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At Swim, Two Boys

At Swim, Two Boys

  • reading group guide
Set during the year preceding the Easter Uprising of 1916 -- Ireland's brave but fractured revolt against British rule -- At Swim, Two Boys is a tender, tragic love story and a brilliant depiction of people caught in the tide of history. Powerful and artful, and ten years in the writing, it is a masterwork from Jamie O'Neill.
Jim Mack is a naïve young scholar and the son of a foolish, aspiring shopkeeper. Doyler Doyle is the rough-diamond son -- revolutionary and blasphemous -- of Mr. Mack's old army pal. Out at the Forty Foot, that great jut of rock where gentlemen bathe in the nude, the two boys make a pact: Doyler will teach Jim to swim, and in a year, on Easter of 1916, they will swim to the distant beacon of Muglins Rock and claim that island for themselves. All the while Mr. Mack, who has grand plans for a corner shop empire, remains unaware of the depth of the boys' burgeoning friendship and of the changing landscape of a nation.
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  • Scribner | 
  • 576 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780743222952 | 
  • March 2003
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

At the corner of Adelaide Road, where the paving sparkled in the morning sun, Mr. Mack waited by the newspaper stand. A grand day it was, rare and fine. Puff-clouds sailed through a sky of blue. Fair-weather cumulus to give the correct designation: on account they cumulate, so Mr. Mack believed. High above the houses a seagull glinted, gliding on a breeze that carried from the sea. Wait now, was it cumulate or accumulate he meant? The breeze sniffed of salt and tide. Make a donkey of yourself, inwardly he cautioned, using words you don't know their meaning. And where's this paper chappie after getting to?

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Reading Group Guide

A SCRIBNER
READING GROUP GUIDE
At Swim, Two Boys
DISCUSSION POINTS
1. The Irish have long been a storytelling people, and Jamie O'Neill is certainly no exception. He brings to life the Irish struggle for independence with an intensity and an honesty that is staggering. In what ways do you find O'Neill's writing to be reminiscent of that of other great Irish authors, both contemporary and classic? What techniques may O'Neill have borrowed from authors such as James Joyce, Flann O'Brien, Oscar Wilde, and even Frank McCourt?
2. Language, both in the narrative and, especially, in the dialogue between characters, makes this a rich and sometimes challenging read, but it also pulls us into the world of Ireland in a way that nothing else could. Why is language so significant in this novel? Discuss the ways that O'Neill wields words to shed light on individual characters and to illuminate the underlying forces that shape the tumultuous Ireland of the early 1900s.
3. Focusing on Aunt Eva, Aunt Sawney, Nancy, and even MacMurrough's Nanny Tremble, look at the different things women stand for in this novel. In what ways do their representational roles -- as church, as Ireland, as universal mother -- clash? Do they ever exist outside of these compartmentalized spheres? Also, does the novel suggest that women are above the weakness of the flesh, or that they are saintly beings? Is the author toying with the ideal of the Christian woman (holy and untawdri see more

About the Author

Jamie O'Neill

Raised in County Dublin, Jamie O'Neill is the author of Kilbrack and At Swim, Two Boys, which won the Ferro-Grumley Award for Fiction and the Lambda Literary Award in Gay Men's Fiction. He lives in Galway, Ireland.

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