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At Swim in Canada

Gay Community News
Dublin, April 2002

Jamie O’Neill’s book At Swim, Two Boys has achieved critical acclaim not only in Ireland. It’s selling out in Canada where O’Neill spent part of last winter on a reading tour. He kindly wrote a diary of his trip for this issue.

GCN Ireland's gay monthly

We had half an inch of snow at Shannon, and the entire airport was shut down. Turns out they have only one de-icer there, and by the time one wing of our Airbus had been defrosted, the other had iced over again. Winter comes every year, regular as clockwork, but it still comes as a surprise in Ireland.

Not so in Canada, where I was headed. The snow was heaped high at Ottawa airport when we came in to land, heaped and packed and glistening in a blue beautiful morning. But cold. The airport doors hadn’t swung closed and the ice whipped my face. Mad dash for the car, and my toes curling inside of my boots. ‘What you want is a toque,’ says my driver, indicating his hat. ‘Here you go, take mine.’ A cold country is Canada, but its welcome, warm as its hats, makes up for that.

I had been invited by the Lambda Foundation for Excellence. Each year in Ottawa they hold a gala celebration of Gay and Lesbian writing, called Wilde about Sappho. It’s a delight reading to a crowd that’s predominantly unstraight. You’re not being judged or tested for legitimacy. You can feel, climbing to the stage, the communal urge willing you on. It’s not so much your words that entertain, as the very fact of the evening, of our being there – five hundred queers, trannies and lesboes – in the National Library of Canada. Doing what? – doing literature, my gracious.

High-point of the evening was the awarding of scholarships. That’s basically what the Lambda Foundation is about: they raise funds for university scholarships, to forward research in gay studies and cross-community understanding. Forgive me now a moment’s pulpiting, but here’s my take on that. Information is vital to the well-being of any community. Information is not free. Unless research is paid for, that research will not be done. Our history and our sociology are waiting to be explored. We must be in charge of our own information.

Host for the evening was Alex Munter, Ottawa’s interesting gay politician, a man hailed and hated by Canadians roughly in proportion of three to one. Remarkably, this has nothing to do with his sexuality. He introduced the federal capital’s no-smoking laws. And you know, when I first drove through downtown Ottawa, I thought to myself, it’s all very pretty, but why so many tarts on every street corner? – male and female, and in this weather too? Turns out they’re the huddled fourth, puffing their gaspers, while their drink waits lonely inside the pub.

Next day it was off to a local high school to read to a class of fifteen–sixteen year olds. I was a touch nervous about this, fearing the giggles and sniggers that usually attend any notion of sex in the classroom. But the kids were wonderfully interested, courteous, on their best, grown-up, behaviour. I explain to them my book is about two boys their own age who find in their friendship, in their love for each other, their own country. And the kids want to know about Ireland, the age of consent, the Church’s attitude, even a question on partnership rights. I wondered what the response of an Irish classroom would have been.

It was best bib-and-tucker that night for a reception given by the Irish Embassy. I’d spied Noreen O’Sullivan, our First Secretary, in the audience at Wilde about Sappho, waving a tiny tricolour of encouragement.

Montreal next, skyscrapers and French, and – release! – ashtrays again (humble homely dish) on the tables of bars and cafés. Montreal is becoming North America’s gay capital, and the quartier is quite official. Signposts indicate it, flags announce it, the subway station is decked in rainbow colours. The States is getting weirder and weirder with all its prohibitions, and if you’re American and looking for anything more racy than bisexual bingo, it’s Montreal you head for. I can vouch for that, in the witnessing sense, for I saw sights in the quartier bars that would blush the most jaded Amsterdamer or Prague-hag.

Concordia University, and a reading at the Irish Studies department. Generations of emigrants, row upon row, in the audience, the women still with that particular Irish curl, the men with their high-coloured cheeks. (That’s some gene is that.) A collared and grey-suited priest sits in front: on his left a lesbian couple, on his right two gay men growing old together. It’s a wonderful feeling, as you look down from the podium, to know your book has brought such unlikely people together. A privilege, really.

On the train to Toronto I watched the scenery pass. Breathtaking in its way, Christmas-card trees on snowy plains, but all so vast, unvarying. I had this same notion of scale as I flew over Labrador: the ice plateaus that stretched forever. For the first time I understood why tourists come to Ireland. A day’s journey and you see it all – bogs, hills, valleys, the sea. The mind delights in change, and the Irish scale is human.

It was the Queen of England’s jubilee while I was in Canada and the papers curiously were full of it. A cultural cringe, I thought at first, the same with the Queen’s head on their coins and her coat of arms all over the place. It took a time to work out this has nothing to do with England and all to do with the US. Nothing could separate Canada from the States so clearly as monarchy, and they cling to that difference as to an identity. It seems Canada stands in relation to the US much as Ireland does to the UK. They have their own TV stations, newspapers, soaps. But it’s a struggle against American imports, far better resourced and financed. They say Canada’s not famous for anything much. But more important it’s not infamous for anything. When you hear on the news that Canadian troops have arrived, you have a feeling that fair play has come too.

And so to Toronto, Canada’s little apple, and a hectic schedule of TV and press. There’s great interest in the notion of my being Irish and gay, as though the two had never met before. As though Oscar Wilde had never lived nor the Blackwater Lightship been written. I tell them about Galway Pride – the first Pride I’ve ever been on that was stopped by a parked van (admittedly the driver was dishy) – but Pride nonetheless. I tell them about my postman. When I came to Galway, he knocked on my door. ‘O’Neill,’ says he, reading the envelope, ‘that’s not a Galway name.’ ‘No,’ says I. ‘There was a good hurler named O’Neill, you’re not related?’ ‘I’m not,’ I say. My boyfriend comes down the stairs. ‘That wouldn’t be your brother now,’ says the postman, peering in. And I think to myself, Right, I’m going to do you, mister. ‘This is my boyfriend,’ I say. ‘He’s French. We’ve moved to Galway on the head of a novel I’ve written. It’s about two Dublin boys who fall in love, getting mixed up in the Easter Rising.’ ‘Well,’ says my postman and he shakes my hand, ‘isn’t it just what Gortachalla needs?’

The Canadians smile and nod, but you can tell you haven’t shifted one jot their persuasion, sentiment really, that Ireland is a covert, guilt-ridden society. But I found a great warmth and friendliness in them. Twice in Toronto I was stopped in the street by strangers who had read At Swim and wanted to chat about it. Admittedly this was in the gay area and the book was on display in many of the bookstores. But it was a pleasant change from Ireland where the most you can expect is a sneer about tax. Like the door-monkey at The George, Dublin’s premier gay pub, who barred me for life on the reasonable grounds that my face, at the time, was on the cover of Gay Community News.

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