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At Swim, Two Boys

At Swim, Two Boys

  • reading group guide
Set in Dublin, At Swim, Two Boys follows the year to Easter 1916, the time of Ireland's brave but fractured uprising against British rule. O'Neill tells the story of the love of two boys: Jim, a naive and reticent scholar and the younger son of the foolish aspiring shopkeeper Mr. Mack, and Doyler, the dark, rough-diamond son of Mr. Mack's old army pal. Doyler might once have made a scholar like Jim, might once have had prospects like Jim, but his folks sent him to work, and now, schoolboy no more, he hauls the parish midden cart, with socialism and revolution and willful blasphemy stuffed under his cap.
And yet the future is rosy, Jim's father is sure. His elder son is away fighting the Hun for God and the British Army, and he has such plans for Jim and their corner shop empire. But Mr. Mack cannot see that the landscape is changing, nor does he realize the depth of Jim's burgeoning friendship with Doyler. Out at the Forty Foot, that great jut of rock where gentlemen bathe in the scandalous nude, the two boys meet day after day. There they make a pact: Doyler will teach Jim to swim, and in a year, Easter 1916, they will swim the bay to the distant beacon of Muglins Rock and claim that island for themselves.
Ten years in the writing, At Swim, Two Boys has already caused a sensation in England and Ireland, earning lavish praise for its masterful portrayal of class, tradition, and the conflict that has haunted Ireland for centuries. Jamie O'Neill's poetic and evocative storytelling makes him a natural successor to James Joyce and Flann O'Brien.
At its heart, At Swim, Two Boys is a tender and tragic love story that will resonate with all readers. But it is also a compelling and important work, a novel about people caught up in the tide of history -- set in a place and culture both unfamiliar and unforgettable.
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  • Scribner | 
  • 576 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780743241878 | 
  • April 2002
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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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