Sunday Business Post. 19.8.01.
Happy Endings by Gerry Mullins.
Jamie O’Neill could have picked an easier route to literary fame and fortune. He could have written his autobiography – the story of a gay childhood in Dublin and his seven-year relationship with the BBC chatshow host, Russell Harty. He could have revealed how, following Harty’s death, he found himself without a home, locked into a “long, black night”. He could have written about his job as a night porter in a hospital and how, just in time for the concluding chapter, he eventually found love again.
But when O’Neill submitted a manuscript last year it wasn’t a kiss and tell from the days when he counted Princess Diana and Elton John amongst his acquaintances. Instead, it was a 600-page love story involving two Dublin boys drawn into the 1916 Rising. Nonetheless, O’Neill got his happy ending. Within a week of receiving the book, publishers Simon & Schuster bought the British rights for over stg£250,000. It is believed to be the highest advance ever paid to an Irish author.
At Swim, Two Boys involves two friends who meet each day at Dublin’s Forty Foot, then a male-only bathing area. One of the boys promises to teach the other to swim. They hope to swim the bay together the following year, at Easter 1916.
O’Neill did not anticipate how long the project would take. “You don’t know it’s going to take 10 years,” O’Neill says. “A thing takes as long as it takes, and this took 10 years.” At 39, he is quiet but friendly, and witty. He speaks warmly about the characters in his book, as though he regards them as friends. “You just read them as flute players who swim, but I’ve gone through them as uileann pipe players and hornpipe players. I remember the day when I hit on the idea that they were going to swim. That wasn’t in the beginning. I thought, Jesus, that’s the metaphor I want.”
O’Neill’s writing style and his subject matter have drawn comparisons to James Joyce, but he already finds this tiring. “Yes, Joyce stands muttering over the shoulder of all Irish writers,” he says. “It’s very annoying for me. There isn’t such a thing as a new Joyce, and there isn’t a need for one.” Arguably, though, O’Neill has left himself open to such comparisons, setting the book where Ulysses begins -- at the Forty Foot. “Yes, it’s kind of crazy to set a book at the Martello Tower. But that’s where I know. I went to school in Presentation College, Glasthule. That’s where I grew up. I wanted that connection,” he says.
Throughout the interview, O’Neill rolls and smokes his favourite vanilla tobacco, imported from England. He sits attentively with his legs crossed, wearing an outfit that I would guess originates from his pre-Simon and Schuster days. Only the blue crushed velvet jacket whispers `writer’.
I ask about his gay childhood in Ireland. “There was no real crisis. I was lucky in that I had a group of friends and they all knew I was gay, so there was no problem with that. I mixed with an arty crowd. In Ireland I had the notion that as long as you could buy a round you were all right.” Was he bullied at school? “No. Nobody knew.” After school he lived with a girl for three years. “I’m not sure if any of us have an exclusivity in sexual preference. She’s my best friend, still. I still love her, very deeply. She’s happy with another partner now, but just because you stop living with somebody, doesn’t mean you stop loving them.”
In his early twenties he moved to London where he met the TV presenter Russell Harty, more than 20 years his senior. At the time, Harty was at the height of his career at the BBC. “I had never seen him on television before. I’m not interested in stars and celebs and that sort of thing. And that side of Russell didn’t interest me. I think that’s what interested him in me.” The connection with Harty opened a door into the life of the rich and famous of Britain. “I cannot tell you how uninterested I am in all that,” he grimaces.
He avoided the limelight and spent most of his time at Harty’s Yorkshire cottage, where his writing began. “The Russell I knew and loved was the Russell at home. He was physically commanding, a big man. He was a benign king of the table, and very witty. He also had the gift of appreciation, which is very rare among those with the gab. I felt interesting in his company. I can remember the great roar of his laugh and the clap of his hands if anyone said anything remotely funny. And that’s the Russell I remember, those dinner parties with his friends. Full of gossip.”
In 1988, Harty became ill with hepatitis. “He was ill for about three months, in intensive care. And the doctors would say you’ve got to prepare yourself for the worst. But the worst for me was that he wouldn’t be out of a coma by the next morning. It was a terrible shock that he died.” He breaks off. There’s silence for a moment. “It’s not nice to talk about it.”
Harty’s death was a paparazzi event, and O’Neill unwittingly became the focus of that attention. “The day he died they were shoving notes through the door saying `sorry for this difficult time, but we’re offering £50,000 if you talk to us’. It was sordid. It’s a horrible thing to do. It’s as though because you are gay you have no real human feelings.”
