Jamie O’Neill

Life
1961- ; b. London; brought up and ed. in Dun Laoghaire; left home after disasterous Leaving Certificate and travelled widely in Europe; returned to Dublin and discovered gay scene at David Norris’s Hirshfeld Centre; moved to London, 1982, and remained as partner of Russell Harty, sharing Yorkshire cottage and writing Disturbance (1988), a first novel; settled in Hogarth, W. London, after Harty’s death from hepatitis in 1988; hounded by journalists with five-figure interview offers; worked as night porter in mental hospital (‘bit like getting a bursary from the NHS’);

also Kilbrack, or, Who is Nancy Valentine? (1990); issued At Swim, Two Boys (2001), a novel dealing with gay love between Irish boys of different classes in the period up to Easter Monday, 1916 - for which he received an advance of £250,000; lives with Julien Joly, a French masseur and former dancer, since 1991; returned to Ireland and settled in Galway; contrib. to Irish writers’ comments on election of Donald Trump (Irish Times, 10 Nov. 2016) - describing himself as an ex-writer.

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Works
Disturbance (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1988), 166pp.; Kilbrack, or, Who is Nancy Valentine? (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1990), 256pp.; At Swim, Two Boys (NY: Scribner 2001), 643pp. See also Forgiveness, a film with Barrie Dowdall (Dublin Internat. Film Fest., Feb. 2007).

[There is a Jamie O’Neill website - online.]

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Criticism
Interviews incl. Stephen Moss in The Guardian (Thurs.) 23 Nov. 2000. Sunday Miscellany, ed., Marie Heaney, ed., Sunday Miscellany [RTE] (Dublin: Townhouse 2004), contains Jamie O’Neill’ account of how his reading career began with a gift of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

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Commentary
Declan Kiberd, reviewing At Swim, Two Boys (Scribners), in The Irish Times (8 Sept. 2001) Weekend], p.8, writes: ‘a moving, often beautiful, tale’ of the friendship between two boys if different social background in the year before the Easter Rising of 1916; Jim, the scholarly and religious son of shopkeeper Mr Mack (formerly with the Colours in India), and Doyler, the Larkinite son of Mack’s dipsomaniacal comrade. Kiberd notes poor portraits of Eva Gore-Booth and a Wildean character released from Wandsworth who loves the boys, but praises the deft and understated incidental portraits of Pearse, Connolly, Tom Kettle and Constance Markievicz; if the opening is too ‘literary’ in a knowing Irish way … the fear that the plot will ‘notch up’ Hibernicisms is soon dispelled: ‘Quietly but effectively, all the historical threads which shaped modern Ireland are drawn together - the imperial experience of soldiers in the colonies and in the Great War, the nationalist counter-movements of Gaelic League, Sinn Fein and the Citizen Army. The living characters converse with the spirits of dead loved ones, as if this is an unremarkable daily occurrence (which for many people in those days it surely was).’ Kiberd refers to frank and sometimes brutal accounts of gay sex and remarks that O’Neill’s awareness that men were dying less for country than for one another; calls the ridiculous Mr Mack, arrested for defacing recruiting posters he is actually trying to restore, to a ‘sort of Southside Fluther’, and ‘a real comic creation’. Kiberd concludes, ‘At Swim Two Boys survives its mannered opening to become something rich and strange in Irish literature …. a novel of epic ambition which does not fail to live.’

