Brendan Glacken, ‘It’s All Going Swimmingly’, in The Irish Times (23 Nov. 200c0) [“Opinion”]

I am delighted for the London-based Irish writer, Jamie O’Neill, who just the other day signed a £250,000 publishing deal for his novel with the unlikely title of At Swim Two Boys.

According to the newspaper reports, this 300,000-word epic is a love story between two boys, set against the background of the 1916 rising. The two lads meet at the Forty-Foot in Sandycove and plan to swim around Dalkey Island at Easter 1916. With their swim they declare their own independence, says the author - “they discover their own nationalism in each other”. This is contrasted with the patriotic nationalism of the 1916 Rising, and Padraig Pearse makes an appearance in the book. O’Neill says that as much as anything else, he is trying to imagine what it was like to be gay in 1916.

All of this augurs well for my own epic, At Swim Two Girls, due to be published after Christmas.

As much as anything else, my book is an effort to imagine what it was like to be heterosexual in 1916. With the huge emphasis at the time on macho gun-running, political plotting and revolutionary activity, it cannot have been easy. Padraig Pearse is not in my book, but his powerfully male spirit haunts the whole thing. Appearances are made by Thomas McDonagh, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Willie Pearse, Eamon de Valera, W.B. Yeats, Constance Markievicz, Muirsheen Durkan, Major John MacBride and Cathleen the daughter of Houlihan.

The two girls who are “at swim” in my story are actually thinly veiled versions of Lady Gregory and Maud Gonne, whose ideas on nationalism were, of course, entirely contradictory, but who nevertheless shared strong views on heterosexuality in turn-of-the-century Ireland: basically, they didn’t think much of it.

Gonne and Gregory, as they insisted on calling each other, also shared a common interest in yearround swimming, and were often to be found together off the Howth peninsula. Maud would normally employ her powerful if rather graceless crawl, with Lady Gregory backstroking in stately fashion alongside, looking like a small liner on its way out to sea.

On occasion the pair would race together from Howth to Dun Laoghaire, and so it was that on the afternoon of Easter Sunday 1916 they arrived in Kingstown (as it was then), nicely warmed up for the start of the very first Irish Times sponsored Harbour Swim. Having greased themselves thoroughly, the two ladies approached the organisers, who straightaway turned down their applications on the grounds that competitors were obliged to wear costumes.

In vain did the two women appeal, insisting that since the outbreak of the Great War they had swum au naturel as an expression of nationalist freedom, and were not about to change now into bathing costumes or anything else. Lady Gregory, in ringing tones, berated the organisers as coarse-bred sons of livery stable-keepers, and announced that she would be complaining personally to the chairman of The Irish Times. Maud Gonne meanwhile took a swing at the assistant organiser (fortunately missing him) and informed the entire crowd of togged-out competitors, male and female, that they were “eunuchs to a man”.

With that, the two women plunged simultaneously from the back wall of the pier and swam off furiously towards Dalkey Island, discussing Irish heterosexuality and its shortcomings all the way. Maud Gonne was in a towering rage. Was it for this, she queried rhetorically, the Wild Geese spread the grey wing upon every tide? Lady Gregory knew better than to answer. Too long a sacrifice, she felt, could make a stone of the heart.

She became rather pensive as they ploughed onwards, and finally she halted, began to tread water, and informed Maud Gonne shyly that she would that they were - “my beloved” - white birds on the foam of the sea. Unfortunately Maud was trying to drain water from her ears at the time and the moment passed.

A few minutes later, the oddest coincidence took place. The ladies had just rounded Dalkey Island when they came upon two achingly beautiful young boys swimming hand in hand directly towards them. Struck dumb with admiration, Gonne and Gregory came to a sudden stop. At the very last moment the boys loosened their grip on each other’s hands and swam as elegantly as two swans around the ladies, then joined hands again and swooned onwards towards the island. A thought: were they - could these have been the gentle protagonists of Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim Two Boys? It is not impossible.

Still dazed with the boys’ beauty, Maud Gonne and Lady Gregory swam about for hours. Towards evening they turned to look back across Dublin Bay. In the distance they could see the city centre burning brightly, and the great pall of smoke rising from the GPO, and could hear the faint sounds of gunfire echoing over the water. “Oh boys, oh boys” intoned Maud almost inaudibly, though it is not known, and never will be now, of which boys she was speaking. “Dinner time,” said Lady Gregory firmly, and they turned towards the shore, and their eight o’clock appointment at the Royal Pavilion Hotel.

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