There was a problem with Harty’s will. Everything was left to his sister, and O’Neill was evicted from the cottage in Yorkshire. “I lost everything, heart and home. I was hardly back from the funeral and I had an eviction notice. They changed the locks in the London flat. Everything was gone. I lost my car. I tried to get my clothes and found out they had all been burned.”
Then 27 years of age, and without a job, O’Neill didn’t challenge Harty’s will. “I was all messed up. I was homeless. I couldn’t do anything. It was just a very, very bad time. It was a black night that lasted a couple of years. I should have got some kind of bereavement counselling but I didn’t know about things like that.”
So what happened to all the rich and famous friends? “I haven’t seen any of those people. I used to be friendly with people like Edna O’Brien, well friendly with her through Russell. I haven’t seen her since. I just withdrew from all that life, no point in trying to continue it. I thought that I was personally their friend, but it became obvious that I wasn’t. I was Russell’s friend, and friendly with them through him. And when that link was gone it was not worthwhile pursuing it.”
The turning point came one day when O’Neill was sitting in a London pub with Paddy, the dog he had shared with Harty. “Suddenly Paddy shot out of the pub. And when I found him outside he was being stroked by this French angel.” His name was Julien. He was a dancer. “We’ve been together ever since, 10 years last March.”
O’Neill took up writing again, and chose a job to facilitate this. He became a night porter in the Cassell, a residential psychiatric hospital in west London. Ten years later he emerged with At Swim, Two Boys. His income from the book already exceeds £500,000 following the recent sales of German, Italian and Israeli rights. It is expected he will soon become a millionaire when the rights to the American market are sold. “I like having money. I never had it before, it’s fun,” he says grinning. “I’ve never owned anything before. I’ve still got a ten-year-old car. A red one. I don’t know what it is. One of those hatchback things.”
For the first time, O’Neill has found he can buy his own house. He moved with Julien to Galway earlier this year and is renting a home. They’re hoping to buy in the Claddagh. “We were always going to leave England when I finished the book,” he says. “We were looking at Toulouse, and then came to Ireland. Dublin was too expensive, and it was pointless going from one crowded, traffic-ridden city to another. “I thought about Kilkenny, because I’ve got friends in Tipperary. But it was Julien who thought of Galway. He came over with his mother to check it out in January, so we moved here.”
The two have settled in well, and have become GAA fans. “I’ve even started cheering for Galway. I haven’t actually gone out and bought my maroon jersey yet, but that’s only because they don’t sell them in linen.”At Swim, Two Boys will be published on September 10, priced at £18. Extracts from the book will be broadcast on The Book On One, RTE Radio 1, from Monday September 3 to Friday September 7, at 9.45pm each night, read by actor Barry McGovern. top
Sunday Independent. 19.8.01.
Finally, all is going swimmingly: Michael Sheridan meets Jamie O’Neill, longtime partner of Russell Harty and now the much-touted literary wunderkind.
THIS is a story, the ending of which is every writer’s dream, the beginning and middle more in the realm of nightmare. The central character is a novelist who takes a long number of years to realise that writing means just that, not thinking about it. When he makes that connection it takes a decade to write the novel while working as a night porter in a mental hospital. Through that time he has no expectations for his work, he simply wants to finish it and say: ‘Now I am a novelist.’
But a lot more happened for Jamie O’Neill he got the biggest cash advance for a literary work in Irish writing history, and his debut novel At Swim, Two Boys has all the hallmarks of a classic despite the clear and obvious Joycean influence. Simon & Schuster bought the Irish and UK rights for £350,000 sterling and the American rights for £150,000. Before one review comes out the former night porter has £500,000 in his back pocket. But for the 39-year-old who was born in London but brought up in South County Dublin, life was far from a bed of roses and his path to writing status was thorny. His father, a civil servant, had great hopes for his youngest son being the first in the family to attend university, but Jamie had little or no interest in matters academic.
“I just did not believe in the whole process of education as an experience. I thought that learning was all about pleasing the teachers and I couldn’t even do that. I did no study and the only book I read was Ivanhoe, which I found when clearing out my room I scraped a pass in the Leaving Cert.”
The family was then living in Cabinteely and Jamie was attending Presentation Glasthule, where his performance would not have marked him out among either his teachers or peers. He had other things on his mind at school, primarily the problem of growing up gay in the Ireland of the time.
“It was a difficult time because while I was conscious of my sexuality I did have girlfriends but always told the truth. Later I lived with a girl for three or four years and I can still say that she is my best friend. Everything changes by degrees and so it was with my sexual nature. I do not believe there is any one defining moment like a Joycean epiphany, that is an aristo conceit it is a process.”