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Keith Jeffery, reviewing of Jamie O’Neill, At Swim, Two Boys (Simon & Schuster), calls it a ‘hugely ambitious novel’, and gives an account of the plot: Jim Mack and Doyler Doyle, together with Anthony MacMurrough, scion of Catholic family with social pretensions who has served a prison term in England for ‘gross indecency with a chauffeur-mechanic” and returns to Ireland with his penchant for rough trade; seduces Doyler, then working as night-soil shovler; the boys plan to swim the ‘beckoning, sparkling, reckless sea’ out to the Muglins Rock. Jeffery is critical of the ‘cod OIrish’ opening (‘a Christian genteelery grocerly man’) and the obtrusive neologisms from the same stable (‘surdity’, ‘leucomelaneous’, ‘ludamawm’, ‘obfusticated’); finds parallel with Flann O’Brien in stylised scholarly discussions of MacMurrough and Scrotes, his former cell-mate at Wandsworth; Jeffery notes characters who disappear mid-novel (Scrotes and Mack Snr.) and speaks of the ‘ultimately amorphous nature’ of the novel; the boys achieve their goal on Easter Monday 1916, consummate their love, and struggle back, to be rescued by MacMurrough; incidental characters incl. Mack’s Aunt Sawney, who keeps her own counsel; Father Taylor (Amen Taylor, Eamonn Ó Táighléir), Brother Polycarp; Jim’s father, ex-serviceman in Dublin Fusiliers; Sir Edward Carson rescued from drowning by MacMurrough and kissed on the lips; quotes [or seems to quote} ‘He say the deep cleft of his seat and the small stand of his front, the each shaped for the other’ sort of thing; finds Jim’s progress from boyhood naivity to striking physical confidence ‘improbably rapid’; compares the novel with Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry, in which socialist revolutionaries are also betrayed to the nationalist cause by Connolly; speaks of the novel’s ‘mixum-gatherum’ assemblage and concludes that the parts are greater ultimately than the whole.

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Michael Giltz, Irish Revolutionary’, in The Advocate [NY] (23 June 2002), interviewing, writes: ‘O’Neill says he’s determined that the role of gays be reflected in stories of Irish history – even if he’s pessimistic about his countrymen’s ability to get the point. “There’s so much that could be learned from the gay experience, but they won’t,” he comments. “Among gays there’s no division between Catholics and Protestants. They all get along and go to the same pubs and clubs. You would think someone like Sinn Fein, instead of saying, ‘Yeah, we’ll tolerate (homosexuality),’ would say, ‘We’ve got to learn from this’.”’ Glitz goes on to narrate how, O’Neill was ‘hounded by the press’ after the death of his partner Russell Harty: ‘O’Neill’s picture was splashed across every newspaper as Harty’s lover – that’s the unimaginably awkward way he came out to his family – and callous reporters offered him 50,000 pounds for an interview. Worse still, O’Neill says he was treated horrendously by Harty’s relatives, who immediately threw him out of the home the couple had shared for years. “I was actually living on the streets of London,” says O’Neill. “I had nothing. They burnt my clothes. They stole my car. They even wanted my dog.”’ Glitz describes At Swim Two Boys as ‘a grand novel filled with allusions, a rollicking, language-rich stew bursting with delight over the friendship of uptight, well-schooled Jim Mack and the randier Doyler Doyle, a smart but poor kid with a useless dad. Doyle fools around with older men to make a little cash and fuel his campaigns against the hated British. Sweeping and ambitious, the novel does nothing less than link the love of two young men and their growing sense of a gay identity with the birth of modern Ireland.’ (Text given on At-Swim website - online.)

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Notes
Big Deal: At Swim, Two Boys (2001) was sold in advance to Duckworth but repurchased; sent to David Marcus and forwarded by him to Giles Gordon at Curtis Brown, who sold it on to Schuster at a reputed $250,000. The novel was the subject of a subsequent film deal.

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Brendan Glacken offers a satirical preview of his own forthcoming “epic” At Swim Two Girls, in which Maud Gonne and Lady Gregory race across Dublin Bay in the first Irish Times-sponsored Harbour Swim ... Glacken summarises O'Neill's novel: ‘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". [...] O'Neill says that [...] he is trying to imagine what it was like to be gay in 1916.’ By contrast, according to Glacken, his forthcoming novel is ‘an effort to imagine what it was like to be heterosexual in 1916' in which Gonne and Gregory discusses their views of heterosexuality: ‘ basically, they didn't think much of it’. The satire is replete with references to the poems of W. B. Yeats and contemporary figures. (The Irish Times, 23 Nov. 2000 [infra].)

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