes. I trailed this gentleman till he found his Club, a creaky three storey in Temple Bar, and I too for that while found my haven.

Nights at the Club at the Hirschfeld Centre – how it can be that dusty lights and disco, soft drinks and sweaty heat can amount to happiness I no longer know: but those nights in my memory are richly happy. I see them still in the strobe-lights, the cornering eyes of desire, the leaning face of love. There were pubs too, one in particular up South William Street, where you were shown to sidestep the hazardous floors, where queens mixed with the criminal classes, glitter and knives in the best gay tradition. And in that best tradition, London of course ineluctably called.

Collins once wrote to the effect that the Ireland he fought for was the Ireland he missed as an emigrant. Now I too was an emigrant and Dublin a two-week visit twice yearly. Hitherto, it was the pubs I had loved, those pubs that glow like amber on Dublin’s historical cloth. Now it was the cloth itself that held me.

The bullet holes in the College of Surgeons first took my fancy. I followed them up Trinity, past the Bank, across the river – the contrary route of my first stepping in to Dublin. I liked to stand under the portico of the GPO and tenant that pavement with rough-booted Volunteers. The question tantalized me: would I have hummed and whored and insisted on getting my stamps? – or might I have turned and joined in that escapade? The Club at the Hirschfeld was a hundred years and seemed a million miles from the GPO. Yet I could wonder was the fellowship after a night of dancing so very distant from the camaraderie of war. Might eyes have cornered in the GPO, faces have leaned with the yearn of love? Comrade I knew, coming from camerado, means the man who shares your bed.

At Stephen’s Green I lay by the monument to the Fianna boys. My mind’s eye had always pictured them as ethereal Pearsean gorsoons, who played a type of sky-hurley in kilts. In reality of course they were Dublin gurrier newsboys with horrible snitches and nasal whine; but possessed of the most perfect faith, and courage, and will. One evening I stared at the walls of Arbour Hill, wondering if the love of Ireland was so very different from loving an Irishman. There were sewn the seeds of my novel, the melding of these two Dublins, the heroic with the personal. Two boys would fall in love, and discover in each other a country worth fighting for. When to set it, but at the birth of the modern nation, in 1916. What locale to use, but that of my boyhood when I had dodged the waves on the sea-wall and glimpsed the Forty Foot flesh.

Ten years on, and the novel at last is finished; and I have returned to Ireland. In my time I’ve come to know many cities: the piazzas of Florence, Piccadilly I know all too well, I’ve done the stations of Paris. But Dublin is my special place. It is the city not of my childhood, but of my maturescence, of my peculiar, my particular moment. There’s no place in the world I feel quite so adult. Here I stroll up Dame Street, the gentleman from the Green all those years ago, still my friend, by my side. Shall we slum it in Grogan’s with the impoverished artists? The George’s elephants’ graveyard? Or cross the river, passport in hand, to Out on the Liffey where bricklayer dances with plasterer’s mate and adenoids whine on the karioke? Or just amble to the Long Hall for a quiet, most Dublin pint? For all Dublin now is my club. I check in the glass before I pull the door. The barman looks up from his Evening Herald.

© Jamie O’Neill, 2001. No reproduction without prior agreement.