But by the early Eighties there was a huge growth in consciousness of gay sexuality, and the Hirschfield Centre helped Jamie and many of his contemporaries to deal openly and joyfully with being gay. “I was young, happy and smart and I had a great time living in squats, drinking and dancing. We hung out in McDonagh’s pub in Dalkey and a pub in South William Street which, in the best gay tradition, had a mix of the exotic and criminal glitter and knives. But London called I had been there three times a year but in 1983 I took an extended trip and forgot to come back.”
At a party he met chat show host Russell Harty and, although there was an age gap of two decades, they hit it off immediately and would go on to live together for six years until Harty’s death.
”To those who knew him Russell was a commanding presence, the benign king of the dinner party table with a surprising gravitas. He also had a great gift of appreciating other people’s talent. He was an Oxford graduate and had been a teacher in a public school before going into broadcasting. He was very encouraging to me and for my part I was a very willing pupil. I didn’t do very much at the time but I was trying to write.
“It was while with Russell that I began to take myself seriously as a writer. He was a great encouraging force. As a gay person that is one of the things that is missing, because you cannot get it either from your family, school or peers. I was very shy about showing my work but Russell used to pester writers like Edna O’Neill and Molly Keane with my scripts. Without me knowing he showed 12 pages of a novel to a publisher and I was asked to provide another 60.”
Jamie had six happy years from the time they met at the end of 1982, but then Harty contracted hepatitis and took a long, agonising route to the grave. The nightmare was added to by the unprecedented interest of the tabloid press.
“It was an awful time while Russell was taking a long time to fade away. The press were obsessed by his illness it was not simply a question of a knock on the door or a letter through the box. Every intrusion was sordid. Here was a man I loved, dying, and the media trying to blacken him in the most sordid fashion.”
The day Russell Harty died, Jamie was besieged by an army of journalists, all waving chequebooks. Sickened to the core of his soul, he turned them away. This is the first time he has talked to the press about his relationship with a chat show host whom, his lover says, was intellectually diminished by the job, his culture buried in the quest to entertain the masses.
“I have never talked publicly about Russell before and I am not sure that I should. I was devastated by his death, I entered a continuous dark night and suffered deep depression. I kept it all in, which just made it worse in retrospect I should have got bereavement counselling. I had lost my heart and my home.”
Jamie was bereaved and homeless and naturally could not write when he was staying with friends and paralysed by a black depression. He does not believe in fate, but something was to happen two years later that would severely test that belief. The one thing he clung to was the dog, Paddy, that he had shared with Russell. He brought the dog for a walk one evening and dropped into a pub for a drink.
“I was sitting there and suddenly, for no reason, Paddy ran out of the pub. When I got out on to the road I found him being petted by a Frenchman, Julien, who I describe as my French angel. He had not only comforted Paddy but we became lovers and he helped pick up the shards of my life. He was a dancer who starred in the all-male Swan Lake at the West End.”
Julien was indeed his angel and provided the emotional stability that allowed Jamie O’Neill to finally realise his dream of being a novelist. He got a job as a night porter in a mental hospital, the main requirement of which was to stay awake. He brought in his laptop every night and started writing a novel set in Dublin in 1916 with the Rising as a backdrop. But the main story concerned two boys from Glasthule Jim, the son of a shopkeeper, and Doyler, from a poverty-stricken family, who swim together off the Forty Foot and fall in love.
“The idea had been forming in my mind for some time. It stemmed from a simple question. ‘Are you Irish? No, I am gay.’ Well, I was Irish and I was gay and in some way I wanted to make the apparent contradiction compatible. On top of that I had to embark on a work of research about the period which would give an authentic atmosphere without overburdening the book with history. The great thing about the job in the hospital was it gave me the opportunity to write in a disciplined fashion it was like getting a bursary.
“I was careful not to overdo the research. I wanted the period details to be right but my main aim was to write a contemporary novel set in history.”
He realised that setting it around the Forty Foot would submerge him immediately in Joycean waters, but he had been at school in the area and the whole neighbourhood was familiar and he used to walk the sea wall. But so what, he said to himself, Joyce stands on the shoulders of all Irish writers and his genius defies replication. The writer knew he was courting critical trouble but he had to follow his muse regardless.
It was a long journey 10 years but since he was very happy writing and had absolutely no expectations for the book, it was not a burden. “I had no hopes for the book, I was at my happiest being in the middle of a paragraph and wondering how to end it and what to start next. I had a deliberate strategy at the end of each writing session never finish a paragraph or a sentence. This would ensure that I would not take a break.”
