“Heads that bobbed like floating gulls and gulls that floating bobbed like heads. Two heads. At swim, two boys.”
Jim Mack and Doyler Doyle are the two boys, who in 1915 make a pact that in a years time, they’ll swim out across Dublin bay to Muglins Rock and raise the flag, claiming the rock for Ireland and themselves.
“Above on my perch I sit and watch. Alone one man.”
Anthony MacMurrough is the man, recently arrived in Ireland at the invitation of his Aunt Eva after serving two years hard labour in an English prison for gross indecency. Part of an old Irish family he gets caught up in his aunts battle for Irish Independence and becomes a part of the boys’ lives.
This is a real epic. The poor, the dispossessed, the middle-class, the Anglo-Irish aristocracy are all seen against a country in political upheaval. The dream of liberation for Ireland from the English is mirrored in the boys’ search for personal freedom as their love for each other grows. It’s a story about swimming, Irish history and romance and I found myself completely immersed in the lives of the small cast of characters and the life of Dublin, as they head towards the Easter Rising of 1916.
Doyler Doyle is as brash and cocky as Jim Mack is studious and thoughtful, together they are ‘pal o’ me heart’, their lives and friendship are central and their relationship with MacMurrough changes and develops as the story unfolds. But there is also the friendship of their fathers. Mick and Mack the paddywhacks as they were known when best friends fighting the Boar War with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Now back in the same district they grew up in, fate has treated them differently but what has happened to make them unable to bear each others company? This was a raw story of two men overcoming their pride so that they are able to acknowledge the hurt they felt, even if they can’t forget.
1916 and Dublin are all about James Joyce and Jaime O’Neill pays homage to him from the beginning. The streets are full of rhythm and musicality, there’s lots of fun from the chatter and banter in the pubs and he plays with words like they’re bouncy balls of elastic: ‘A milk van round a corner came clopping, colloping, collapoling to stop clop.’ Or simply ‘”Daffydillies for the lady?” said the flower-seller.’!
He changes pace on a whim, one minute we’re considering whether the Irish should be joining the English in the First World War, the next we’re wondering about the Holy Trinity and the next we’re in a keystone cops race around Dublin with a car load of rifles!
‘They scraped through the opposing traffic. Stalls were overturned, he caught the briefest whiff of oranges. . . “Aunt Eva, you are indisputably a wonder.”‘
I absolutely loved this book – it was gentle and loving, serious and funny. A really good story, well told. I wish there was a sequel. Last word to the extraordinary Jim Mack
“For maybe it was true that no man is an island
but he believed that two very well might be.”