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At Swim, Two Boys

O’Neill, Jamie

New York: Scribner


At Swim, Two Boys

Plot Summary

Part one begins in 1915, in Glasthule, located on the lip of Dublin Bay. Well-intentioned but naïve shopkeeper Mr. Mack is a widow, and from his marriage has two sons, Jim, 15, and Gordie, who is away at war. Jim reconnects with a boy with whom he was friends four years before, Doyler Doyle, the son of Mr. Mack’s alcoholic, former army companion. The boys both join the flute choir, conducted by Brother Polycarp, and Doyler begins teaching Jim to swim at the Forty Foot bathing area. Stirrings of attraction begin between them. Jim and Doyler make a pact that come Easter they will swim across the bay to Muglin’s rock and raise the flag together. Brother Polycarp believes Jim has a vocation, and spends time praying and teaching with him, but also making sexual advances towards him. Doyler walks in on such a moment, and Polycarp condemns Doyler for his socialist views upon seeing his Citizen Army Red Hand pin. Meanwhile, the seeds of revolution are planted as Madame Eveline MacMurrough meets with the new clergyman, Father Amen O’Toiler, and the pair speak about how England’s difficulty can become Ireland’s opportunity for independence.

Eveline MacMurrough’s nephew, Anthony, after spending two years in jail, is hardened and psychologically damaged, and frequently speaks to various ghosts of his past, their personalities becoming part of his own. Doyler meets Anthony and they become lovers, and Doyler admits to him that he loves Jim. After Eveline accidentally hits Brother Polycarp with her car, Anthony becomes the new leader of the boy’s flute group. Eveline hosts a garden party where the boys perform, and where she hopes to find Anthony a suitable wife. At the party Doyler makes his first overt sexual advance towards Jim, and Jim turns him away. With Anthony’s insistence, Doyler wears his Red Hand pin where it is visible. When noticed by his fellow bandmates, Dolyer is beaten and expelled from the group. In his goodbye to Jim, Doyler promises they will make the swim to Muglin’s rock on Easter, 1916.

Part two takes place in 1916, and Gordie is missing in action. His girlfriend Nancy comes to Mr. Mack and his Aunt Sawney and confesses she is pregnant with Gordie’s child, and the family take her in. On Christmas Day Nancy gives birth to a baby girl, and Jim gives in to his urges and has sex with a soldier on the pier. He then struggles with his sexual appetites and faith as a consequence of this interlude. Anthony is elected captain of the Irish Volunteers and when he sees Doyler in the city he urges him to go see Jim. In his exile from Glasthule, Doyler has begun a career in the Citizen Army, and intends to fight in the Easter Sunday rising. When the movement is cancelled, he and Jim make their journey out to Mulgrin’s rock as promised, and finally give in to their desires and make love. On the swim back to shore, however, Anthony has to rescue the drowning boys. The rising begins Easter Monday instead, and Jim slips away to join the cause, and Anthony and Doyler venture out to find him. They become the targets of British machine gun fire, and Doyler is shot and killed. MacMurrough promises Jim that he will fulfill his dream of becoming a school teacher, and the two of them will live on a small island together in happiness and peace. However, Jim is haunted by memories of Doyler in his dreams, and his future is filled with hurt, and defeat, and in his dying moments, years later in battle, his mind again reaches out for his fallen friend. 

Main Characters

  • Jim Mack

  • Doyler Doyle

  • Anthony MacMurrough

Significant Minor Characters

  • Mr. Mack

  • Mr. Doyle

  • Aunt Sawney Burke

  • Eveline MacMurrough

Publication History

The novel was first published by Scribner in New York in 2001, and reprinted again in 2002 by the same publisher. Then in 2003 Scriber in New York and London printed the next editions. The novel has been translated into several languages, is now available in kindle and ebook formats, and remains in print.

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