He sent five chapters to Duckworth and got ecstatic readers’ reports. The publishers bought the rights for the princely sum of £1,000 of which the author received £400. He would receive the rest when the book was complete. But the man who bought the book left the publishers and Jamie loved his book too much to leave it in the hands of others. He sent back the £400 and got his rights back. And this is the man who does not believe in fate.
“I just loved my book and characters too much, they were like members of my family. When I finally finished the book I cried and cried, it was just such an anti-climax. I had done it, I had finished, where was I going to go? Money had never entered my mind and publication was only a possibility. David Marcus had read a short story of mine from 1992 and wrote and asked me to write one for an upcoming selection. I replied that I was just finishing a novel and he said that he would be delighted to read it when it was finished.”
He finished At Swim, Two Boys in September last year, sent the manuscript to David Marcus and went on two weeks holidays with Julien to France. He enjoyed himself but sometimes wondered what the reaction would be. When he returned there were two letters waiting for him, the sort that are every writer’s dream. Marcus raved about it, the last lines said it all “It’s a tremendous achievement and it gave me such pleasure to read. I found it almost unbearably moving.”
In his missive the editor said he would pass it on to literary agent Giles Gordon of Curtis Brown. The other letter was from Gordon, who had read the manuscript in one sitting and gave it a rave review. It would, he remarked, be difficult to place as a literary novel but he had some ideas. Although thrilled, Jamie wrote back and asked for time to make some additions.
He was back working in the mental hospital two weeks when he received an excited phone call from Gordon. “He was going on and I really could not grasp what he was saying. He had been out to dinner with the head man at Simon & Schuster he had read it and so had Salman Rushdie’s editor, Tim Binding. They were both bowled over. I was looking at the nurses passing by and wondering what was going through their minds. Mine was confused.”
The next minute it was reeling. Gordon went on to say that his man at Simon & Schuster did not want to get involved in an auction he had made an offer of £300,000. O’Neill had to sit down, take a pen and slowly write down the sum. He was up in the clouds while he finished his additions and worked on at the hospital until Christmas.
There followed the mechanics of the deal he got £350,000 and then a conference about the title. The publishers felt it was too close to Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds. “It had started as my private joke but the more the novel progressed the more I realised that it was the perfect title. In the end a comma won At Swim, Two Boys. The Americans wanted to call it At Swim but the comma also won there.”
Jamie has now got used to his elevated status but is still nervous of the reviews. He is a total outsider, not part of the literary club (the ones that receive great praise and sell no books) and there are elements in the book the teenage boys love-making and a lusty bugger, McMurrough, who would park his appendage at the first young male lamp post which may shock as Blazes Boylan’s antics and Molly’s soliloquy did in Ulysses. But for me David Marcus’ assessment rings true a massive and moving achievement which overcomes through sheer writing brilliance the blatant Joycean influence. We come to the end of our two-and-a-half-hour chat in the foyer of The Great Southern Hotel in Galway and Julien joins us. The mutual respect and love is immediately apparent. His part in it is clearly acknowledged by the author’s dedication: ‘A Julien, mon ami, mon amour.’
The author’s face creases with a large smile after all the heartache Jamie has arrived with a bang and he still has that private stability in Julien. If his art is aptly titled, well so is thatother precious stone: At Love, Two Men.top
Sunday Times. (Irish Edition.) 26.8.01.
Making waves: It took the death of Russell Harty, his lover and mentor, and 10 years working in a hospital to enable Jamie O’Neill to write the blockbuster novel that was inside him, reports Mick Heaney.
Like many young Irishmen who come to realise they don’t fit into the heterosexual norm, Jamie O’Neill experienced feelings of confusion and embarrassment in his teens. These mixed emotions intensified as he got older. Sooner or later something had to give and it did – he left his native Dublin for the freedom of London. But O’Neill, whose novel At Swim, Two Boys is published next month, was not perplexed by his sexuality – he had always known he was gay. He was troubled by his nationality.
“I felt you weren’t a total Irishman if you were gay,” he says. “It was like you were somehow letting the side down. Not in any huge way, it just was a bit odd. So I wanted to resolve that by writing this book, and I think I did.”
The result is a doorstopper of a novel that took 10 years to write and which trades heavily on the twin themes of national and sexual identity. What is more surprising, particularly to its author, is that the book has become one of the most hyped publishing events of the year.
