At Swim, Two Boys

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The Guardian, UK, August 3, 2002
on the writing of At Swim – JO’N

The Irish leader, Michael Collins, once wrote that the Ireland he fought for was the Ireland he had missed as an emigrant.

When I started At Swim, Two Boys I too was an emigrant, living in London. I was cut off from the living stream of Dublin life, its people and pubs, and on visits home it was the history, that which changes only slowly, that drew me – most particularly the 1916 Rising.

You can trace the progress of that escapade – short doomed affair that it was – through the thoroughfares of Dublin, in bullet holes in the public buildings and chips off the statuary. On Easter Monday, 1916, the poet Patrick Pearse led his few volunteers against the might of the British Empire. His followers assumed it was Irish guns that would free their country. But Pearse in his heart knew all along that only British arms, fired at his execution, would shame the Irish to waking. 1916 is the birth of modern Ireland – a birth induced, in so Irish a way, from the triumph of failure.

One evening I stood under the walls where Pearse was executed, and I wondered was the love of Ireland, for which he gave his life, so very different from loving an Irishman?

In London, when asked was I Irish, I would often reply, No, I’m gay. For the two identities seemed incompatible. In At Swim, Two Boys I wanted to ask that same question and answer, most affirmatively, Yes. Two Dublin boys would fall in love, and in their friendship discover their country, a country whose freedom was worth their fight.

That was 1990. I took a job in a London psychiatric hospital, working nights as a porter. In the quiet of the 12-hour shifts I worked on my novel. What the patients made of this, I cannot say – an obstinacy as manic as any their own, I should think – but the nurses seemed reassured by so obviously industrious a nightworker. One night, the fire alarms went off, and it was remarked I was at least as mindful of the patient’s evacuation as I was with gathering my papers.

Ten years I worked at that hospital, the ten years it took to write At Swim. Like a good lover, that novel provoked me, angered me, it left me despairing at times – but it never bored me, the writing of it. I loved the research, learning new words, new facts, learning how to research even (seven years before I hit upon a newspaper library!) Much of writing, of course, is avoiding the page, and research can become the surest form of pencil-sharpening. But it’s odd the way these things go: it’s not the reader you need to convince, but yourself. When I was sure I was comfortable with some aspect – street furniture for instance – I was happy to write nothing about it. After all, who walks along a street noticing the postbox? The danger of too much period detail is that your characters drown in it: the universality of emotions is lost, and your book becomes merely an historical fiction. But I needed to be sure I knew enough, in order to leave most of it out.

Then again, I have a love for words. Somebody once described them as my Fabergé eggs, though I hope I’m not so precious as that. For me, the sounds of words, their rhythm in a phrase, can advance a plot, reveal a character, as readily as the dullest meaning. I remember my delight in finding the word ‘tarse’ – the OED defines it as ‘penis’ and records its last outing in the 1700s. A fool loses his readers in arcane words, but the formulation ‘by arse or by tarse’ was too good to let pass. (End of Chapter 19, for the curious.)

I had no expectations for the novel, nor did I feel the onus of any expectation on me. Nobody ever read it. I had no idea was it good or bad. All I wanted was for it to be right. I think in the wanderings of Jim and Doyler, the two boys of the title, I sought an understanding of my own boyhood, when I had wandered the Sandycove shore and dived at the Forty Foot cove (that same gentlemen’s bathing-place where Ulysses opens and Buck Mulligan takes his dip in the ‘scrotumtightening’ sea). In the character of MacMurrough, an older gentleman, I sought an acceptance of the man I had become. In Mr. Mack, too, and his relationship with his son, I found an inkling of the workings of my own father.

Twelve years on, and the publication of At Swim, Two Boys has afforded my return to Ireland – a wonderful home for writers, but no country for the poor, or for the struggling. The day I finished that novel was perhaps the saddest of my life. These people, whose lives I had shared so long and so intimately, were leaving home. I sat down at my desk the next evening and tried to think what to do. I’ve been a touch lonely ever since.