O’Neill made news last year when Simon & Schuster bought the book for £250,000, a huge amount for a writer who had not been published in a decade. In those 10 years he had spent most of his time working as a night porter at Cassell hospital in London. O’Neill says he loved the solitude of the job, which allowed him to hone his book through 26 drafts. At first glance, the novel is not the most likely blockbuster. More than 600 pages long, it describes the burgeoning love between two 16-year-old boys: the tentative, sensitive Jim and the brash, rebellious Doyler, as they play music and swim together at the Forty Foot in south Co Dublin.
If the location is an obvious choice – O’Neill grew up in Glasthule, where most of the story is set – the historical setting in the months leading up to the Easter rising of 1916 is less predictable. But O’Neill’s interest in Ireland’s past was not only the spur for the book, it also connected him with his home.
“You feel more Irish when you’re abroad than when you’re at home. Michael Collins wrote to the effect that the Ireland he fought for was the Ireland he missed as an emigrant. I kind of had that feeling. When I came back for holidays I lost contact with the daily thread of life, the pubs and the people. So you end up searching for some other continuity, and history provides that. I’m more attracted to the history of Ireland, so it was always going to be 1916.
“I can remember thinking when I was starting to write the book that love of Ireland is very different to love of an Irishman. I thought that the story I would write would be about two boys who fell in love and found in each other their own country, a country they would fight for. But it’s hard to get it across.”
By and large the novel avoids such earnest social commentary, allowing the characters to grow together rather than throwing them together in some homoerotic Damascene moment. Nor is it seething with repressed desire. Doyler is more concerned with hiding his socialism than his homosexuality.
The supporting cast is populated by vivid, breathless characters – Mr Mack, Jim’s former British Army shopkeeper father, Aunt Eva, the firebrand grande dame, and MacMurrough, her languid but troubled nephew who has returned from a scandalous spell in an English jail.
The book is judiciously infused with period detail without being too showy, while the dialogue veers between tributes to the earthiness of O’Casey and the archness of Wilde.
O’Neill’s ambiguity about Ireland is reflected in his treatment of everyday Irish life at the time, with proud talk of Empire as common as seditious conspiring.
“The problem with what happened was that the notion of Irishness was politicised afterwards,” he says. “There wasn’t any revolutionary ferment at the time. The rising was a big surprise to everybody, and I wanted to reflect that.”
Ultimately it is not a political novel or a psycho-sexual exploration – though O’Neill does admit that he is enough of a Freudian to recognise aspects of himself in both boys. It is rather a sweeping, doomed romance, albeit an off-kilter one bearing the most cringeworthy title of recent years.
“The title was my joke name for the book,” he says sheepishly. “But as you write, things take on a life of their own.” He is less worried about the title than the impending critical reaction. Foolhardy comparisons to Joyce have been bandied about, largely in publicity material, making O’Neill deeply uneasy.
“Every mention of Joyce guarantees a less than favourable reading,” he says. “But if you’re writing a novel set in the Forty Foot with the Martello tower there, you’re asking for trouble.”
There are those who may feel O’Neill is asking for trouble by making his novel’s heroes so young, and who may feel queasy at the developing relationship between the boys and the older MacMurrough. But O’Neill seems almost to revel in the prospect of discomfiting the status quo.
“The only disappointment with Ireland now is that they don’t denounce you from the pulpit any more,” says O’Neill. “That would be great for sales. When I started writing about these 16-year-old boys, the legal age in England was 21. When the age was lowered it crossed my mind to make them 15-year-olds just to spite everybody. But it is just an interesting time of life at that age.
“As for MacMurrough, I think he is a very honest man, and I like the way he grows up as the book progresses.” O’Neill’s own progress through life has seen him take on different guises. Born in 1961 into a lower middle-class family, he attended Presentation college, Glasthule, but shattered his late father’s dreams by not going on to university. “I did it almost out of spite,” he says, “but I now think it was probably a failure of my own imagination.”
Instead he travelled around Europe and Australia, where his uncle, a publisher in Sydney, first encouraged his writing. But it was in London in the early 1980s that he met the most important early influence on his life and work: the broadcaster Russell Harty.
Although Harty was best known for his television chat persona – perhaps most famous for being attacked on air by Grace Jones – O’Neill had never watched him on TV. He stayed at Harty’s cottage in Yorkshire and Harty, more than 20 years his senior, acted as his literary mentor, sending O’Neill’s work to publishers behind his back.
This eventually led to the publication of O’Neill’s first two novels, Kilbrack and Disturbance – “I have to say they weren’t very good” – which were met with indifference. By then Harty had died from hepatitis B, O’Neill had drifted from his former friends and he had turned his back on writing.
“After Russell died I was bereft. My life was in pieces. After a while you can’t continue with old friendships. The link is gone. I wasn’t their friend, I was the friend of Russell. I don’t think there was any alternative, I would just be hanging on. Also, I wasn’t a nice person to be around.
“I’ve never forgotten him. But I had spent 10 years avoiding talking to the press about him, so it is a bit odd talking about it now. My publishers didn’t even know about it – a Daily Mail journalist recognised my photograph and put two and two together. Once it’s out, however, you just have to go with it. But I’m glad I didn’t introduce it – at least I can retain some sense of honour.”
Two years after Harty died, O’Neill met Julien Joly, whom he credits with picking up the shards of his life and starting a new one, and he started writing again.
For his next book he thinks he may write some sort of sequel, set during the war of independence and civil war, so as not to waste all his research. He has also moved back to Ireland and is currently living in Galway. “Well, I like to think I’ve put a tinge of pink in the green.”top
GCN (Gay Community News). Sept 2001.
Stephen Mulkearn meets the author of a new historical novel about two Irish gay teens falling in love in the run up to the 1916 rising.
It took Jamie O’Neill 10 years to write At Swim, Two Boys, a historical novel set in 1916 describing the love story between two boys growing up in south county Dublin. One of the reasons it took so long, he admits, is that he didn’t know how to conduct research. “It took me five years to work out that there was such a thing as a newspaper library,” he says. And a lot of research has gone into this book’s 643 pages.
The language used by his characters is something O’Neill spent much time uncovering. In reading dictionaries of historical slang, he discovered many phrases that have since fallen out of use. For example, there’s a phrase in the book which the character MacMurrough uses – ‘if you say so’ – and a ‘so’ is Victorian slang for gay. “There are lots of little things like that,” he says.
At its core, At Swim, Two Boys is a love-story between Jim, a naive and reticent scholar and the younger son of aspirant shop-keeper Mr Mack, and Doyler, the rough son of Mr Mack’s old army pal, who is full of the socialism and revolution of the times. The two boys meet day after day at the Forty Foot, where gentlemen bathe in the nude, and there they make a pact. Doyler will teach Jim to swim and a year hence, Easter 1916, they will jump and swim to Muglins rock to claim the island for their country and themselves.
In writing the book, O’Neill says, “Often when people would ask me ‘Are you Irish?’, I’d say, ‘No, I’m gay’ and I’d wanted to try to square that apparent circle. I wanted to write a book about two boys falling in love, about finding eachother and their own country, the country that they would fight for. And the question was, Is the love of Ireland very different from loving an Irish man?” O’Neill wrote At Swim while living in England, but on trips back to Ireland he discovered his fascination with 1916 when he’d find himself staring at the bullet holes in the College of Surgeons, the Bank of Ireland and the O’Connell monument, reminders of the Easter uprising. “1916 is the birth of the modern nation,” he says. “So if you’re going to write a novel that’s going to meld the personal and political then you start in 1916.”
While set in the past O’Neill feels it is also a contemporary novel. “Writing a story about two boys falling in love is fine, but I wanted to give it an intellectual background. I wanted it to have a sense of modern gay studies,” he explains. The character of MacMurrough provides that link. We meet him for the first time in the book having sex with Doyler. We also encounter other voices at this stage, people who only exist in MacMurrough’s head. MacMurrough was imprisoned for gross indecency with a “chaffeur-mechanic” and through his feelings we learn of the shadow cast upon the early part of the last century by the love that dare not speak its name and the trial of Oscar Wilde.
Other gay Irish figures feature in the book, such as Casement and Pearse. Asked if he was trying to queer the Irish past, O’Neill says, “You make your own country and you don’t care whether it’s good, beautiful or true. The point is you’ve got to stand up in your own shadow. You need your own history, your own language. In Ireland I think we can only do this by discovering the past.”
So, the characters of Jim and Doyler, are not somewhat autobiographical? “I went to the school that Jim goes to, Presentation College Glasthule, and my lunch hours after school were spent dawdling along the sea wall, sun-basking in summer and wave-dodging in winter. Every now and then we’d stray as far as the Forty Foot where naked flesh would sometimes be displayed and sometimes we swam. So it does have that personal dimension.”
Despite its candid gay sex scenes, O’Neill hasn’t yet received any adverse reaction to the book’s publication, which he finds odd. “It’s rather unfortunate in a way coming back to Ireland and finding out that you can no longer be denounced from the pulpit, there’s no easy publicity that way,” he laughs. He says most of the sex scenes are written from imagination, but that much of what he describes in the book actually went on. “A sexual urge doesn’t change. When I was growing up there was the back of the pier and these sort of places tend to be constant.”top
Sunday Tribune. 9.9.01.
The night writer: For 10 years Jamie O’Neill tapped away at his laptop while his workmates watched TV. Then his novel was sold for £250,000 and he became the next James Joyce, writes Edel Coffey.
ALREADY, less than a week into publication, Jamie O’Neill’s name is synonymous with two facts. His book At Swim, Two Boys was sold for £250,000.And he wrote it while working for £200 per week. Potentially damaging hype has been another fact for the likeable 40-year-old.Giles Gordon, O’Neill’s literary agent set the media hounds baying when he described the book as “the first masterpiece and, surely, major novel in the English language I’ve encountered in typescript since Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy”. If that wasn’t enough pressure to put on a young unknown author, Gordon went on to tighten the noose saying, “Jamie O’Neill’s novel not only is a natural successor to James Joyce, Flann O’Brien, Samuel Beckett and Christopher Nolan but is as significant”.
Despite the reported seven-figure sum O’Neill is supposed to have made from American publishing and film deals, he is now in the unenviable position of awaiting the critics’ reactions to the new Ulysses. “It’s disastrous,” says O’Neill, exasperated by the comparisons. “Every mention of Joyce guarantees a less than favourable reading and it’s the first line of every review – this guy isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. I never said I was Joyce and I don’t think I am. Nobody could be the new Joyce. Ulysses to me is the book. I don’t think there is an Irish writer that’s not influenced by Joyce. You could not be not influenced by him even if you’ve never read him because he’s just there in the national psyche. It’s a shame he should be used as a hammer for Irish writers. I’m very worried about the reviews.”
O’Neill does look nervous and his delicately honed fingers flit between a small leather pouch of loose tobacco and a hard pack of Lucky Strikes, which he admits he only smokes when he is nervous.
He is dressed in a navy silk suit, which looks like it has seen better days (he admits it is 15-years old), but it is a Catherine Hammnet all the same and not, as one journalist described it, some crumpled old suit. He is demure but his manner and face are open and willing, and the flash of a pink sock between his trouser cuff and shoe reveals something further of a simultaneously wicked and good-humoured personality.
Born in London and raised in Cabinteely, O’Neill returned to London as a teenager. He has written two previous books that, in his own words, “did nothing” and he deliberately took the job as night porter so that he could write his novel. For the last 10 years he carted a laptop to work with him and while his co-workers watched television he would write. “I threw it away many times. There were many f’alse starts and false stops.”
Having pre-sold the book to a publisher he bought back the rights for £400, “a good day’s work” he adds with a playful smile. When he discovered the book had been sold for over the odds he did not quite believe it. “The wonderful thing about the book being sold was that I didn’t know it was for sale. I was still working on it and Giles phoned me at work. He was talking for about half an hour and I couldn’t understand why he was calling me and then he started talking about figures. In the end I had to put the phone down and write down the figures. I just kind of went ‘oh right, I’ll call you tomorrow’. But it seemed to me important not to tell anyone because I didn’t believe it. So I continued working until Christmas and didn’t tell anyone until the newspaper reports came out. I had such a thorough education in, not poverty but subsistence and I wanted to see the money in the bank before I believed it.”
While it was an enormous amount of money, O’Neill said his life did not change dramatically immediately. “The most immediate impact I can think of is that people would walk quietly by my study and knock at the door. Whatever it was I was doing in there was now important. And previously if I had gone to a party I’d say I’m a bricklayer or lawnmower or anything and it gave me the confidence to say I’m a writer.”
Apart from being known as the hospital porter who sold his book for a quarter of a million, O’Neill also has another name (apart from Joyce) attached to his, that of the late TV presenter Russell Harty, who was his partner. The link between himself and Harty was uncovered randomly by a Daily Mail journalist who simply recognised O’Neill as Harty’s partner. And so Harty, along with the money and the liter-ary references, has been the fulcrum of every article on O’Neill since. “I do find it odd, one because it’s personal and I don’t really want to talk about it, and the other thing is not talking about it intimates its something shameful. If you don’t talk about something it’s because there’s something wrong. I know the novel is sold on numerous hooks, one is the amount of money and two is the night porter and I could tell you the word for night porter in 10 different languages because it’s been reported all over the world and now it’s Russell Harty. It’s just very mean to appear to be trying to sell a book on the back of having slept with someone and I’d much rather the equation hadn’t been made.”
The book itself is a love story of two young boys set in the year leading up to the 1916 Rising. “I wanted to try and write a book that would be political and personal. Someone asked me what it was like growing up gay in Ireland and I said it was a bit like being Protestant and playing GAA. There’s something not quite right. There’s a pink tinge to the green. I wanted to meld the political and the personal and I remember staring at the walls of Arbour Hill one evening and wondering was the love of Ireland so different from loving an Irishman. And I wanted to write a book about two boys falling in love and finding in each other their own country, a country that would be worth fighting for. I wanted it to be a contemporary novel set in history.”
Unlike when O’Neill was growing up, his characters are unaware of terms or categories for ‘what’ they are. “They would not have known they were growing up to be anything and when I was growing up there were tabloid headlines on what you were, so in a sense there was more openness but there was more open condemnation.
“When I was growing up boys could still put their arm around their friend’s shoulder and one of the things about the more open we are about being gay is the less children growing up can express emotions with each other and that’s a real shame. It’s a shame that at the risk of being thought gay you lose all that closeness and intimacy of friendship.”
While the themes may sound familiar and the location far too familiar, At Swim, Two Boys is eminently more readable than Joyce ever was. That’s not to say the book has none of the depth and clever word games that Ulysses is packed full of and O’Neill is even kind enough (and proud enough) to point out a couple of these including some of the many Latin phrases that the mere mortal reader misses out on. “Each one is translated – but just not usually anywhere near it,” he adds as a taunt. The pages of the book fly through his fingers as he looks for the example and I ask him how it feels to see the header ‘Jamie O’Neill’ on every page. “It is the most beautiful thing in the world to see it,” he says smiling.
As he reads and explains parts of the book, which are too clever by half, he says, “there is a line of Virgil that is meant to be untranslatable and some Latin scholar said that my translation was the closest he had come across”. Then he adds worriedly, “but don’t say that because it sounds like I’m boasting”.
But O’Neill is not boastful, merely proud. And it is not an arrogant pride or an ugly one either, but a true happy pride that nobody could begrudge. As for the new Joyce? Be it James Joyce or as his mother thought, the new Joyce Grenville, O’Neill is more likely to shrug off those oppressive comparisons for the dead skins they are than conform to fit the mould.top
Irish Examiner. 27.8.01.
Jamie nervous before book launch but it’s set to make a million.
IT is difficult to imagine how someone whose work is compared to James Joyce and Samuel Beckett could shy away from telling people he is a writer. Particularly when, within days of reading his book, one of Britain’s biggest publishers jealously snapped up the rights to it, sweetening the deal with a £250,000 advance. But for Jamie O’Neill, erstwhile hospital porter and author of At Swim, Two Boys, the comparisons with Ireland’s literary giants have induced severe pre-launch jitters as D-day – next Monday – draws ever closer. It doesn’t help that his title echoes Flann O’Brien’s masterpiece At Swim Two Birds.
“Just because I have sold this book doesn’t mean my self confidence has increased 1,000-fold. I still find it quite difficult to tell people I am a writer. Once the reviews are out and there is a settled public opinion about the book it may get better,” he said. His 10-year labour of love, set in his native Dublin, hits Irish shelves next Monday and has been translated into German, Italian and Hebrew. Already, his bank balance is a tidy £500,000 in the red and when film rights – already being negotiated – are factored in, Jamie O’Neill will probably have £1m to see him through.
But dazzled by money he is not. Although he admits a gold card does guarantee one much better service, he quips: “The awful shame is that they only discover it after you have eaten – but they do bow you out the door very nicely.” He still drives a 10-year-old “hatchback things,” although he is considering trading up to a new Mini to please his boyfriend, who, being French, likes that kind of thing, he said.
His real moment of pride came when first he held a heavy, hard-back copy of At Swim, Two Boys in his hands. “I was really proud. All my efforts, my mistakes, my faults were made manifest and concrete. I have been so extraordinarily lucky in the way that it has happened.” He has even received his first begging letter – an ingenious request for foreign currency from a Pakistani man.
At Swim, Two Boys draws heavily on his idyllic childhood at the foot of the Dublin mountains and his experiences at Presentation College in Glasthule, the same school the character Jim Mack in At Swim attends.
“After-school we spent dawdling on the sea-wall, sun-basking in summer, wave-dodging in winter: often we strayed as far as the Forty Foot.” That old bastion of nude male bathing is central to his tale of two boys’ deepening friendship in Dublin during the struggle for independence. It crystallises into a relationship during a risky swim across Dublin Bay on Easter Sunday, 1916.
* At Swim, Two Boys, published by Scribner imprint of Simon & Schuster on Sept 3. That same evening on RTE Radio 1, a week-long series of extracts will begin broadcast at 9.45pm on Book on One, read by Barry McGovern.top
RTE Guide, September 1, 2001. Dublin, Ireland.